A golden age of satire

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In 2012, The People’s Daily reported that Kim Jong Un had been voted the sexiest man alive. Quoting their source, The Onion, a little too extensively, the press organ of the Chinese Communist Party accounted for the newly-minted dictator’s triumph of beauty in a strange mix of terms: “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heart-throb is every woman’s dream come true.”  This praise is redolent, at once, of a Mills and Boon hero and what could be experienced at the cheesier end of match.com profiles.

When a man who, at best, has the chubby good looks of a young Rosie O’Donnell beats Depp, Pitt and Clooney to such an august title, most readers, you hope, would assume satire. Being generous, we could chalk up the assumption of fact to a cross-cultural crossing of wires. Or perhaps, in the wake of Gangnam style, to a vogue for haircuts that combine military precision with a party-boy attitude. More seriously and more significantly, though, The Onion can be seen as part of a flourishing satirical culture that finds spin-offs in The Daily Currant and a television equivalent in Stephen Colbert’s Bill O’Reilly-inspired persona. All draw on a tradition of satire that, in coming so close to its target, has the potential to be misinterpreted, at least by some, as fact.

The Kim Jong Un incident is only the most public instance of a much more widespread phenomenon, seen in the constant posting and sharing of Onion and Daily Currant articles on Facebook and the litany of outraged comments that follow headings like ‘Man Responsible For Olympic Ring Mishap Found Dead In Sochi’ (Daily Currant 8/2/14), which is likely to incur more rage than its playful counterpart, ‘Winter Olympics Inspire Nation’s Youth To Try Sports Their Parents Can’t Afford’ (The Onion 20/2/14) and more likely to be seen as factual, I think, than a headline from last week’s Onion: ‘German Leaders Quietly Confident They Could Pull Off Another Holocaust If They Ever Really Wanted’ (21/2/14).

Daniel Defoe

One of the earliest instances of this type of satire was Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, first published in 1702. As Colbert does with Fox News, Defoe did with High Church  clergymen and their Tory sympathisers. He impersonated their rhetoric, blaming Dissenters (members of Protestant sects outside the Church of England) for every upheaval, rebellion and revolution of the previous century. Defoe, one of the early exponents of the English novel, was himself a Dissenter, but The Shortest Way was published anonymously and so was taken by many to be a genuine contribution to contemporary debates on religious toleration. When Defoe was revealed to be the author, the backlash was so stark that he was arrested for seditious libel. Looking back on this episode, scholars are preoccupied by questions of genre that have interesting implications for Defoe’s modern-day inheritors.

There is an argument that Defoe’s pamphlet was intended as a hoax. This supposes a wide-scale inability to appreciate irony. And, indeed, in Defoe’s time there was a marked reluctance by many to read the pamphlet as completely ironic. Yet the term ‘hoax’ also suggests an intention to dupe, and so denies that the effectiveness of such arguments lies in the moment they are revealed as satirical.  A recent sociological study on Colbert’s viewers found that Conservatives are more likely to think that he is only pretending to be joking, using humour to couch positions he actually endorses. And so in our own time, when it comes to political humour we too have difficulty processing what I will call – for lack of a widely-accepted categorical term – deadpan ironic impersonation. There isn’t the implication that Colbert is trying to commit a hoax but there is, in some, an unwillingness to see him as purely ironic.

Unlike John Stewart’s The Daily Show or the Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live, which poke fun at the news events, The Onion and Colbert, following Defoe, take to task the form of delivery. Defoe was writing in the first age of the press where a fear of the spread of information was metaphorically realised as a plague-like contagion. With modern epidemics, the metaphor has shifted to a viral spread as a means of quantifying the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of information on the internet. But in both eras, new media are met with a breed of satire, which in its propensity to be taken as fact, exposes the excesses of said media. And so, at the very least, we can thank Rupert Murdoch for another golden age of satire.

*Marc Mierowsky [2011] is doing a PhD in English.

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