There’hadow a precept in good satire that you punch up, you don’t punch down.
There isn’t a similar theory about those who hold political office though you generally want to be seen as representing the average person rather than someone swelled with power and money.
Last night, I was listening to Sam Sanders’ podcast “It’s Been A Minute.” He was interviewing members of The Onion’s editorial staff about their work and someone echoed that line about punching up, not punching down. Sanders didn’t ask about it, but the line reminded me of a time when the Onion violated this rule and paid for it with a rare apology.
During the 2013 Oscars awards ceremony, the Onion attempted a joke, via Twitter, that covered the backbiting nature of Hollywood gossip, the misogynistic way female celebrities are discussed and even the way in which we sexualize young actresses. It’s a lot to squeeze into 140 characters and the Onion didn’t even come close to hitting the mark, using a nuclear-option swear word as a shortcut which got them lost in the wilderness. The underlying truth or attempted meaning was obscured by a joke that centered a young, black child within it, making her seem like the joke’s target.
We’re seeing a similar situation unfold in Illinois political circles due to the fallout over a political cartoon from the Illinois Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank with a CEO who’s often called “the de factor governor” and whose ex-staffers – up until a mass firing last night – served Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner in various roles, from chief of staff to communications and messaging.
The cartoon depicts Chicago Public Schools a young black child sitting on the sidewalk with a sign that says “NEED MONEY 4 SCHOOL” while a cigar-chomping white guy in a suit says “Sorry, kid, I’m broke” as dollar bills marked “TIF money” spill from his pockets.
IPI’s explanations about the cartoon have been similar to the justifications people made about the Onion’s cartoon: the point of the commentary was not to portray CPS students as panhandlers but to hold the white, fat-cat politicians up for ridicule and point out their hypocrisy in refusing to give money to Chicago Public Schools despite vast resources of TIF money – property tax dollars that go into a special discretionary fund controlled by politicians instead of to schools – at their disposal.
These are all worthy arguments for political commentary and ones a responsible group of adults ought to be having right now. Equally true is the idea that anyone using a young black child in caricatured form to make a point – a practice so legendarily problematic that there’s a go-to term for it – will find his or her arguments buried underneath an entirely different meaning. It makes you look like you’re punching down instead of punching up.
Incidentally, this is why having diverse staffs of writers, policy makers and communications professionals isn’t about political correctness, it’s about good business. If you don’t, this is what happens.
All of this would probably not get the kind of play it has if it didn’t align with the coded way Rauner himself has talked about Chicago Public Schools and the students it serves.
With IPI’s (ex-?)staff acting as an arm of Rauner’s government – officially and unofficially – the cartoon seems less like subtext and more like text.
This controversy has been going for more than a week – and jumped from being a local story to a national one – due to the governor’s bungled attempts at response after response keeping it alive (hence last night’s firings).
Refusing to call out the cartoon’s racist overtones – whatever the meaning behind it – makes Rauner look like he either agrees with the portrayal, is covering for his friends at IPI or doesn’t understand how the cartoon plays into the overall tone of his previous comments.
There’s a way to talk about the problems of our state’s education funding and even our state’s public schools without making students, teachers and the work of the people in those schools your targets.
The less focused your punch, the more likely it is you’ll hit the wrong person.
Maybe the governor should hire his next communication staffers from The Onion. They seem to have learned a lesson he hasn’t yet.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Jodi Martinez/Released