Now spinning in his grave: John Peter Zenger

Just a short note from me today to let you know that Issue #8 of The American Bystander, the print humor magazine quixotically edited and published by Michael Gerber, dropped a few weeks ago, featuring (as usual) excellent work from various alumni of National Lampoon, Spy, SNL, and The New Yorker. You can snag a copy for yourself here — and wouldn’t a gift subscription, along with a bottle of scotch, be a nice idea for the holidays?

American Bystander #8 was almost the issue that wasn’t — a peculiar victim of the culture wars. Though much of the humor in the Bystander resembles an Allan Sherman LP rather than a Redd Foxx party album, it seems to have gotten caught up in our changing times. In an October post on the more exclusive, cultured arena of Facebook, Gerber explained a bit of a problem he was having with his printer (and let it be said that the Bystander is a lovingly produced publication). I’ll let him take it from here:

“Here’s a snapshot of how things are changing in America:

“Yesterday I called a printer in the suburbs of Chicago to get an estimate on printing The American Bystander, the humor magazine I’ve edited since 2015. For the past three years, we’ve been printed by a big outfit in Tennessee, but since the beginning of 2017, they’ve been acting strangely — jacking up our price, taking forever to print jobs, and in general acting like they didn’t want my business — which is weird, because I’ve worked with them since 2003 and given them at least $50,000 in work.

“But whatever. Relationships change. So I called a new printer, recommended by a colleague, to get a quote. I’d sent him a copy of one of our issues to see if he could match what we’re doing.

“When the guy picked up, he was as nice as pie. ‘I gotta tell you,’ he said, ‘this magazine looks great. Really funny, too.’

“‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘We have some wonderful folks. New Yorker, SNL, Simpsons people.’

“‘I saw that,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, we can’t print it.’

“‘Why not? Is it the format?’

‘”No, our presses can do it, it’s just — well, this is a family-owned business, and the family, they’re really Christian, and… I don’t think they’d approve.’

“I was really surprised. As print humor magazines go, Bystander is definitely closer to George Saunders than Brett Kavanaugh. ‘Wow, [name hidden to preserve the innocent]. That is the first time anyone’s ever said that. Was there anything in particular in issue #5 that — ‘

‘”No, no, it was nothing in particular,’ he said, audibly squirming. This wasn’t any more fun for him than it was for me. ‘It’s just … We have high school kids working here — I mean, I would print it. I thought it was great. It’s just that the owners — if they found out, it would be my job.’ He paused, feeling lame. ‘The kids — ‘

“He seemed like a good guy, so I put him out of his misery. I said I understood, and ended the call.

“I remember the first printer I ever met, a fellow named Roland Hoover at Yale University Press. There was a sign in Roland’s office, a beautifully typeset Benjamin Franklin quote: ‘If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.’

“These were my type of people.

“Through Roland I met other printers, and generally fell in with the letterpress/printing cult that existed at Yale at the time … . At The Yale Herald newspaper and then The Yale Record humor magazine I met other printers, at presses throughout Connecticut.

“I loved these guys. Some were intellectual, some were not; some were deeply embedded in Yale, others were third-generation Sicilian-Americans like me. But all of them shared one thing: they were clear about the role of printing in our history, and fiercely, fiercely protective of a free press in America. The idea that any of them would’ve turned down a job because it didn’t fit with their religion was preposterous. They were printers, and as such, committed to the spread of ideas.

“Perhaps more than any other common characteristic, Trump and Trumpists fear ideas. They couch this fear in a million ways — they hide behind propriety, they hide behind ‘What about the children?’, they complain about libel and slander, they squawk that their religious freedom is being infringed upon. But the bottom line is — whether it’s global warming data or a cartoon that shows a naked bottom — they believe that the proper response to an idea that makes you uncomfortable is to ignore it. Suppress it. Deny it.

“Of course anyone with a cursory knowledge of history can tell you that this strategy is 1) impossible and 2) never ends well for anybody. But then again, that’s easily solved: don’t learn any history.

“But printers? Now printers fear ideas? I’ve stewed about that phone call for a day now. It worries me.”


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