I'll admit it: When I first saw the satiric Web site DidGlennBeckRapeAndMurderAYoungGirlIn1990.com
, I guffawed. It's funny in the same way that watching a schoolyard bully getting a wedgie is funny. Or like a booger joke -- the grossness is precisely what makes us boys laugh.
But then I started to think about it. After all, I'm supposed to be scouting the frontiers of ethics and values. And I wondered: Is this site a good thing?
Here are two models to consider. The vaccine and the infection.
The human immune system is a marvelous machine. It attacks any foreign substance or critter that enters the body. But it works a lot faster the second time it sees a bug, triggered by specific chemical cues that it recognizes on the surface of the invader.
To create a vaccine for the flu, for instance, a scientist creates a particle that has just enough of the surface elements of the real flu to wake up the immune system without carrying the power to make you sick. Once the body is triggered, it can quickly bring out the big guns if the real flu gets in.
But what if the researcher puts too much flu power in the vaccine? Then she runs the risk of making things worse -- and increasing illness rather than preventing it.
So is the Glenn Beck murderer meme a vaccine or an infection?
First, let's think about satire. All satire is offensive to somebody. That's the point. And great satire can be hugely, horribly offensive.
Jonathan Swift, author of "Gulliver's Travels," wrote what may still be the most famous satire ever. And he didn't worry about violating good taste. In his 1729 essay "A Modest Proposal," he offers a "solution" to the problem of so many poor children in Ireland. Here's the key paragraph:
"I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout."
(You can read the whole essay here.
I commend it to your attention; it is not long.)
Next to that, this new Beck-related Web site may as well be a chorus of "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing."
But I'll grant that the Beck site is nasty enough. It's clearly labeled as parody and satire, of course. The labels have gotten bigger and more obvious during the past week, as lawyers have gotten involved, of which more anon.
But anybody gullible enough to take it seriously would be willing to believe pretty much anything, right? Like, say, Barack Obama's parents planted a birth announcement in a Hawaiian newspaper 48 years ago all the way from Kenya. Ahem.
The Beck as Murderer site traces its own specific history.
Start with a celebrity roast of Bob Saget on Comedy Central by the utterly profane Gilbert Gottfried. Gottfried asks why there should be a roast for a man such as Saget "who raped and killed a girl in 1990." Even that crowd gasped as much as it laughed as Gottfried repeated the line over and over, redoubling the absurdity with each repetition.
More recently, on a forum that's part of the wacky FARK.com empire, a commenter with the handle of oldwevil asked: "Why haven't we had an official response to the rumor that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a girl in 1990?"
And that apparently got the as-yet-anonymous creator of this new Web site thinking.
Whatever Beck's strengths, some of his attacks on the left have strayed into the absurd. For instance, Beck had newly elected U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison on his show. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress. And here is how Beck started the interview:
"No offense and I know Muslims, I like Muslims, I've been to mosques, I really don't think Islam is a religion of evil. I think it's being hijacked, quite frankly. With that being said, you are a Democrat. You are saying let's cut and run. And I have to tell you, I have been nervous about this interview because what I feel like saying is, sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies. And I know you're not. I'm not accusing you of being an enemy. But that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way."
(You can watch it here for yourself.
How could anybody answer that question? Or any question like it?
So here's how the parody site poses its query:
"This site exists to try and help examine the vicious rumour that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a young girl in 1990. We don't claim to know the truth -- only that the rumour floating around saying that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a young girl in 1990 should be discussed. So we're going to do our part to try and help get to the bottom of this.
"Why won't Glenn Beck deny these allegations? We're not accusing Glenn Beck of raping and murdering a young girl in 1990 -- in fact, we think he didn't! But we can't help but wonder, since he has failed to deny these horrible allegations. Why won't he deny that he raped and killed a young girl in 1990?"
(I suggest that there are clues in that passage that the author is not a native of the United States. Here in 'murka, we spell the word "rumor," yes?)
The site conflates Beck-isms with Birther-isms.
Beck, far as I can tell, has no truck with the folks who claim that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. But there are links on the parody site to an obviously forged "police report" that parodies the obviously forged Kenyan "Obama birth certificate" that was tossed onto the Web a while back.
There's also a whack at supporters of Creationism and Intelligent Design who say that public schools should be forced to "teach the controversy" about evolution, as if there were a controversy among many who are not on their side. So: "This site is the official website about the controversy. "
(Concerning this issue, Beck did give a sympathetic interview to Ben Stein
about Stein's movie "Expelled.")
And so on.
The site went live Sept. 1. How popular is it? Ask Mr. Google about "Beck" and "murder" and "1990" and stand back.
As you might imagine, Beck is not amused. And he did the one thing guaranteed to garner the greatest amount of publicity for the site, and not coincidentally, for himself: He lawyered up, claiming the site violates his trademark. (Read the complaint here.
That's an issue I'll leave for others. I'm more interested in how the satire has been received in the wider world. I'm not seeing anything like vaccination going on. Instead, it looks more like a further spread of the original illness.
Believe it or not, I've seen sites where people appear to be seriously "debunking" the fake police report. Look at the comments here.
The anonymous author of the Beck site has gone to ground. But just before his lawyer told him to stop blabbing to the media, I was able to ask him what he thought the point was to the site. Would such frankly ugly humor help his cause?
Here was his e-mailed reply:
"Based on the energy of that first Fark thread where it all began -- where it started before I got involved -- it seems to be a cathartic release of frustration for many, including myself. So I suppose that makes it worth it, if nothing else.
"For any who think our President is born in Kenya, how much would my site actually hurt?
"But also: I have plans to widen the scope -- although I'm a liberal, and so inherently see more unethical actions by conservatives, the liberals aren't a bed of roses themselves. I plan to go after anyone who uses unethical techniques to try and smear people -- like the site is purporting to do (but of course, it's parody). For example, as much as I enjoy his movies, Michael Moore sets up disinformation, just like Beck does. He'll probably make our list.
"So I hope it does spark a little bit of debate -- although most won't get it. . . . But it's not just an anti-conservative thing; it just started there.
"Hopefully that helps. :)"
Maybe not. Given the nasty tone of so much of current political discourse, it is really the best idea to take the ugliest rhetoric used by either side and use it as a model for laughs? Even granting that satire is supposed to be offensive, what's the upside to offending, for instance, real victims of rape or families who have lost someone to murder?
Here's the thing about satire: For it to be effective, the target must be willing to see him or herself in that distorted mirror. And be able and willing to feel shame about what is being exaggerated in the satire.
Will this site, using this tactic, nudge people who might have been inclined to run with the worst of Beck or Coulter or Moore or Olbermann into taking a different tack?
I'm betting: Not.
I'm sorry I laughed.