A satire, a protest, then an apology
Satire is a deadly weapon.

February 8, 2003

In the hands of the semiskilled, it has a tendency to misfire. And when that happens, there's often a lot of collateral damage.

That's what the editors of Vanity Fair magazine discovered, when an ill-conceived item in the current issue's comedic advice column set off a firestorm of Latino cyber-protest so powerful that by week's end, the Conde Nast publication was in full retreat.

The exchange that launched a thousand e-mails appears deep within the magazine's February issue as part of "Vanities," a section devoted to ostensibly lighthearted amusements. Among its regular features is a fictional advice column, Ask Dame Edna, written by the Australian comedian and actor Barry Humphries, who plays his signature character -- the clueless Dame Edna Everage -- in drag. The offending letter and response go like this:

"Dear Dame Edna: I would very much like to learn a foreign language, preferably French or Italian, but every time I mention this, people tell me to learn Spanish instead. They say, 'Everyone is going to be speaking Spanish in 10 years. George W. Bush speaks Spanish.' Could this be true? Are we all going to have to speak Spanish? -- Torn Romantic, Palm Beach.

"Dear Torn: Forget Spanish. There's nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD of 'Man of La Mancha' will take care of that. There was a poet named Garcia Lorca, but I'd leave him on the intellectual back burner if I were you. As for everyone's speaking it, what twaddle! Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower? Study French or
German, where there are at least a few books worth reading, or, if you're an American, try English."

Humphries, of course, mines an old vein of particularly British humor in which xenophobic, vaguely upper-class twits are held up to ridicule by dramatizing their pathological aversion to foreign food, manners and morals. In this genre, even those parts of the Home Counties overly distant from St. James or the Lords Cricket Grounds are objects of suspicion.

It takes a skillful comic and an audience conversant with the convention to make this particular shtick play as humor.

The Vanity Fair item had neither. Shortly after the issue appeared on newsstands, Wendy Maldonado, a management consultant from Jackson Heights, N.Y., had begun circulating -- via the Internet -- a letter of protest demanding that Vanity Fair and Humphries apologize or face a boycott.

"Dame Edna could have chosen any number of amusing responses," the letter says, "however, she responded using cheap, two-dimensional stereotypes of Latinos and Latin Americans, revealing not only her racism, but also her profound ignorance of who we are." The letter noted the striking dissonance between Dame Edna's response and the same issue's cover story, a fawning profile of Mexican actress Salma Hayek, whom Vanity Fair's headline writers celebrate for drawing "on her heritage to produce and star in 'Frida,' the hit biopic about Mexico's iconic artist, Frida Kahlo."

Maldonado's letter spread across the Internet with a speed born of fat address books. "I've gotten e-mails from New Jersey to Argentina, China and Hawaii," she told reporters. "I'm now getting stuff every two seconds." By midweek, versions of the letter were circulating along all sorts of cyber networks. There were different copies signed by scores of architects, by physicians, by academics, by artists and filmmakers.

Elias Nahmias, who heads the Mexican Assn. of Filmmakers in L.A., said he received his copy from "a Chicana musician. I read it, saw the last name was a producer and I added my name. By then, I'd looked at the magazine and I couldn't believe it. One of my friends said it was a joke. I don't know whether it's a joke or not, but when I read it, I felt insulted and hurt."

On Thursday, a call to Vanity Fair's editor, Graydon Carter, was referred to a spokeswoman, who said the following "apology" would appear in the April issue along with a selection of letters:

"Vanity Fair regrets that certain remarks in our February issue by the entertainer and author Barry Humphries, in the guise of his fictional character Dame Edna, have caused offense to our readers and others. In the role of Dame Edna, Humphries practices a long comedic tradition of making statements that are tasteless, wrongheaded, or taboo with an eye toward exposing hypocrisies or prejudices. Anyone
who has seen Dame Edna's over-the-top performances on TV or in the theater knows that she is an equal-opportunity distributor of insults, and her patently absurd comments about Spanish literature and Spanish speakers were offered in the spirit of outrageous comedy and were never intended to be taken to heart."

In moral theology, sin is in the intention; in journalism, it's in the execution.

Successful satire is aimed at powerful individuals or social attitudes. It is understood by its audience for what it is and it has literary merit. (Think Swift, Twain and Orwell.) Vanity Fair's item failed on all three counts: It was hurtful, bound to be misunderstood and, quite obviously, lacked literary value.

It's hard to say what Dame Edna and his/her editors know about leaf blowers, but they certainly understand now, as Californios and Floridians say in Spanglish: Hacer enojar a muchos Latinos con laptops puede ser peligroso.

(In consideration of the Palm Beach Romantic's neglected education -- must be inherited money -- that means: Ticking off a bunch of Latinos with laptops can be a dangerous thing.)