Wednesday, June 30, 2004

# Posted 11:23 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

PEELING THE ONION: How can you criticize a polemic for being one-sided? How can you criticize a satire for being unrealistic? This pair of rhetorical questions has come to serve as the first line of defense for Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11.

However, the answers to the these questions are, in fact, pretty straightforward. Even though argumentation is an inherent aspsect of polemics, taking a position does not entitle one to ignore the evidence and logic presentd by one's opponents.

Satire is subject to a similar, albeit more subtle standard. While it is hard to criticze an isolated bit of satire for being unfair or one-sided, a satirical work that employs the same caricatures and stereotypes over and over again may reinforce one's prejudices rather than opening one's mind.

Which brings us to The Onion. I love The Onion. I read it every week. But I laugh a lot less at The Onion's political humor than I do at its brilliant send-ups of America's social habits and popular culture.

The reason I laugh a lot less is that The Onion's political humor employs the same caricatures and stereotypes over and over again. Moreover, these satirical devices collectively form a coherent ideology that is both extremely elitist and extremely liberal.

To be frank, I have a lot more trouble with The Onion's elitism than I do with its liberalism. Liberalism is a good thing. Liberal ideals, both classical and modern, have contributed immeasurably to American political discourse. Yet The Onion's brand of elitism, when cloaked in humor, has the potential to breed a disturbing sort of cynicism.

This elitist cynicism is especially harmful when it interacts with The Onion's liberalism, because it results in a sort of embittered partisan politics that renders liberalism all but irrelevant to mainstream political debates.

On some occasions, it might be necessary to perform a comprehensive search of The Onion's archives in order to substantiate the accusations made above. Yet this week, the content of a single issue of The Onion provides more than enough evidence for the points I am trying to make.

The Onion presents Americans as ignorant, self-centered and conformist. Under "Latest Headlines", the first story The Onion presents is one entitled American People Ruled Unfit to Govern:
In a historic decision with major implications for the future of U.S. participatory democracy, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Monday that the American people are unfit to govern...

As a result of the ruling, the American people will no longer retain the power to choose their own federal, state, and local officials or vote on matters of concern to the public.
The article proceeds to detail how Americans' apathetic ignorance of basic facts renders them incapable of making informed decisions. As it often does, The Onion puts its own editorial position in the mouth of a scholar/pundit:
In spite of the enormous impact the ruling would seem to have, many political experts are downplaying its significance.

"It doesn't really change anything, to be honest," Duke University political-science professor Benjamin St. James said. "The public hasn't made any real contributions to the governance of the country in decades, so I don't see how this ruling affects all that much."
The theme of public ignorance returns in the very next headline, which reads "Hero Citizen Can Name All 50 States". The content of the article is fairly predictable, so The Onion doesn't get too many points for creativity here.

The obedient and conformist nature of the American public finds expression in an opinion column entitled "I Should Not Be Allowed To Say The Following Things About America". The basic message here is that only the mindless faith that the American public has in its leaders can explain public support for George Bush's idiotic foreign policy:
As Americans, we have a right to question our government and its actions. However, while there is a time to criticize, there is also a time to follow in complacent silence. And that time is now.

It's one thing to question our leaders in the days leading up to a war. But it is another thing entirely to do it during the occupation of a country...

Why do we purport to be fighting in the name of liberating the Iraqi people when we have no interest in violations of human rights—as evidenced by our habit of looking the other way when they occur in China, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Syria, Burma, Libya, and countless other countries? Why, of all the brutal regimes that regularly violate human rights, do we only intervene militarily in Iraq? Because the violation of human rights is not our true interest here. We just say it is as a convenient means of manipulating world opinion and making our cause seem more just.

That is exactly the sort of thing I should not say right now.
Well, so much for subtlety. The second opinion column in this week's Onion bears the optimistic title, "Hang In There! You Live In The Richest Nation In The World!" The author of the column asks
You know that old saying, "Life begins at 40"? Well, not in Sierra Leone! The life expectancy there is 38! I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto!

Did you know that the U.S. makes up only 4 percent of the world's population, yet we have a third of its automobiles and consume a quarter of its energy supply? Keep that in mind the next time you get passed over for that big promotion at work!
That first line about Sierra Leone is actually pretty funny, even if it is a knock-off the old Onion headline "Teenager in Burundi Has Mid-Life Crisis". Anyhow, the bottom line is that Americans just don't care about the tremendous suffering of the 5 billion men, women and children who live in the developing world. As long as they've got their Big Macs and their SUVs, they will believe Bush's lies and remain blissfully ignorant of the world around them.

If I were to defend The Onion at this point, I would argue on its behalf that its clever exaggerations identify and amplify serious defects in American civic life. But since I'm not defending The Onion, I am going to argue that reality in America is almost exactly the opposite of what The Onion describes.

As I've explained before, the American public actually has a very strong record of rational decision-making:
Before the 1980s, it was taken for granted that the American public had volatile and incoherent opinions about politics, both foreign and domestic. By extension, this volatility and incoherence rendered Americans vulnerable to manipulation by both the media and the government.

In the 1980s, scholars began to discover that the premise of volatility and incoherence had led public opinion researchers to rely on methods that created an impression of volatility and incoherence even when there was none. In contrast, the United States had a rational public that derived its opinions on current events from a fixed set of values and updated its opinions when new information became available to it.
This conclusion reflects the research of America's leading experts on public opinion, most importantly Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro.

On a related note, there is good evidence out there that instead of being passive conformists, Americans are extremely skeptical of anything their government says. Ever since Watergate and Vietnam, opinion polls have registered a sharp and continuing decline in the level of trust that Americans have in public institutions.

Interestingly, Americans have less faith in journalists than before, but still expect them to tell the truth far more often than politicians do. Perhaps that is why fewer and fewer Americans describe President Bush as honest and trustworthy.

In the final analysis, the skewered vision of American politics presented by The Onion may be clever, but instead of educating its audience, it reinforces misleading stereotypes that embittered elitist use to justify their pessimism about America's thriving democracy.
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