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Published: Sunday, 6/28/2009

Get Fuzzy comic strip was stupid, but not racist

Was the "Get Fuzzy" comic strip published on June 21 racist?

Neilma Budd was one of several readers who thought so. "What were you all thinking?" she asked me. "You publish the [positive] story of an African American lady, and the history of Toledo in one area of the paper, and then are insensitive about the funnies."

Bruce Dunlavy agreed. "Upfront racism," he wrote after reading the strip. "My jaw almost hit the floor."

So was the strip racist?

Get Fuzzy, which can easily be found online, usually features a cat named Bucky Katt and a not very-bright-dog named Satchel. In the full-color June 21 installment, Bucky has sent away for what he thinks is a top-secret CIA disguise so he can get down a ferret burrow. The disguise turns out to be that of a raccoon, and the box says "Coon Imagery of America."

Eventually, Satchel puts the disguise on and starts talking what looks like jive talk, saying "Who da Satcha? Give me trash!"

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what one person may find funny, another may find offensive. Personally, I didn't find this strip especially racist; I just didn't think it was very funny.

Darby Conley's record doesn't show a pattern of racial insensitivity; he is a 39-year-old vegetarian and animal rights activist who grew up in Tennessee and now lives in Boston. He has been drawing Get Fuzzy since 1999. He has occasionally offended people, as when he did a series of strips about Pittsburgh in 2003 implying the city was famous for smelling bad. He was also once sued by a sports reporter after another Get Fuzzy strip portrayed the man as a drunk.

The racial gag here, if it is one, consists of a rather dim dog putting a raccoon mask on and then attempting to talk like a rapper.

My own feeling, as a middle-aged white man, is that the comic was just stupid. That doesn't mean people don't have the right to be offended by it. Nobody has the right to tell anybody they shouldn't find something offensive, whether it is Get Fuzzy or modern art.

But was it something the newspaper should have refused to publish on the grounds it was blatantly racist?

Not in my opinion. But then, I still miss Peanuts.

Jane Weber was upset with a front-page quote The Blade used from Councilman D. Michael Collins on June 17. This was in a story about Toledoans who were given tickets for parking on their own graveled driveways. "I hope the city would realize this was an exercise in insanity and rescind the tickets," Mr. Collins said.

"Those who work for the mayor, it is like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where all the insane flock together."

Ms. Weber, who works with the mentally ill, thought using that quote "will frighten, mislead, and perpetuate stigma against people with mental illness. I'm sure quotes were available that referred to the incredible damage in people's lives when mental health services are suddenly reduced," she added.

She also argued that "media as a whole need to develop a greater sensitivity to mental illness as a topic."

I agree with her last point. I think it would have been entirely inappropriate if the writer had made any comment like the one about "the insane flocking together."

But that's what the councilman said. He is an elected public official, and if he says something stupid, it isn't the newspaper's job to cover up for him. Nor did he, at least on this occasion, say anything about the need to have adequate mental health services.

We can't put words in his mouth, either. There is some irony, however, in his One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest comment. In the movie, the supposedly insane are actually more human and better adjusted than the sadistic nurse who torments them.

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That'll teach me not to check: Three weeks ago, in the course of discussing political endorsements, I wrote that The Blade circulates only in Michigan and Ohio. Ron Haas, a circulation systems specialist for The Blade, set me straight. "We also do have circulation in the state of Indiana," with newspaper boxes available in Fremont, Angola, and Orland.

My apologies to our Indiana readers.

Anyone with a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or e-mail me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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