July 4th parade in Huntsville, Utah, population 608. Parade entry: A limousine escorted by teens dressed as Secret Service agents, a white man in a suit wearing a Barack Obama mask. Signs on the limo disparage the president’s record.
Seeing this, I rushed to my office — outraged, I tell you! — to write about hate, about how it’s flat-out racism behind many people’s disapproval of President Obama, about the difficult dance of free speech.
Sitting down to write, I sensibly paused to wonder what might be the worst thing I ever wrote about George W. Bush. I’m a student of irony; I don’t want to be crushed by it.
I went through all my old Trib columns (you can, too, at www.barbguy.com), and here’s what I found: I said Bush was pompous and defiant. I said his first six years in office were like a parade of bad judgment.
I also said, "George Bush’s disrespect for education, peace, human life, the truth, science, the court system, the planet, the Constitution, you and me, the economy, the national debt, the citizens of the world and the sacrifices made by the military — not to mention basic grammar and pronunciation — are truly shameful." And other stuff.
Then I glanced at a picture on my office wall. It’s of Chris and me, jubilant, wearing Obama campaign shirts, standing next to a cardboard game we made for a "Barack the Block" party celebrating the auspicious, historic, miraculous, joyous occasion of the inauguration of President Obama.
Our game was a Nonviolent Shoe-Toss, with old shoes piled around. (Not long before, an angry reporter had thrown his shoes — a vehement insult in certain circles — at George Bush.) Our booth featured a big picture of President Bush. The game: Throw a shoe through a hole in a box (not at the president) — three tries for a dollar, money and shoes benefiting Crossroads Urban Center — and you win.
I could feel the wind escaping from my sails. How is one satirical effort an outrage while another is funny? And who decides which is which?
Difficult dance of free speech, indeed. I’m not prepared to say one of those parodies is more acceptable than the other. It’s surely tricky, but I do see some key differences.
1) Everyone invited to the block party knew the theme. If they attended it was because they chose to be there. But at the parade, families came to celebrate Independence Day and the satirical Obama entry might make an admittedly small percentage of folks feel blindsided, insulted and uncomfortable. (Short version: a time and a place for everything.)
2) President Bush infamously created an atmosphere in which Americans who said anything — anything — against the president or U.S. policy were accused of treason. Treason. Utahns who disagreed with George Bush were called un-American and told to get the hell out of America. But now, under a different administration, certain Utahns feel quite comfortable criticizing the president of the United States and his policies. (Short version: You might be a hypocrite.)
3) Not to bring up irony again, but President Obama has helped to create an atmosphere where free speech is once again available, is again recognized as an American right, and where dissenters aren’t treated as enemies of the state or told to get the hell out. (Short version: To a certain degree, you owe your right to spoof President Obama to the good American values of President Obama.)
Barb Guy writes a column for Sunday Opinion. She lives in Salt Lake City.