I remember when The Onion was still available as a printed newspaper in the Twin Cities. I distinctively remember picking one up as a child and being perplexed, then giddy. One of the front page headlines was something to the effect of, “If Only Hamster Knew What Happened to Last Hamster”, with a color photo of a hamster eating a carrot. The other print newspapers which surrounded The Onion had headlines about the Bush administration, or about sports, or violence, or community goings-on. This one had a blurb about a hamster. The Onion didn’t immediately register to me as a parody of the other publications– just as a welcome dose of absurdity and playfulness which was wholly appealing. Completely oblivious to the satirical nature of the Onion, I began eagerly watching the news with my parents in the morning, hoping I could recreate the delighted surprise I experienced when reading about a doomed hamster.
As Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” trained people to recognize the horror that may be cloaked in thorough and rationalized arguments, my encounter with this hamster got me comfortable with laughing at things I thought were silly. If The Onion was going to run something whimsical, then by kid logic, every news station and printed newspaper must be doing the same, just though more complicated adult in-jokes. When I really put on my listening hat and picked through the serious for the absurd, I was laughing all the time. This subconsciously trained me to be better at seeing through bullsh*t. Likening a news story on politics to a story about a hamster made everything, suddenly, much clearer. The Onion accidentally became my political initiation.
These pockets of absurdity wake us up to the theater around us– not only making it more bearable, or acting like a salve, but revealing a deeper truth. Learning to laugh at bullsh*t makes you more keen on finding it.