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“Onion stops publishing satire,” reports Matt Stulberg, a writer for The Squirrel, citing The Onion‘seditor, Cole Bolton, and his newfound believe that the Onion has “done more harm than good” (“Onion”). Stulberg goes on to quote several Onion contributors as saying that they “honestly didn’t think people would believe this shit” and that they “didn’t realize the irreparable damage [they] were inadvertently doing to the nation” (“Onion”). It seems that the makers of the famous satirical website have had a change of heart about their chosen professions, realizing that satire is indeed detrimental to public discourse. The Squirrel, in which Matt Stulberg published this breaking news, is, of course, another satirical publication, this one produced by a group of students at Susquehanna University. His February 29 article about the Onion’s abdication of the Satirical Throne is a discussion of the genre itself, pointed at the Onion’s ill-informed audience that often is tricked into believing its “stories,” generating scorn and ill-placed anger. Stulberg is asking a simple question: is satire useful in the public sphere?
Jürgen Habermas theorized that there exists a democratized sphere of public discourse in which all ideas are supported by their own merit, not the authority of their owners, and that it works to engage the general public in matters of public concern, matters previously left to the oligarchs and aristocrats in power. In Habermas’s own words, the public sphere is “the sphere of private people come together to form a public…to engage [public authorities] in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the…sphere of commodity exchange and social labor” (Habermas, 27). Simply put, the public sphere exists as a place for individuals to communicate their arguments in the broader context of society. It’s the space occupied by Town Hall meetings and online forums, but it’s also the space that some would argue has been hijacked by satirists and political commentators. The fact of the matter is: satire has become a popular form of entertainment. The genre has so permeated the public sphere that it is being emulated at the college level. In some ways, The Squirrel steps in for the family in Habermas’s discussion of the public sphere. He argues that the family “provided the training ground for a critical public reflection still preoccupied with itself” (Habermas, 29), meaning generally that as the family read together and talked together, it bred new constructs and developed skills for arguments that could later be applied in a broader sense to the public at large. Just as the family can be seen as a sort of proto-public sphere, The Squirrel acts as a sort of proto-satire-sphere, a small practice focused on the inner workings of a college campus but looking outward to critiques on the larger world. The emergence of The Squirrel on campus, and its later usage in social commentary, is both a reflection of other satirical sites like The Onion and a projection of the public sphere on campus, discussing ideas in ways similar to both traditional and postmodern genres of satire.
Websites like The Onion and The Squirrel and TV shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show represent constructs within the greater public, constructs that both inform and polarize their audiences. The television programs listed here impersonate real news programs in a genre Lisa Colletta would call “postmodern satire,” meaning that they “den[y] a difference between what is real and what is appearance…even embraces incoherence and lack of meaning” (Colletta, 856). Essentially, this means that postmodern satirists ironically take on the persona or the image of the subject they are criticizing. For Jon Stewart and his successor Trever Noah on The Daily Show, this means presenting stories as would a news organization such as Fox News, which they both have relentlessly bashed on air. For Steven Colbert, this means adopting an obviously biased, usually conservative, outlook to parody Fox News’s “fair and balanced”—a “no-fact-zone” instead of Fox’s “no-spin-zone.” The Onion and The Squirrel, on the other hand, represent more of what Colletta would call traditional satire. The irony here is in “expos[ing] the space between what is appearance” (Colletta, 856), that is, what is true and what should be true. Stulberg’s article, then, satirizes The Onion’s audience, revealing the irony in the fact that many people fail to get the website’s joke—it should be that a satirical website’s audience understands satire, but it isn’t always true. This article does have a hint of the postmodern to it, in that it possesses a dimension of meta-satire—satire of satire written in the satirical form of another satirical publication—just as The Onion itself takes on the appearance of an actual news website, writing with the voice and form of a trusted newspaper. Matt Stulberg’s satiric attack on The Onion is a direct response to satire’s reliance on “the ability of the audience to recognize the irony that is at the heart of its humor” (Colletta, 860). By quoting Ben Berkley as saying, “I started to worry about our ability to influence people around the time I nearly started a riot when I wrote a story about President Obama admitting to lip syncing the state of the union address” (“Onion”), Stulberg is admitting that satire is often misread, just as Colletta’s suggests. Yet Colletta would read this, in exaggeration, as a catastrophic failure of the genre
Often, The Squirrel “reports” on Onion-like, broad themes such as “Tickle-me Vader Toys Recalled for Choking Hazard” (Codner) and “Angsty Teenager Compares Life to Struggles in Syria” (Krinick) but, as a campus-based publication, it also leans toward stories closer to home. There are articles titled “Professor Forgets Password, Advisees Plunged into Chaos” and “College Student Psyching Herself Up for ‘Really Awesome’ Nap Tomorrow” (Miller). The majority of the articles on The Squirrel’s front page are more akin to the latter, setting the website mostly in the sphere of a small, liberal arts college focused on the issues related to this sort of closed society. The articles are short, often just a few paragraphs, and are written in the style of a real news publication. They often quote experts and tend to write sentences in a matter-of-fact, newscaster tone such as Caroline Miller’s statement: “In an exclusive interview with The Squirrel, Susquehanna University sophomore Maggie O’Donnel reports…” (Miller). The Squirrel reads like a reliable news source, effectively mimicking what Colletta would call “the appearance” of, say, CNN’s website, just as The Colbert Report mimics televised news.
