I feel sorry for Kim Stafford. For one thing, she has the exact same name as the Portland poet, who doesn’t even have the good taste to be female. But more than that, in 2012, a photo of her went viral — the photo there on the left. Ben Collins explains it all in an Esquire article, Remember Kim Stafford? …Of Course You Don’t. She was going to a college party and at the last minute she found out it was “Boston Tea Party themed.” Without easy access to a tricorn, she made the mistake of being creative.
She decided to go to the party as “one of those Tea Baggers.” So she went online and searched for some illiterate Tea Party signs. She settled upon, “A Village Somewhere in Kenia Is Missing There Idiot.” I have to admit, I have not been able to find such a sign. But there are plenty of similar ones like, “Get A Brain Morans!” (So true: Dylan Moran is just an idiot!) Anyway, Stafford scrawled the phrase on an empty pizza box and went to her party where all went well. That’s one of the things about actual physical contact: misunderstandings tend to get resolved quickly. Not so much here on the internet.
I don’t think I need to tell you what happened next. People are awful. And it is all the worse because they are at least nominally liberal. Now, I understand getting things wrong. It has happened to me. And even when I’ve not gotten things right, I’ve acted in ways that are not in keeping with my elevated potential. So I can’t be too harsh on people who said she was, for example, an idiot. But as with everything that ever involves a woman, it became sexualized. She was called a “whore” and compared to a horse. Oh well. As Stafford herself said after the whole thing, “[P]eople are evil.”
The problem is not satire itself. The problem is reality. The truth is that Stafford’s sign isn’t that extreme. The idea of it is nothing that we didn’t see (with far more cause) applied to Bush the Younger. The grammar errors are fairly minor — especially on the internet where editors are not allowed and writers (very much including me) post things as fast as possible with the most cursory of checks. And remember, we’ve seen Obama as a witch doctor or any of the collection of racist images at All Things Democratic including “Lawdy, I sho’ loves campainnin!”
The question is how can one in any individual instance be outrageous enough to come off as satirical rather than just another offensive and ignorant conservative? I’m serious about the question, because I like satire. I wish there were an answer. But the truth is that any Colbert Report segment in isolation would be hard to judge. And as I discussed in Conservatives Think Colbert Is a Double Agent, many people think he’s secretly serious anyway.
This is one way that the internet really makes our lives less free. But it is part of a larger social trend away from having a small number of substantial relationships and toward having a very large number of superficial ones. My close friends don’t often misunderstand my intent. But the problem does go beyond that. We all seem to be forever on the edge of offense. I think there are a lot of reasons for that, but mostly it is that the modern world provides very few opportunities for us to find meaning in our lives. And having a thousand friends is like having none. No wonder we lash out instead of chuckling, “Get it? She misspelled Kenya!”
Until further notice: satire is dead.