If Jonathan Swift had run for office, he would have had to explain that little piece he wrote modestly proposing the selling of children -- for food, no less. Mark Twain would have been asked about his frequent use of the N-word in "Huckleberry Finn." Al Franken is running for the U.S. Senate, so now Norm Coleman condemns him for creating a stereotypical Asian character in his 1996 book "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot." Missing from the senator's complaint is any attempt to share the piece's context and purpose.
Michael Brodkorb, who originally posted the 50-second video clip from Franken's 1996 reading on his "Minnesota Democrats Exposed" website, writes that he "expect[s] the Franken campaign and its defenders to insist that this chapter of the book was meant as pure satire." Allow me: This part of the book is pure satire.
Robert C. Elliott, author of "The Power of Satire," defines it as an artistic form that attacks human and individual vices "by means of ridicule, derision, caricature, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to inspire social reform." The section of the Limbaugh book Franken is reading from on the video is Chapter 8, "Operation Chickenhawk," a fantasy set in 1969 that presents Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Dan Quayle and other Republicans as having served in Vietnam, when, in fact, they didn't. Which is kind of why the story is presented as a fantasy.
Calling the video, "extremely insensitive and out of bounds," Coleman objects to Franken's "play[ing] into stereotypes of cultures." The character he's complaining about is a "pouty sex kitten," whose lines Franken reads in a stereotypically Asian way. Given the setting of the piece, I wasn't expecting him to use a Fargo accent.
The pouty Asian sex kitten is an example of Franken's using the caricature that Elliott says is a tool of the satirist's trade. What interests me as a frequent reader and viewer of satire is what he's using that tool to accomplish.
Here's the context: While bracing for an enemy attack, Private Gingrich thinks back to the Saigon bar and the shocking words -- I'll omit them here because the Strib is a family paper -- of the Asian woman.
After Gingrich asks her if she can sit on his chest and make him do terrible things, she replies, "You number ten G.I. You disgust me," spits in his face and walks away. The section concludes: "Gingrich smiled at the memory. He hadn't found the release he had sought, but at least the humiliation had taken his mind off the fear."
So Franken uses the Asian woman to make Gingrich the butt of a joke: Finally desiring some kind of action in 'Nam, he's unable to get it. And the rest of the chapter makes clear the overall point of the piece: Gingrich, Limbaugh and their fellow chickenhawks prove themselves too fearful to fight, leaving their commander, Ollie North -- who actually did serve -- up a certain creek without a paddle.
In context, then, Franken is satirizing Republicans who supported the war without having fought in it, a combination he seems to think constitutes hypocrisy, one of those human vices Elliott mentions. And seeing as how we currently have a president who used the National Guard to avoid serving in one war, and who now sends National Guardsmen to fight in another, this particular vice would appear to have legs.
In "Humor as a Social Corrective," Avner Ziv writes, "it is clear to us all, including satirists, that ministerial changes arise from political realities, and that only very rarely does satire succeed in unseating anyone." Maybe that's why one particular satirist has responded to recent political realities by putting his candidacy where his mouth was.
Craig Hergert is an English professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.