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131210_HOL_SantaMakeover.jpg.CROP.original-original

This illustration by Mark Stamaty appeared in Aisha Harris’ original article for Slate.

What so many in the right wing echo chamber do not seem to get is that Satire does not begin the moment you are called out for making an ass of yourself. You cannot simply toss bigoted statements about the airwaves and play the irony card whenever someone says no to your bigotry. Jokes are meant to be funny the first time around, not simply when the whole world finds your position too stupid to take seriously. Even when the humor is intended one always has to content with the with-me or at-me question. And if the point of your joke is to make fun of someone’s race, gender or sexual orientation, all the laughter in the world will not let you off the hook. Humor is NOT a get-out-of-trouble-free card, especially for those who simply weren’t joking to begin with.

Granted, satire can be a tricky game to play (just ask Sarah Silverman), but an ironic intention doesn’t usually materialize out of thin air. We can generally spot some sign of it in the original moment, so to speak, or at least we should recognize that irony when it is pointed out later.

This is what makes Megyn Kelly’s I-was-joking defense of her comments on Santa’s race so ridiculous. In case you’ve been comatose for the last day or three I’ll let Kelly tell you the story, but let me just say one thing first, watch closely for the light-hearted tone of her original comments. In this clip, she tells us that her comments about Santa were meant as a joke, then plays the original clip. When the original clip comes up, let’s watch closely and maybe we can find the signals of humorous intent:

Did you see the humor? Did you hear that light-hearted tone in her treatment of the subject?

Okay neither did I.

There was nothing funny about the original segment, and that is not changed by Kelly’s forced humor in subsequent statements. She wants us to believe she was joking, but dammit, a joke doesn’t look like that, and it doesn’t sound like that. What is hilarious about this pathetic defense of Kelly’s own racism is that the very video clip she plays ought to be a positive refutaion that her own attempt to recast the moment as humor. Everything from her tone of voice in that original clip to her body posture and the complete lack of humor in all of those present should suggest that she (as the others) were taking the issue VERY seriously. …even too seriously. There is nothing in Kelly’s words that suggests any intent to undercut the seriousness of her claims; she does nothing to show us that she didn’t mean exactly what she said. Everything about he original clip suggests that she meant to be taken seriously.

It’s all just a little funnier when you realize that the original article written by Aisha Harris for slate magazine was in fact offered in a satirical tone, as Kelly herself (now) concedes. So, the bottom line is that Kelly and company read a satirical piece about a real issue (racial identification with a major holiday figure), took it as a serious threat to their own racial politics, and proceeded to pronounce, ex cathedra, that one ought not to mess with Santa’s racial identity, because he is white.

He just is.

Just like Jesus.

John Stewart and his guest (Jessica Williams)are spot-on as usual.

So irony is playing quite a shell game with us here. It is present in the piece Kelly was talking about altogether absent in her initial comments on the subject, and present only as an effort to save face in her attempt to address the controversy. …which is unintentionally ironic in the extreme. Is this irony fail or irony jackpot? I really can’t say.

Maybe it’s both.

Don’t read the comments of her twitter defenders by the way. …I mean it don’t! You’ll lose faith in humanity, or at least I did, which is odd considering that I didn’t think I really had any faith in humanity before this, but anyway…

Kelly does have one defender worth considering, though his defense is flawed as Hell. Reza Aslan a Professor of Creative Writing and historian of religion at the University of California, Riverside, tells us that Kelly was actually right about something, sort of. He tells us that she was right about Christ, but not Jesus. Jesus, Aslan tells us was the historical person in question. Jesus would most certainly not count as a white person, as Aslan tells us, but Christ, the cultural construction of Jesus as a God is most certainly white. So, Aslan is trying to tell us that the vision of Christ near and dear to Kelly is certainly white whereas the historical reality of any person whose life might have served as the inspiration for that vision is not.

Okay that’s interesting. It just isn’t all that helpful.

See the problem is that Kelly was not just telling us that Jesus is white as he is imagined in western religious traditions; she was telling us that he really was white. Hell she still hasn’t quite wrapped her mind around the fact that he most certainly wasn’t but apparently she has learned enough to concede that the matter is open to question.

It isn’t.

The bottom line is that Aslan is introducing a distinction that his subject matter does not make which is ironic. More ironic still, Aslan is using this highly flexible manner of speaking about Jesus to defend someone who was most emphatically denying any flexibility to the notion of Jesus whatsoever. She wasn’t telling us that Jesus was white to her and a number of others; she was telling us that it was wrong to think of Jesus as anything but white. Aslan’s thus employs a remarkably flexible approach to the symbolism in question to provide a kind of 3rd person apologetic in defense of Kelly.

This is the sort of thing that has always bothered me about the study of comparative religion. Too often it seems to amount to a claim that religious faith in general is a good thing even if any particular faith is problematic. I can accept that religious institutions may produce a wide range of wonderfully positive values but I expect those fall in an undefined array of social benefits whereas those who study comparative religion often seem to want to locate them in religiosity itself. It’s an ironic form of apologetics that always seems to stop just short of a literal defense. But that’s just my general beef with the academic field of religious studies; it bears a strong resemblance to Aslan’s effort to rescue some value in Kelly’s views even as he acknowledges their inaccuracy as applied to actual history. The trouble is that Kelly herself isn’t really cooperating with his analysis. She was talking about the history, even as she was talking about the religious imaginary.

And that brings us back to Kelly’s disingenuous attempt to hide her bigotry under the guise of humor. She wants to remind us that both she and Harris acknowledged the same thing, that Santa and Jesus has historically been thought of as white but of course this would h=be a half truth if it were even a little truth. Kelly misses the alternative visions that are in fact out there. More to the point, she is opposed to those alternatives.

Make no mistake Kelly was telling us to say no to anything but a white Jesus and Santa, and she was not joking.

I think I prefer to say no to racism.