The Onion shows the power of critiquing through parody
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky continues his master class on resisting authoritarianism, but similar lessons are also available closer to home.
Last Saturday, a bridge linking Russia to Crimea was partially destroyed by a truck bomb, damaging a key Russian supply route and a symbol of Putin’s resolve to dominate Ukraine. The bridge is — was! — an engineering marvel, built after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. The 12-mile stretch is the longest bridge in Europe.
Shortly after the explosion created a fireball over the Kerch Strait, Zelensky gave his nightly update on the war. He ended his report to Ukraine and the world with a mock weather report. He declared that it was sunny throughout Ukraine but quipped that conditions were "cloudy in Crimea — but still quite warm.“
Imagine how that mockery must have rankled Russian President Vladimir Putin. His response came a full week later. He called for a special government commission to investigate the matter. (He then ordered a Kyiv schoolyard to be bombed in retaliation, but he’d already made his point.)
Eugene comedian Leigh Anne Jasheway links humor to stress reduction, telling her students, “If you can laugh at it, it can’t hurt you.” That might not be literally true for Zelensky, but Putin won’t be able to extinguish the courage of Ukraine’s people. They will have the last laugh.
Meanwhile, another police state can be studied near Cleveland. Anthony Novak in 2016 created a fake social media page, mimicking his local police department’s Facebook page. The Parma (Ohio) Police Department charged him with disrupting police operations, even though his parody page was up only for a few hours.
Novak was arrested, jailed, tried and acquitted. He then sued the police department for violating his free speech rights, testing the limits of qualified immunity for government agencies. The Institute for Justice, the civil rights law firm, described his case as “both humorous and very serious. If the police can use their authority to arrest their critics without consequence, everyone’s rights are at risk.”
Novak’s case is currently on the Supreme Court’s docket, prompting a hilarious and important Amicus Curiae by The Onion, a parody newspaper based in Chicago.
The brief wastes no time demonstrating its intent. It begins, “The Onion is the world’s leading news publication, offering highly acclaimed, universally revered coverage … [It] has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history, maintaining a towering standard of excellence to which the rest of the industry aspires.”
“The Onion cannot stand idly by in the face of a ruling that threatens to disembowel a form of rhetoric that has existed for millennia, that is particularly potent in the realm of political debate, and that, purely incidentally, forms the basis of The Onion’s writers’ paychecks,” the brief continues.
The 23-page brief ends with similar verve: “The Onion intends to continue its socially valuable role bringing the disinfectant of sunlight into the halls of power. See Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 67 (1976) And it would vastly prefer that sunlight not to be measured out to its writers in 15-minute increments in an exercise yard.”
It all reminds me of my decade-long tenure as publisher of the Comic News. We once endorsed John Kitzhaber over Bill Sizemore for governor after interviewing four expert stylists to determine which candidate had the better hair. It was a populist approach — giving people what they really want — just like war-weary Ukrainians really wish they could hear about their weather.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Wednesday and Sunday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at www.dksez.com. The Onion’s legal brief can be read at https://bit.ly/3Vphjvf