Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Big Book Of Buzz

Mark's Stylebook: When reporting threats to controversial plays about gay Jesus, don't use the words "terrorist" or "jihad" or even "yahoo".

The Dallas Morning News' Jacquielynn Floyd broke that stylebook rule big time this week in her column about a student production of the controversial play Corpus Christi that presents Jesus as gay. She starts off breaking the rule in her column headline, "North Texas zealots score in jihad on 'gay Jesus' play" and the infractions only rack up from there.

After the jump, the other rule that caused Floyd to break Mark's Stylebook rule.

Jacquielynn Floyd explains:

"The first rule in the Big Book of Buzz is that art -- good or bad, pious or blasphemous, obvious or incomprehensible -- thrives on controversy as a fire flourishes on pure oxygen. Only indifference makes it starve and wither."

There's no denying the truth of that. It applies to the play Corpus Christi. It applies to the musical Rent, recently banned in Garland and Rowlett high schools. It applies to The Laramie Project, likely banned in Tyler. It applies to the recent music video by Erykah Badu, which brought her a disorderly conduct citation for stripping while walking through Dealey Plaza.

And, in a clever bit of irony, the rule even applies to local newspaper columns by the likes of Floyd. No way did she use the terms "zealots" and "jihad" without knowing they would provoke a reaction from ... well, in Floyd's words, the "firebrands who can trump even the most ardent jihadist at policing not only public events, but class projects."

If reaction she wanted, reaction she got. There was the expected huffing and puffing that this is in no way similar to Muslim opposition to portraying the Prophet Muhamed in unflattering ways. There was the expected attempt to turn the tables on liberals, like this comment by one of Floyd's readers:

"A play like this is no different than one that deliberately offends a racial minority or women. It's a double-standard by liberals that it's OK to deliberately offend a person's religion."

In fact, there is a big difference. Race and sex are physical traits over which a person has no control. One's religion is not like that. Intolerant behavior on the basis of physical traits is just that, behavior. Religions that behave badly make themselves fair game for dramatic critique. In fact, given the first rule of the Big Book of Buzz, such artistic treatment is almost inevitable.

Perhaps the bigger irony of this controversy is that the playwright of Corpus Christi was not intentionally applying the first rule of the Big Book of Buzz when he wrote the play, judging by an interview that Terrence McNally gave Bloomberg News:

"I wrote it as an act of reverence and a meditation on the life of Christ and his message. I've never felt more misunderstood or ambushed in my life than by the response it got. But it's important to say that the attacks on the play were started by people who'd never seen or read it, based on rumors that weren't true."

My high school English teacher used to say that it matters less what the playwright, even Shakespeare, meant to say; what matters more is what he actually wrote. In this case, even that doesn't matter. What the audience imagines the playwright wrote is what's all important. And what the audience imagines has Buzz.

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