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Martians Kidnap Columnist! (Just Kidding)

June 12, 1998|PATT MORRISON

Everybody OK out there? No panic attacks? Nobody laying in emergency supplies of Spanish-English dictionaries?


Because now I have an inkling of how Orson Welles felt on the morning after his 1938 radio program of "The War of the Worlds." It was a faux news broadcast about Martians landing in New Jersey, and it sounded so real to some Newark families that they took to the hills. A Pittsburgh woman took poison.

My column in Wednesday's Times was likewise a mock news report, about the "fallout" from a supposed obscure provision of Proposition 227, the bilingual education initiative. That fine print required that every aspect of public life also be translated into English within a year--the same time given to most schoolchildren to make the transition from their own languages.

I laid out the dire consequences: a Mariposa County prep football team refusing to play for "Butterfly County." Merchants furious that their flossy shops would no longer have addresses on "La Brea" and "La Cienega" but "Tar Avenue" and "Swamp Boulevard."

And of course the ACLU was in court, arguing that this would change the California map into a geo-theocracy of cities like The Angels, St. Monica and the state capital, Sacrament.

So today's column is an asterisk for those of you who came away worried or even alarmed by Wednesday's column. The asterisk reads: "This was a put-on, a sendup, a satire."

In 1729, Jonathan Swift, the Irish patriot who wrote "Gulliver's Travels," also wrote an ironic essay called "A Modest Proposal," suggesting that Ireland's overpopulation and export problem could be cured simultaneously by selling babies as delicacies for the dinner tables of the English rich.

This is the danger of satire: Instead of being read as a sardonic parody of a serious problem, sometimes it gets read seriously, period. People railed against Swift's vicious heartlessness, rather than against the Irish political mess.

My kindest correspondent found my column "Swiftian," noting that good satire is so close to true as to make it scary. The reality of California politics is now so close to the absurd as to make the line almost indistinguishable.

Most readers "got" the column, and had their own suggestions: Laguna Lake would be Lake Lake, Las Pulgas Road, Fleas Road. And why stop at Spanish? Ban croissant and cappuccino, Solvang and bagels.

About two in 10 took it seriously, and some of those called Proposition 227 headquarters, protesting this was not what they voted for. The spokeswoman, both amused and worried, said she thought about transferring all those calls to me.

A producer at a major TV news network e-mailed. She was sure my piece was "tongue in cheek," but her bosses ordered her to make sure they had not missed a huge story.

They hadn't.


A month before Orson Welles staged "War of the Worlds," the world came this close to war with itself. The Munich Agreement let Hitler have western Czechoslovakia, on the allies' deluded belief that it would be that crazy Nazi's last territorial demand. So it was--for about a year.

The United States, safe in its ocean-moat, was uneasy. The Depression was still touch and go, and all those foreigners acting up didn't help. In this climate, Welles' fictitious apocalypse of alien takeovers touched a nerve.

A week before my column ran, California voted, again, on bitterly divisive initiatives. Proposition 227 set out to teach schoolkids English once and for all, after 20 years of floundering in a polyglot wilderness. In this climate, my fictitious 227 clause didn't sound that implausible to some.

Bilingual education is, I think, something of a well-intentioned mess. In the global economy, the world village, languages are riches, multilingualism is an asset and English is its sine qua non. Trying to improve the teaching of English by having millions of Californians vote by broadsword, yes or no--as we've done before with property taxes, criminal justice, affirmative action, pesticides--may not be ideal, but it is the California Way.


There were big clues, that Halloween Eve in 1938, that it was just a radio show. Listeners only had to turn the dial and hear Benny Goodman, or Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen, and figure out that Martians had not landed.

There were clues in my column that this was parody. The headline read "Adios, Rancho Palos Verdes; Hello, Green Sticks Ranch." Not exactly the way to promote a "scoop."

If this "news" had been real, it wouldn't have run at the foot of the Metro section: It would have been front-page news for weeks in every paper, including the National Enquirer, which would have bewailed Leonardo DiCaprio having to anglicize his name.

But the e-mail that caught me up short was from a San Diego County woman asking whether it was real or a spoof: "I rarely read the small print in our election material. Maybe I should."

Maybe so. This isn't an application for a MasterCard. We're running a state here.

So I hope you've all settled down and relaxed.

Now I'm the one who's worried.


Patt Morrison's e-mail address is

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