The Onion. It’s a paragon of modern journalism. Or something. Say what you will about The Onion, it’s long been a source of entertainment for me, and I in fact used to be a genuine, delivery to mailbox, Onion subscriber, although no longer, because, well, they have a website, and I rarely check my mail anyway.
What’s starting to disturb me, though, is that it’s starting to get harder and harder to tell the difference between actual news headlines and The Onion. Things that I am pretty sure I saw in The Onion not that long ago are suddenly showing up, pretty much word for word, in real headlines. Which I think says a lot about where we are heading as a society, that things we now accept at face value were once thought so ludicrous and ridiculous that they were used for parody headlines in a joke news publication.
And, oddly enough, it seems like The Onion is also including more embedded social commentary than ever before. Yes, its features are still parodies, but there’s a scathing indictment that sticks out in some of them, a nod to something deeper in society. When it runs a feature making fun of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, for example, making the patent ridiculousness behind certain highly pervasive social attitudes very transparent to readers, it also seems like there’s an embedded question. ‘What are you doing about this,’ The Onion asks me. ‘You think it’s ridiculous and awful, but are you doing anything? Or are you just sitting here in righteousness over your parody newspaper?’
I am beginning to feel, more and more now, that society is becoming almost a parody of itself. Things I would have thought unimaginable, from freedom fries to people seriously, straight-facedly, suggesting that people come to the United States specifically to get pregnant and have ‘anchor babies,’ are now common and they’re widely integrated into society. Certainly, I can and do make fun of these things, but that doesn’t cover up the awful that comes along with them, the social attitudes that they are embodying.
President Obama was recognised with a Nobel Peace Prize in part, it was suggested, to encourage him to work on foreign policy issues more, and also because of what he represented to the United States. Just electing him changed our position on the global stage pretty radically, made a lot of countries that were not very impressed with us start taking us seriously, brought up the possibility of perhaps rehabilitating our image in the eyes of the rest of the world.
And it’s no fault of Obama, but I’m not sure any of that has been realised. The United States is slipping deeper and deeper into a strange fantasy dreamworld parody, and there’s not a lot he can do about that as ideas are whipped up from all corners and thrown in the ring to terrify, control, frighten. As people use very familiar and well established rhetoric to prop up very old and very tired ideas. The collapse of our economy and accompanying global financial problems has created an opening for some really bizarre things, as economic panics always do, and suddenly, the pages of The Onion are coming to life and I’m as likely to see something in the New York Times as I am anywhere else.
The blur between real and fake news already feels exacerbated, thanks to the way the media handles and processes world as well as local events, and the way that clearly false information gets sucked up into the media whirlwind and spat back out as fact. The deliberate obfuscations created by people who have a vested interest in perpetuating certain myths certainly doesn’t help; we need only look to the alarmingly large percentage of the country that genuinely believes the President is Muslim to see how pervasive certain ideas can become without all that much nudging.
Sometimes I wonder if people in the rest of the world are looking at our news events and just kind of laughing, because they are so ludicrous, or becoming deeply terrified, because so many of them are also so frightening. I look, for example, at the evolution of security measures in US airports and I am reminded of joking Onion infographics about security scares. I think about how I looked at those and thought ‘haha, that would never happen, but that is pretty funny,’ and now these things are just…standard. To be expected. Completely normal, when passing through an airport, to be x-rayed and patted down and forced to take off your shoes and to carry liquids in little clear containers for fear you might try to blow up a plane with them.
And I wonder how it was that I missed all of these things while they were happening. Was it really just a subtle moving of the goalposts, a gradual shift that landed us here? Was there really no turning point where we as a nation decided ‘ok, it’s time to bring The Onion to life’? It seems impossible that we should have allowed ourselves to get this far, to enter this parody world, yet, somehow, we have.
This, of course, also leads me to ask what we can do about it. How we can escape the world we have created for ourselves. The thing about social regression is that it’s very hard to roll back. It can take generations to move the goalposts back to where they were, let alone to shift society altogether into a more reasonable place. And, as I watch this country becoming an increasingly frightening place, I start to wonder if I am willing to stick around fighting for that to happen.