Our Surprisingly Spammy Century

OUR DUMB CENTURY By Scott Dikkers and the Staff of the Onion Three Rivers Press 164 pp., $15

Harvey Mansfield just might like the Onion. It definitely isn't politically correct, poking fun at blacks, Jews, gays, women, the rich, Asians, white trash, Hispanics, Muslims, foreigners, students, and basically everyone else who doesn't write for the Onion. But I wonder what he would think about a recent Onion articles like "Professors confirm binge drinking is fun" and "Wellesley no longer able to advertise 'hot all-girl action, all the time' on its website."

The Onion, in case you've a) been living under a rock for the past few years, or b) aren't from Wisconsin and haven't heard of it, is "America's finest news source." It's about the funniest thing going these days, definitely funnier than the Weekly Week and possessing a biting, ironic and absurd sense of humor to which Satire V can only aspire. Started by two University of Wisconsin students in 1988, the Onion got its name from the onion sandwiches on which its founders subsisted while short on cash during the publication's lean years. It now has a national circulation of more than half a million readers per week, and editor-in-chief Scott Dikkers was named one of the nation's top ten favorite writers by Rolling Stone. And they've recently released Our Dumb Century, which continues the Onion's tradition of hilarious spoofs.

Our Dumb Century parodies recent historical anthologies such as Harold Evans's The American Century. Thankfully the Onion isn't the one making the real history, for where would we be today if in 1955, as Our Dumb Century reports, Rosa Parks had said "screw this bus shit" and decided to take a cab instead? How would television audiences of the '60s have responded if they could have heard the real conversation during the moon landing, which went something like this:

TRANQUILITY: I abso-fucking-lutely am standing on the surface of the fucking moon. I am talking to you from the goddamned fucking moon. Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket.

HOUSTON: Holy shit.

TRANQUILITY: Holy mother of fuck. The fucking moon. Over.

Obviously, much of the Onion's humor is rather low brow. Its real comic brilliance in Our Dumb Century lies in the way it uses irony to expose the raw, humorous side of human affairs. Headlines such as "Stock Market Invincible" in 1929 and "Archduke Ferdinand Declares 'No Man Can Stop Me"' in 1913 show the follies of complacency and our confidence to predict or control the future. Also, much of the Onion has a very proletarian feel about it, exposing the rulers of society as they dominate the common people, as when Woodrow Wilson promises to "make the world safe for corporate oligarchy." Even some of the most inviolable struggles and achievements of our century don't escape the sharp wits of the Onion's writers, as Jackie Robinson's integration of base-ball is preceded by Edwin Miller's becoming the first white to play in the Negro Leagues and complaining about always having to stay in nicer hotels and enter through the front door.

To take one of the most visible figures of the most twentieth century, let's follow Our Dumb Century's coverage of the career of Adolph Hitler. In 1937, "Kampfy the Uberhund," the adorable anti-Semitic mutt, is introduced by the propaganda minister to make Jew hating fun for German boys and girls. Later in 1937, the headline reads "German Jews Concerned about Hitler's 'Kill All Jews' Proposal." Samuel Eisenstein is quoted in the article as saying, "Most of Chancellor Hitler's speech I agreed with, except for the part where he said that the Jews are a parasite race that has for 4,000 years made a practice of attaching itself to a host country and sucking it dry....I am beginning to sense that I am not welcome here." In 1939, the headline reads "Hitler Neutralizes Polish Menace: Europe relieved as Germans Lift Grim Specter of Polish Tyranny from Continent." In 1944, Our Dumb Century reports that Hitler interrupted his speech to say "'All I'm saying is, give peace a chance.' He whispered, his voice choked with emotion, 'War is over, if you want it.'"

For some reason, the articles since Nixon's presidency just don't seem quite as funny--maybe it's harder to laugh at something that happened in your own time. Then again, with articles such as "Homeless Catch on to 'Grunge' Trend" (describing a man without a job: "'Right now, I'm on disability,' he says, echoing the anti-mainstream, 'no sellout' ethos of bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana") and "New President Feels Nation's Pain, Breasts," maybe not.

Although I haven't seen the Onion anywhere on campus, they do ship to campuses all over the country. But, unless some-one wants to mount a campaign to bring the Onion to Harvard, you'll have to check it out online at www.theonion.com. Harvard even finds a place in Our Dumb Century, when John F. Kennedy calls himself not a powder puff but "Ich bin Ein Ivy-League playboy millionaire" and "Ich bin ein privileged, blue-blood Harvard man."