The Internet is going through a minor uproar (its default state) over the Tina Fey sheetcake video. Twitter hashtag #sheetcaking is a thing, mostly by people (as of last night) who say that Fey’s “position” comes from white and wealthy privilege. Either that, or Tina Fey is a brilliant metatextual satirist.
I don’t entirely disagree with the latter point; Tina Fey is a smart cookie and I doubt that she missed the historical resonances of “let us eat cake.” But both of these points of view completely miss what she did say.
She did not mock Nazis. She did not mock Nazi sympathizers. What she said was, “It is so blindingly obvious that all of you are rightly upset about Nazis and Nazi sympathizers that I’m going to poke fun at how we’re coping with those chinless turds.” It’s a message of inclusion—but only to antifascists, which Fey rightly assumes to be damn near everyone.
“But she told people to stay home!” Yes, she did. Let’s even give you the benefit of the doubt, and not say “she’s a comedian” or “she meant that satirically.” Let’s unpack that.
As I write this, there are approximately 50–100 “free speech attendees” (it’s unclear to me whether they identify as “alt-right” or neo-Nazi or whatever, but they’re clearly sympathetic) in Boston, literally surrounded by 20,000 counter-protestors. 200–1. That’s a good turnout, a good ratio, makes for excellent news coverage of our side, makes the “alt-right” look pathetic.
There are 4.7 million people in Boston metro. Assuming the crowd is all locals (which is certainly not true of the “alt-right” people they’re protesting), that’s a turnout under 0.43%.
On January 21, when the Women’s Marches across the country got more people to show up than in pretty much ever, estimates were over 4,000,000. That’s about 1.2% of the country.
SNL Summer Edition got 6.5 million viewers the week before Fey’s broadcast, and that was before she went ridiculously viral on the Internet. As I write this, SNL’s YouTube clip has been viewed just under 4.5 million times. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other copies generating their own views. And it’s Saturday afternoon, 36 hours after broadcast; there’s still the rest of the weekend.
Are those 15–20 million viewers going to take Fey literally and be less likely to show up at a protest? I think that’s pretty damned unlikely, but let’s say yes. 98.8–99.6% of them weren’t going to show up anyway. But all of them are primed with the belief, “It is so damned obvious that Nazis are despicable that I’m laughing with people who are laughing at them.” How do you think these people will react when fascist sentiment is aired in their communities?
Protests aren’t about absolute numbers. You want enough people to be numerous for the venue; don’t put 100 people into a stadium, or underpopulate your inauguration compared to somebody else’s. If it’s a counter-protest, it’s nice to have more people than the other side. But the big thing, the key number, is “enough people so people hear what we’re saying.”
There’s no benchmark for that. 400 fascists showed up in Charlottesville, and we’re all talking about how much we hate them. (And yes, that means that some baby protofascists might be getting exposed to them that way; this is why they must also hear louder ridicule.) 250,000 antiwar activists turned out to protest the Iraq War nationwide in 2003 and didn’t get on the nightly news.
It’s not about who’s there, it’s about who hears about you. And usually, it’s not about making the other side look wrong, it’s about making the other side look ridiculous. You literally can’t be taken seriously when everyone’s laughing at you. Trump supporters can argue that they’re right forever and a day against all evidence; bring up the inauguration, though, and they have to lie about the numbers and say the pictures are fake, because we all know what an empty Mall says about Trump.
Yes, we must turn out in counter-protest against Nazis, fascists, and not to put too fine a point on it, Republicans. Which we’re doing. Tina Fey is fighting the other front in this war of ideas. We can’t win unless she does.
Correction: Boston police reported at 5:30 that the crowd was 40,000, not 20,000.