Several years ago, everyone had a big hoot when it was reported that some Chinese newspaper had republished a satirical story from The Onion as if it was actual news.
The piece in question — “Congress Threatens To Leave D.C. Unless New Capitol Is Built” — was quite funny, and used a thinly-veiled political metaphor to make a point about spoiled professional athletes who whine about stadiums. Among other things, it “quoted” the Speaker of the House complaining that “there aren’t enough concession stands or bathrooms” in the current “drafty old building” housing the United States Congress, and had Donald Rumsfeld scolding that “visitor attendance has dropped every year since 1989.”
If DC won’t give us a world-class facility, adds Senator Santorum, “I can think of plenty of other cities that would be more than happy to.”
Now countries do relocate their capital cities from time to time (Iran’s considering doing it right now, for instance) and one can possibly understand a long allegory about American sport culture going over the head of the Chinese. But at the same time, what made this particular Onion plagiarism story so hilarious was the almost implausible notion that anyone, anywhere, could possibly take seriously such a brazenly silly story. But the Chinese didn’t end up being alone. Since the stadium story, there have been numerous other instances of “serious” (usually foreign) media outlets uncritically regurgitating other Onion nonsense, and you can now browse numerous blogs devoted to documenting instances of gullible idiots on Facebook getting similarly fooled.
The success of the Onion has bred a lot of copycat fake-news sites, run by editors who hope to someday bamboozle the public in similarly spectacular fashion. But what’s increasingly forgotten is that such fooling was never the central purpose of the site — merely an amusing side-effect. These days it seems the pursuit of deception, often unfunny, pointless deception, is starting to eclipse everything else these amateur satire news sites do — including provide satire.
I’m big enough to admit I was recently fooled by one such site. Right after Nelson Mandela died, a site called The Daily Currant ran a piece about Kanye West claiming to be a bigger deal than the late South African. It featured Kanye saying, in typically Kanye-y language, that even though he had “mad respect” for Mandela, he was “well on my way towards being the next great black leader.” I mean, “I’m already worshiped around the world. And there’s more to come.” I was offended, and tweeted out a link.
I thought it was serious because it read like a fairly straight news story. Given some of the gallingly egotistical things Kanye’s said in the past, particularly regarding his own historic importance, it didn’t seem unreasonable at all to imagine that the guy might be nuts enough to mention his own name in the same breath as one of the 20th century’s most consequential civil rights leaders.
But that’s the thing — effective satire should be slightly unreasonable. “Kanye goes too far” is already reality. We already live in a universe where that’s true. Simply repeating that fact through a fictional story is neither funny nor thought-provoking — the two central goals of effective satire.
The same critique could be levelled against another bit of “satire” that’s been making the rounds lately, a story from a site called the Diversity Chronicle under the headline “Pope Francis condemns racism and declares that ‘all religions are true’ at historic third Vatican Council.” Though a bit more over-the-top than the Kayne piece, it suffers from many of the same faults. Neither outrageous nor funny, it simply repeats a lot of what we already know — the current Pope is quite liberal, he’s prone to rhetorical bouts of sympathetic relativism in regards to atheists and non-Catholics, and such outreach tends to offend some of the hardliners in his flock. The words the article puts in the Pope’s mouth are only very gently exaggerated versions of the sorts of things the man is already saying, and if anything, read more as the author’s serious, liberal fantasies rather than anything approximating humor.
I remember once reading an article by Scott Addams, the creator of Dilbert, where he stated that all good jokes being with premises that take at least two steps into the extreme. In other words, rather than Kanye calling himself better than Nelson Mandela, which is only one small step worse than what he’s doing now, it would be funnier and sharper if, say, he jealously scheduled his own funeral on the same day as Mandela’s and then told the world “you have to choose.” Likewise, saying the Pope considers all religions true in the hearts of their believers is only one step further than his current message of non-denominational tolerance. Having the Pope resign and convert to Unitarianism because he’s sick of pretending you can actually “know” anything about the universe, man — well, now you’re getting somewhere.
There’s always been a thin line between satire and slander, but in an era where a thousand would-be Onions are salivating with hope that their fake story will be the next viral hit, it’s worth remembering that there’s a thin line between satire and lying, too. There’s nothing artful, creative, insightful, or respectful about making up junk simply for the sake of duping others. It’s cruel and nihilistic, in fact, and every major religion has rules against it for a reason.
Yet we can forgive lying (as we can forgive most moral vices) if it’s done with a purpose, and much of what talented satirists like The Onion do obviously has a purpose: absurdist humor and social commentary. They exaggerate, overstate, warp, or combine true elements of our world into hilarious or grotesque caricatures in order to make us realize the comparable screwiness of real life. The alternative — to lie without exaggeration or purpose — achieves the precise opposite. It fosters sympathy for the present and makes reality seem just slightly more underwhelming.
It also gives the reader no reason to come back for more. Those looking to be the next Onion should keep that fact particularly in mind.