American politics are getting more Onion-ish. People are mistaking stories from the brilliant parodic newspaper The Onion for "real" news with what seems like growing frequency.
Recently, Louisiana Rep. John Fleming (R) posted on Facebook an Onion article about Planned Parenthood's proposed multiplex abortion mall and movie theater. He realized his mistake, but not before a few friends got fooled, and another noted his error.
Here, I've interspersed Onion headlines with real things--things that prominent public figures really said, or things that really happened. See if you can tell the difference (an answer key is provided below).
1. SANTORUM COMPARES OBAMA TO RISE OF HITLER
2. PROVISIONS HIDDEN IN OBAMACARE PERMIT OBAMA TO CREATE PRIVATE ARMY
3. APPARENTLY SICK OF PC STANDARDS, PUBLISHER RELEASES STORIES FOR BOYS AND PINK-COVERED STORIES FOR GIRLS
4. OBAMA CRITICIZED FOR LIVING IN LAVISH MANSION WHILE MOST AMERICANS STRUGGLE TO MAKE ENDS MEET
5. CANDIDATE TURNS TO FOCUS GROUP FOR POSITION ON RAPE
6. IN WAR ON RELIGION, OBAMA BANS FEDERAL OFFICIALS FROM SAYING 'MERRY CHRISTMAS'
7. UNMARRIED CONGRESSMAN ADMITS TO SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP
8. PRESIDENTIAL CONTENDER BLASTS PEOPLE WHO FUND HAWAII VACATIONS WITH FOOD STAMPS
9. GOP REP SAYS "KILLING A COUPLE" OF SENATORS MIGHT BE ONLY WAY TO GET BUDGET DONE
10. TIME COVER ON AMERICAN LATINOS FEATURES HALF-CHINESE MAN
11. CONGRESS HOLDS WEEKEND TRUST-BUILDING RETREAT
12. DEMOCRATIC GOVERNORS SAY GOP AGENDA IS: "BACK TO THE DARK AGES"
See what I mean? It's getting harder to stake out confidently the boundary between the parodic and sincere.
It seems effortless, but a lot of instantaneous, almost reflexive work happens when we read a parody.
For one thing being "in on the joke" requires trust. In a parody-competent culture, a pro-lifer trusts and knows enough about their opponents to recognize instantly that Planned Parenthood wouldn't set up an abortion mall; a feminist trusts and knows that a politician wouldn't hold a focus group on rape.
But what if we were so estranged, extreme, and pre-sorted that we didn't have this knowledge, curiosity, contact and trust with each other? What if we mostly just consumed political material that was finely-calibrated to our niched views, in order to get re-appalled each evening at the inscrutable alien-ness of the other side? Then the boundary between parodic and sincere gets fuzzy. From this list, my husband thought the focus group on rape was real and I can understand why, since it has the feel of verisimilitude, given the current political climate.
Getting the joke also requires a center. I don't just mean an ideological center. I mean a consensus normalcy of universally-shared reference points and cultural fluency-a "mental commons." Only the existence of this shared center makes an exaggeration legible as exaggeration. Without it, even Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (1729) for cannibalizing Irish babies could get mistaken for truth. The center establishes decency, lines that aren't crossed, and things that aren't accused, said, advocated, or endorsed.
Comparing any political opponent to Hitler, for example, used to be a thing that simply wasn't done, but not so much anymore. Humanist and scientific reason used to be the preferred lingua franca of the commons, but not so much anymore, since politicians now derisively identify these discourses exclusively with a sub-culture of secular liberals and "elites."
Imagine a Venn diagram. One circle is Occupy Wall Street environmentalist, feminist progressives in Greenwich Village, and the other is fundamentalist, pro-personhood-amendment social evangelicals in Mississippi. The space where the two circles overlap is the sliver of a commons.
Parody is fascinating, because it aims to expose dissension, power inequality, and conflict, but from the stance of that imagined commonweal, or principles and texts that we share. Linguist Mary Louise Pratt calls parody the art of the "contact zone."
This makes parody more complex and culturally valuable than mockery. It's more sophisticated than ridiculing people for what you take to be, depending on your side, their godlessness, depravity, and narcissism, or their stupidity, theocratic zealotry, and intolerance.
These put downs are ubiquitous. Read the "comments" section of any article, and you'll despair for the future of democracy as well as grammar, manners, and spelling.
More skilled comedians can deliver the put-downs humorously enough. Jon Stewart gets called a satirist, but he's not a satirist so much as an adroit, amusing mocker of (mostly) non-liberals for liberal audiences. His jokes are mostly "in the family:" They're directed to the liberal sub-circle of the Venn diagram, or yelled across the cultural faultline to the other.
Appreciating Stewart's jokes most often requires only that we see, and agree, that non-liberals are bizarre. Parody in contrast involves reciprocal mockery. Disarmingly, it implicates everyone. We have to see that not only is the other side bizarre, but that we're amusingly weird ourselves. "Getting" the Planned Parenthood spoof requires that pro-abortion rights advocates recognize their mall-friendly consumer rhetoric of choice and that they're perceived as endorsing abortion factories, and they must be able to hear this without going ballistic about how "it's not funny." For pro-life readers to get it, they must realize that Planned Parenthood wouldn't do something so callous. Their sense of a shared commons, even with their foe Planned Parenthood, must be functional.
When parody works, both sides recognize themselves. They're momentarily united in laughing at a joke that skewers them, made decipherable by their shared standard of common sense.
Parody reminds us that, as much as we may feel that the other side is nuts and full of it, somewhere, somehow... the center still holds.
I just hope it survives the 2012 elections.
4, 5, 7, and 11 are Onion headlines. The rest are actual statements, or happenings. Gingrich gave us #6 and #8, from the campaign trail. Rep. John Sullivan made the #9 comment. Republican columnist from Florida Victoria Jackson provided #2. The "Dark Ages" comment comes from Democrats at the National Governor's Association Meeting. Santorum (#1) likened Obama's administration to the rise of Hitler.