Pundits have declared irony dead, slain by the horror of September 11.
But the pundits are dead wrong--irony's healthier than a corn-slopped hog. These days it's free speech that's gasping for breath.
Consider Keith McHenry.
When the graphic designer was hired last April by the United Way of Tucson, he figured he could settle in, make some cash and discretely continue his 20-year career as co-founder of the national peace group Food Not Bombs.
But by late September the United Way had given him the boot, over fears that he would attend an October protest rally at Raytheon Missile Systems, on Tucson's south side.
Plenty of irony there: A Food Not Bombs leader meets one of America's biggest bomb makers, while working for the beneficiaries of Raytheon's philanthropic largesse.
In recent years, the missile giant and its employees have donated around $1 million per annum to the UW's charity umbrella.
So McHenry's plans did not set well with his bosses.
Not that his background is a secret; it's on his résumé.
One could argue these aren't the best of times for the United Way of Tucson. The charity organ recently took a media beating over violating its own policy, by sending truckloads of locally raised money out of state. And now the World Trade Center victims are draining its cash base. Thus, the UW's loafer-and-martini execs--notorious for sucking hefty salaries from public generosity--are getting downright worried.
"There was already a lot of frustration at the United Way by the time I was fired," McHenry says. "A lot of money was going to the September 11 fund, and we were losing our funding in Tucson for our programs here. The newspaper articles were having an impact, too.
"But the place that was giving us the most funding then, because of increased missile sales, was Raytheon."
McHenry says he spent much time with Raytheon workers, polishing up a fund-raising brochure for circulation among missile industry employees.
However, there was the problem of McHenry's left leanings. In an August job review, he was told to remove an arrest-bracelet mobile hanging in his cubicle, and a few vaguely political posters. He was also told to beef up his work hours. "I was already putting in nine-to-12-hour days," he says, "for $27,000 a year."
McHenry says he dutifully removed the political stuff. Not long after, he was called by an activist buddy to help feed peace protesters out at the Raytheon plant on October 13. McHenry says he quizzed a human resources staffer at United Way about whether he'd get in trouble for going.
"I thought I should make the situation clear to them. I didn't want it to become a surprise, or for them to think I was doing something behind their back and get fired," he says.
The human resources person "told me it would probably be a conflict of interest," he says. "She said she couldn't order me not to go, but suggested that I should not go because if anyone identified me as being a United Way employee attending that demonstration, it could adversely affect funding from Raytheon."
Three days later, McHenry and his colleagues received a memo from Ed Parker, president of the UW of Tucson. "It has come to my attention," Parker writes, "that some of you may be participating in a demonstration at Raytheon. ... While I would like to discourage you from picketing one of our biggest donors, it is your right as private citizens to do so."
However, "Any conduct which reflects negatively upon United Way or which adversely affects our relationships with any of our donors is cause for disciplinary action up to and including termination," Parker continued.
"I and the United Way's managers support your right to free speech," the president concluded.
Decoding that missive is like reading tea leaves in a bucket of lint. "I told my wife I got this memo, and we could go to the protest, and it wouldn't be a problem," McHenry says. "She looked at the memo and said, 'No, I don't think that's what it's saying at all.'"
Six days later--about three weeks before the peace rally--Keith McHenry was given these options: resign or be fired.
Attempts to contact Ed Parker for comment were unsuccessful. But the Tucson Weekly did reach Jill Figueroa, UW's director of communications. She said she couldn't comment on personnel matters.
Later the same day, however, Figueroa called the Weekly to suggest that we ask McHenry for his termination papers, which the Weekly did. "They didn't give me any papers when they fired me," McHenry replied.
Figueroa intimates that McHenry is lying, while offering no proof. But if McHenry is lying, what's he lying about? Again, Figueroa says she can't say.
Draw your own conclusions.
Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona ACLU, has a few conclusions of her own. "I think it's deplorable," she says. "I would certainly hate to see this become a pattern. The idea of patriotism ... in my view, is not simply marching in step with the current administration, or the majority, for that matter.
"I think the argument could be made that the highest ideal of patriotism is to want to make your country better. And if you see your country doing something you don't think is the best way to do something, then you have an obligation to stand up and speak."
Keith McHenry tried to fulfill that obligation. He was rewarded with a pink slip.