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Mocking the Holocaust

October 15, 2009

In the age of The Onion, Jon Stewart, and Jon Stewart critiquing CNN for doing fact-checking on "Saturday Night Live," the concept of "fake news" is hardly novel. And those who enjoy such satire can no doubt identify plenty of cases where the humor didn't quite work.

To say that the article published this month by Reed College's humor publication, The Pamphlette, did not work would be an understatement. Consider this opening:

In what is being called a “tragic, but all too predictable” event, the staff of The Leaphlette, a student humor publication at Lewis and Clark College, have been accused of rounding up and gassing all of the Jews on their Portland, OR campus. “There were warning signs,” said Lewis and Clark president Thomas J. Habberstashery. “About a month ago they published a satirical article making light of the Holocaust. We should have seen this coming,” he said, gesturing towards the towering crematorium sitting on the spot once occupied by the campus library. In addition to the inflammatory article, The Leaphlette put in a request to the chemistry department for “a fuckload of Zyklon B” for the purpose of “conducting Jewsperiments,” a move which, according to President Habberstashery, “in retrospect, should have raised concerns.”

The article goes on to say that some students "have claimed that the incident highlights the need for a multicultural resource center or a women’s studies department or something at Lewis and Clark." The fake president of the college is quoted as saying: "The most tragic part of this whole debacle, other than all those dead Jews, is the damage that I fear will be done to the school’s reputation. In the coming admissions season, when an applicant is faced with a choice between Lewis and Clark and some faggoty college like Reed, I can’t help but think that this incident will play into their decision.”

The Pamphlette is typically distributed at Reed only, dropped off at various places on campus (a Web site for the publication isn't current). In this case, however, a copy also made its way to Lewis and Clark, and so Reed has been considering just what went wrong -- in front of non-Reedies. While Reed prides itself on intellectual rigor and intense discussions about just about everything, it takes the privacy of its community seriously, and this marked a rare case where another college became involved.

On Tuesday night, about 250 people from Reed and Lewis and Clark discussed what had happened, and although the humor magazine has distributed an apology and Reed's president apologized to his counterpart at Lewis and Clark, many students remain unsettled. One of the editors of The Pamphlette said at the forum that he did not regret the article. And some critics have noted that this isn't the first time the publication has used the Holocaust in ways that offended. A previous article mocked Anne Frank. (Others have noted that The Pamphlette is an equal opportunity offender, and that the same issue with the article about gassing Jews also featured an article making fun of Black History Month.)

Further complicating matters, the issue with the article about gassing Jews at Lewis and Clark appeared as the latter college was dealing with an incident in which swastikas were discovered on a library bathroom wall. While the Reed students involved in the publication said they didn't have any idea about that incident, some Lewis and Clark students found the article particularly offensive since their campus had in fact been prompted by the swastikas to discuss issues of anti-Semitism.

Colin Diver, president of Reed, sent an e-mail to students and faculty members in which he said that the articles in The Pamphlette "display a remarkable insensitivity to the deeply held feelings engendered by some of the most horrific and painful episodes of our collective history."

Diver, while noting that the publication is supported by funds for student organizations, stressed that he would never try to censor. "Leaving aside my personal reaction, however, it is my role as president to uphold the principles by which this college is governed," he wrote. "One of those principles, stated in the Community Constitution, is that publications supported by student body funds shall not be subject to censorship or editorial control by the college. There will, therefore, be no attempt by the administration of this college to restrain publication of The Pamphlette or to take any other action that would amount to censorship of its content."

Editors of The Pamphlette agreed to answer questions about the situation if they were posed to a group e-mail list and if answers would not be attributed to anyone by name.

One editor, answering for the group, said that the intent of the article was to satirize a column in Reed's student newspaper that "argued that satirical Holocaust denial enables real genocide. We found this claim ridiculous, and that the goal of our article was to satirize this notion by driving it to its logical extreme." He declined to provide copies of the article on black history or the piece about Anne Frank, but said that the black history piece was "written by a black student and that its content would be unquestionably fine on Comedy Central."

As to the larger debate, the editor said that "we are all saddened and disappointed at the level of controversy we have inadvertently caused. It seems that many people have taken issue with things that we've written, and have been carrying these issues for a while. For whatever reason, none of them felt it was necessary to contact us directly with their concerns, and instead all waited until the forum to vent their frustrations. In the future, we would like to see a more direct and personal dialogue between our publication and the members of our campus community."

Another editor of the publication said in a phone interview that those discussions should not have extended beyond Reed. She said it was important to have context about Reed to understand what was going on. "We're a small paper at a college the size of a high school, and one of the students here thought it was right to contact someone at Lewis and Clark, when the article had nothing to do with Lewis and Clark," she said.

Asked if anything about the article might still have been offensive even if no one off the Reed campus has seen it, she said that "it still would have been offensive, but I don't think it would be this big a deal. I don't see why it was necessary to not let this be an internal issue at Reed, instead of being exposed to the outside community.... I think we could have controlled the situation a lot better if that hadn't happened."

What if the situation had been reversed, and someone at Lewis and Clark had written about gassing Jews (or something else) at Reed College? Might she care? "If I found out about it, I wouldn't feel personally targeted," she said.

Rachel Hall, managing director of the Greater Portland Hillel, which serves students at Reed and Lewis and Clark, said she went to the forum at Reed Tuesday night, accompanying some of the Jewish students at Lewis and Clark who wanted to express "their outrage."

Hall noted that she was struck by the way the students on The Pamphlette kept stressing that the article wasn't supposed to leave the campus, suggesting that that's what mattered. When Hall asked a question, she said, the Reed students didn't appreciate it and appeared "very unapproachable."

Her sense, from the discussions this week, is that many Reed students think "it's cool to be postmodern and think that racism and sexism are gone, and that Reed is such a safe space so you can make any jokes you want and not think about it." After the meeting Tuesday, Hall said she was approached both by Jewish and racial minority students from Reed who told her that they didn't feel secure raising questions about comments that were offensive to them, and that they felt the expectation of many on the campus was not to consider such issues.

Nothing should be off limits to discuss or even to satirize, Hall said, but there should also be civility, especially at a place that boasts of its academic rigor. "I don't think anyone here is saying that you can never joke about the Holocaust. I don't think anyone is saying that anything should never be talked about, but this was just rude and inconsiderate and offensive," Hall said. "Shouldn't Reed have a higher standard of intellectualism?"

 

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