‘If you didn’t have x, you’d have to invent it.” This is maybe my favorite truism in the English language. It tends to get at otherwise ineffable insights about the intrinsic coherence of the world, about its underlying telos. If the European order didn’t have Switzerland, for instance, it would have to invent it. Everything about Switzerland, from its deeply entrenched political neutrality to its unique banking sector, from its multilingualism to its strategically important location, has made it critical to the unfolding of Europe qua Europe. The history of that continent, and of the world, just wouldn’t be the same if Switzerland weren’t exactly the way it is. Put another way, Switzerland fills a vital niche in an ecosystem, and if it weren’t around to fill that niche, something else would have to, or the system would collapse. (“American exceptionalism” in its many guises is built on a similar assumption, mutatis mutandis.)
But that’s not quite all that the phrase evokes. “If you didn’t have x, you’d have to invent it” also frequently implies that the x in question somehow stands apart from the system in which it nevertheless plays a vital role: that by being radically different from all the other pieces, it renders them a whole. There’s certainly something like that going on in the Switzerland/Europe and America/World Order examples.
Our current culture, with its supremely self-serious and patently absurd polls in politics and celebrity, has for more than a decade had its own Switzerland — an institution that is essential to the coherence of the system but that simultaneously stands apart from it. It’s called The Onion, and even when you disagreed with it or hated it, you could count on it — especially during a long and glorious peak that stretched from just after September 11, 2001 (The Onion’s first week in New York City!), to roughly 2010, when management changes and staff turnover started to erode the brand — for its gonzo integrity and its refusal to honor conventional distinctions between the sacred and the profane. These were the characteristics that made The Onion such a capable skewerer of the frivolity, ridiculousness, decadence, and depravity to be found in the nooks and crannies of the American experience. (Full disclosure: I interned and then wrote features and columns for The Onion’s entertainment section from 2006 to 2010, though my involvement in the comedy side was marginal.)
Sometimes, it goes too far. I queasily recall a picture it ran a few weeks after troubled model Anna Nicole Smith’s fatal overdose. It showed a gravesite and, under it, a caption: “Anna Nicole Smith finally reaches target weight.” That’s a grotesque, fist-to-the-stomach joke, in as bad taste as you can get without inviting a hate-crime prosecution. But it also gets at a depressing reality about the dark connections between self-image and self-abuse in America. And, six years later, I remember it.
Then there is The Onion’s now-infamous Twitter “joke” on Oscar night, in which a nameless writer called the nine-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis the C word. The tweet was both base and unfunny, and it deserved all the shouting-down it got from both Left and Right. (That is, after all, the other side of free speech.) Worst of all, it was pointless. It didn’t tell us, and barely even attempted to gesture at, anything interesting or insightful about the media or celebrity. I suppose it can be understood, as a former Onion writer hypothesized, as a take on “tabloid extremism,” but, as he rightly added, it was “an extremely high risk move [that] missed that target by wide margin. Limited upside. Horrible downside.”
Still, while I think the joke was both comedically and normatively irredeemable, and the anger at it justified, I don’t like the precedent set by Onion, Inc., when CEO Steve Hannah wrote the kind of platitudinous and panicky corporate apology letter that The Onion would normally satirize, and managed to come off as spineless and condescending at the same time:
On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive — not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.
. . . We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.
In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.
Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.
I don’t like it, because apologizing for jokes, even — or especially — the ones that are the most “crude and offensive,” is un-Onion-like behavior. In fact, it’s positively anti-Onion behavior. It does violence to the very spirit that makes The Onion The Onion — the thing that renders it able to stand apart from and thus contextualize our culture — and it is going to make hardcore fans wonder from now on whether every punch is being pulled. Just as you don’t ask Batman to fill out police reports, if The Onion is yoked with the same PC strictures as the rest of us, then who will tell us, with poignancy and bile, when the PC strictures have gone too far?
The parody apology from the people at Thing X, a nebulous project undertaken by a group of ex-Onion writers upset at the paper’s new direction, suggests an answer. In it, the writers apologize “to anyone who’s ever been offended by anything at any point throughout time.”
“To be challenged in any way,” they go on, “or made to feel an emotion that is not immediately recognizable, is the worst thing in the world, and something for which the incredible human gift of language should never, ever be used.”
If we don’t have The Onion any more, the writers seem to be saying, then we’ll have to invent it.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.