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Favoring shock value over humor insults readership

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Sometimes humor is shocking, but that doesn’t mean everything shocking is funny.

That is the error that the editors of readme made last week when they published “Carnegie Mellon Builds New Hauschwitz Dormitory.” The article mocked, in disturbing detail, the horrors committed during World War II at the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The timing couldn’t have been worse: The issue came out during the annual TOC/BOC (when many corporate recruiters are on campus and we try to project the best, most professional image we can) and 48 hours before the start of Rosh Hashanah.

Amid growing complaints about the issue’s content, it was pulled from circulation. Editor Chris Kier has also offered an apology (see Letter to the Editor on page A11). That was the right thing to do — it shows maturity and compassion on Kier’s part.

Interestingly, this course of action is exactly opposite to the one prescribed via e-mail by readme’s former editor, Brian Leahy. “How about you write a really insulting e-mail to whoever is complaining,” Leahy wrote. “Next week you should do a Nazi-themed issue called ‘Heil readme!’ and just go balls to the wall. Most photoshops should include Hitler, swastikas, and the Auschwitz gates.”

When Leahy edited readme, obscenity and insult trumped wit and satire. Since Kier has taken over, things have improved considerably. For the most part, the publication has stopped confusing bad taste with edginess, and has even made — in my humble estimation — some noteworthy accomplishments in wordplay. (“Phrasers set to pun” and “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Snakes on a Plain” are recent favorites.)

Some people might dismiss my criticism because I’m not Jewish. That is short-sighted. I don’t have to be Jewish to think it is wrong to mock Holocaust atrocities. Over the summer I traveled to Poland and visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. I’ve seen what remains of the gas chambers and the deep grooves left by the frantic clawing of the suffocated. I’ve seen the piles of cookware, shoes, and framed photos of loved ones who never met again. I’ve read the plaques that state, in dozens of languages, “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity....”

Considering what has since happened in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur, it seems humanity has failed to heed that warning. That is why it’s not funny.

Eighteen months ago, after the controversial visit of Norman Finkelstein, I interviewed a Holocaust survivor at the Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center for an article in The Tartan. The pain in his voice was a meager indication of the pain in his past. I thought of him when I read the “New Hauschwitz” article.

Most people have never met a Holocaust survivor, so maybe I’m overly sensitive. Too much sensitivity impedes humor — Kurt Vonnegut (now there’s a good humorist) once wrote that if you open a window and make love to the world, you’ll get pneumonia. He meant that you can’t try to appease everyone. It’s impossible and unhealthy.

But Vonnegut has also pointed out that humor is an art. “The best jokes are dangerous,” he said in an interview with McSweeney’s, “because they are in some way truthful.” The “New Hauschwitz” article, whatever its intentions, was not artfully honest. It was insensitive to communities that still feel the pain of the Holocaust and offensive to a readership whose sense of sophisticated humor was vastly underestimated. readme failed us all — Jewish and Gentile alike.

There is a way to laugh at serious subjects — one of humankind’s greatest traits is its ability to find humor in just about everything. But the humor must be dignified, and it must leave its readers somehow richer. Last spring, when The Tartan decided to resume its traditional April Fools issue after a year’s hiatus, we discovered just how tricky intelligent satire can be. We were flabbergasted at how much work it takes. In that respect, we gained a much greater appreciation for what readme attempts every week.

The staff of readme has a marvelous opportunity to lighten up a campus that tends to take itself very seriously. Let them remember, though: It’ll always be easier to shock people than make them laugh. But we didn’t get to Carnegie Mellon by being the type of people who take the easy way out, did we?