IT’S SAD TO have to start with a disclaimer, especially since it’s likely to be ignored, but here goes: This column is not intended to defend racism, sexism, bad taste-ism or any other-ism that seems to have gotten mixed up in the Joe Bob Briggs affair [see page 90]. I have read maybe every second or third Joe Bob column over the years; I found some of them riotously funny, some of them mildly amusing and some of them totally boring. Like every writer, Joe Bob had his good days and his bad. But as a long-running satire exposing the inner workings of a barely working redneck mind, “Joe Bob” succeeded much more often than it failed.
Yes, Joe Bob is a satire of a certain ineradicable type of Southerner, The Redneck. One wonders if even Joe Bob’s Dallas Times Herald editors, those much-maligned High Sheriffs, really knew what he was all about. “Satire is so susceptible to misunderstanding that, rather than run the risk in the future, it’s better to quit doing it,” said Herald editor Will Jarrett. And the Herald’s story on the cancellation said that while “Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In” had been one of the paper’s most popular features, “it has drawn outraged protests in the past for its satirical characterizations of women, Mexicans and others.”
Both Jarrett and his writer seem to have missed the point. John Bloom, who writes the Joe Bob column, was on the side of blacks, women, Mexicans, sociologists and all the other minorities whom Joe Bob ig-norantly slandered right from the start. Bloom gave Joe Bob lots of rope, and every week Joe Bob obligingly tied the noose around his own neck and hanged himself in print. What Bloom did was take abstractions such as prejudice, bigotry and bullheaded macho pride and make them come to life in a person who seemed real enough to hate. And hate him many did. Yes, Joe Bob is the distilled essence of a million redneck minds and hearts poured into one ornery, beer-guzzling hick who doesn’t even realize how loathsome he is-Bloom spared him that painful self-knowledge.
Had Joe Bob been properly understood, the “outraged protests” would have come from the drivers of pickups with gun racks, the gimme-cap wearers and those legions from beyond the bright lights and fern bars for whom gory drive-in movies are not only tolerable, but fun. Joe Bob speaks for the backward, the benighted. He speaks for those who believe in the myths of the welfare Cadillac and the Mexican on permanent siesta. He speaks for poor white trash who will have nobody to feel superior to once minorities gain real equality. He speaks for insecure men who must believe in the “natural” dominance of men over women. He speaks for those whose sensibilities have been so deadened that they can squeeze pleasure from watching women terrorized and bodies cut into “itty bitty pieces.”
Bloom aimed his satirical salvos at other targets as well. His very format, the ostensible drive-in movie review, punctured the windy pretensions of reviewers who drone on for pages about the psycho-political meaning of movies made for 15-year-olds.
And Joe Bob’s choice of movies for review -the bloodiest, most sadistic, most exploitative “films” he could find-said much about our degraded, mindless popular culture. He was right at home with the contradictions of a people who claim to worship a loving Prince of Peace while flocking to gape at bloodbaths like Halloween, Friday the 13th and The Liver Eaters. Let’s remember that John Bloom never made any of those movies. Nor did he approve the advertisements for such garbage, ads that regularly crowd the entertainment pages of both the Herald and The Dallas Morning News. Like all good satirists, Bloom held up a mirror to society. If we didn’t like what we saw, it was hardly his fault.
Thinking of the impassioned protests of County Commissioner John Wylie Price, Eric Moye and others, I am almost embarrassed to defend this point. I seem to be upholding some narrow literary trifle; they are talking about their dignity and their lives. But there’s more at stake here than literary niceties.
John Stuart Mill, in his classic book On Liberty, says that a vital, free society must keep open all the avenues by which new truths, or the revitalization of old truths, could come. Once we begin to think we have all the truth we need, we are in danger. The open society is a marketplace of ideas-some of them innocent, some dangerous, some touched with genius. These ideas compete in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the intellectual marketplace. We may worry about this or that idea: “If you say that, people will misunderstand. People will be hurt by these ideas.” And our fears may be justified. I doubt that Price thinks Bloom is a bigot; if Price has read Bloom’s byline columns, he couldn’t think it. But Price fears that the satire will be misunderstood. He worries that somewhere out there, white rednecks are reading Joe Bob and smirking and saying, “Yeah, damn right. That’s stick-in’ it to the Negroes.” But they don’t say Negroes, as Joe Bob did.
I don’t doubt that some people misread Joe Bob, missed the satire on the redneck mind and thought the drive-in column was just a forum for low, sick humor. But having granted that, we must ask: What is the alternative? Are we to say that everything printed in a newspaper (even in a section completely separate from the serious news) must pass this test-that every reader be able to understand it and nobody be able to misunderstand it? If that’s what the Joe Bob-haters are saying, they are setting up a test that no piece of writing, no idea can ever pass.
People have been misreading satire for as long as it has been written. Jonathan Swift’s classic of the genre, A Modest Proposal, was misunderstood. The dense thought it advocated eating Irish babies. The discerning saw it as a savage attack on coldhearted British policies toward Ireland. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was thought to be a racist rant in some Northern cities and was for years banned from Boston’s public library.
Again, Mill’s notion of the open society is valuable. People must fend for themselves in that marketplace of ideas, shopping around, picking and choosing without a Big Brother, a Politburo, a League for Decency or a Sensitivity Society to help them out. It sounds old-fashioned, but that’s the promise and the faith of democracy. We believe that people can decide important matters for themselves. Period. We believe it so strongly that we set up a system by which every two or four years we can go to the polls-armed only with our imperfect, partial wisdom-and, if we choose, throw out every single elected official and start anew.
It may seem like a long jump-some would say a fall-from Mill’s exalted ideas, designed to safeguard our liberties, to the Joe Bob drive-in column. But is it? In a sense, the lowly Joe Bob columns were also an avenue of truth. If we lose Joe Bob, we lose a badly needed mirror on our society. Joe Bob helped us to exorcise the demons of racism and brutality that still haunt us. Joe Bob took us to the lair of the vile, small-minded creatures who thwart progress toward a more human world and told us to look in. We need to look, if only to remind us what not to become.
But the Herald had more to worry about than the misinterpretation of a literary device. No doubt Jarrett, Herald CEO Tom Johnson and others were thinking about the bottom line, which has been quite disappointing for the Herald in recent years. By every statistical measure, the Herald is far behind the News and falling farther back all the time. The most recent Audit Bureau figures show the News leading the Herald by more than 100,000 copies daily and Sunday. Herald executives, who must be thinking themselves hexed, had already announced plans for a major overhaul of the paper when the Joe Bob mess hit the fan. The changes, announced for May 5, included a new city magazine, a replacement for the Herald’s old “Perspective” section and an ambitious weekly business magazine, “Dallas, Inc.” The sweeping changes would say to Dallas, “Hey, we’re still here. We’ll bounce back.” And then came the Briggs affair.
Perhaps haunted by the specter of a long, bitter black protest against the paper, Jarrett made a decision that may prove to be good business in the long run. He cut Joe Bob, hoping to cut his losses and avoid a lengthy fight that would overshadow the Herald’s impending rebirth. The question is unavoidable: Had the positions of the two papers been reversed, with Jarrett sitting on a fat lead, would he have elected to ride out the storm with Joe Bob? Was the decision to scrap Joe Bob purely a moral decision (and if so, why such a late awakening of the Herald’s moral sense?), or did the need to do something-anything-to catch the News force Jarrett’s hand? Joe Bob was nothing but offensive from the start, but he helped sell papers. When it seemed that he might hurt sales, it was time for him to go. Admittedly, this is speculation, but the timing of the cancellation is hard to fathom without considering the realities of the newspaper war.
It is possible for people who consider themselves liberals, and who hope for a world in which white, black and brown live without suspicion and hatred, to feel very uneasy about the Herald’s decision. In the same way, it is possible to deplore Jarrett’s hurried announcement that he would hire “at least 12” minority journalists and a special minority assistant, presumably to ensure that Never Again will anyone be subjected to insensitive satire in the Herald-which now seems pledged to run only non-offensive, non-misunderstandable satire. How exciting. Jonathan Swift need not apply.