And yet, The Squirrel has the added depth of mimicking The Onion’s style, often using it as a guide and sometimes, as in the case of Stulberg’s article, directly referencing it. The websites are visually very similar, featuring multiple articles on the front page with stock photos and outrageous headlines. Their targeted issues are similar as well. Compare “Kasich Trying to Find Other States Where He is Beloved Multi-term Governor” (Onion) to “The Mass Deportation of a New Population: Trump Supports” (“Deportation”). But where The Squirrel differentiates itself from its big brother is when it occasionally dips into local politics, acting as a direct function of the Susquehanna community or, at the very least, as a participant. An October 28, 2015 article, also penned by Matt Stulberg, throws The Squirrel into the Great Mascot Debate. Here, Stulberg quotes a “university official” as saying that the school wishes to continue its traditional values of the “oppression and dominance of the white man” (“Mascot”). He continues by listing the proposed replacement mascots: the Gestapo and the Klansmen (“Mascot”). What exactly is being satirized here? It could be read that Stulberg is taking up the battle cry of the outraged social activist, satirizing the perceived symbolism of the Crusader mascot itself as the Christian conqueror most attribute it to be. Then again, it could be that Stulberg is taking the opposing position, suggesting that the Crusader is nothing like these other examples—the Gestapo and the Klansmen—and that the “political correctness” police are in fact overreacting. Satire, by its very nature, obscures the problem as much as it overemphasizes it, often favoring ridiculousness to clarity. Lisa Colletta worries that postmodern satire “actually undermine[s] social and political engagement, creating a disengaged viewer [or reader] who prefers outsider irreverence to thoughtful satiric critique” (Colletta, 859). It could be said, then, that Mr. Stulberg’s references to Nazis and American racists unnecessarily inflates the issue, that what makes it funny isn’t that it produces poignant criticism but that it so successfully makes the name change ridiculous. The satire here, as well as in many other places, could be read from both sides of the PC argument, giving it a mass appeal and dulling the point. The meaning behind satire depends on who “gets it,” allowing it tochange sides accordingly.
Satire’s ability to be misread and apply to both sides of the argument is both a function and a detriment to its effectiveness in the public sphere. Habermas values a public sphere if it discusses issues of “common concern” (Habermas 36). Surely, satire in general, and The Squirrel in particular, does this. By giving a satiric argument that can be taken in two ways, Mr. Stulberg’s article stimulates this discussion by not visibly taking a side. As he presents “the facts,” the reader is left to interpret them by their own value set. For this reason, Colletta argues that “satire depend[s] upon a stable set of values from which to judge behavior” (Colletta 859). In order to understand Mr. Stulberg’s intentions, it would be reasonable to suggest that we would have to be as liberal or as conservative as he is in order to pick up on his meaning. Yet, the satirist’s intentions are perhaps the least important part of the work. Rather, if the satire is to successfully foster a debate—physically in a classroom, cafeteria, coffee house, what have you, or in the seclusion of the reader’s mind—it should have an ambiguous angle to it so that both sides of the discussion might be viewed and judged. If, say, the Great Mascot Debate was to be taken up again with Mr. Stulberg’s article as a focal point, then his voiced opinion would give weight to one side of the argument. Yet Habermas values an institution that “preserved a kind of social intercourse that…disregarded status altogether” so that the “argument could assert itself against the social hierarchy” (Habermas 36). Thus, the flippancy of Stulberg’s opinion in his satiric work allows his actual opinion to go unheard, making his message less of an argument and more of a call to attention. I’m not suggesting that Matt Stulberg necessarily represents a kind of authoritative status, but rather that any text carries with it a certain weight, that the act of agreeing with the author is a kind of presupposition of status. If, then, the satirist disguises their position, both sides may take up the author’s battle flag, equalizing the debate. This is the value of satire in a public discourse. It serves as a political compass, organizing debates around what the satirist sees as an issue worthy of discussion.
To return to Stulberg’s February article on The Onion’s giving op up satire and the original question it posed: is satire, traditional or postmodern, useful in today’s public sphere? Colletta argues that the objective and often difficult to read nature of satire makes it a detriment to public discourse, citing viewers of Colbert who “find his brashness funny but miss the object of his attack [on Bill O’Reilly] entirely” (Colletta, 863). Stulberg, too, worries about this, and yet he continues to write for The Squirrel. The satirical website, like postmodern television shows, is capable of attracting attention to the issues they satirize. Unlike, The Colbert Report which takes an obvious stance, The Squirrel acts less as a political player in the public sphere and more a participant. That is, the writers of the satirical website practice exaggeration to make the point of calling out an issue. There are no rants here, no constant bashing of print media the way Jon Stewart relentlessly criticizes Fox. Instead, The Squirrel entertains and engages. It does not, like the vastly popular satirical televised media it emulates, dominate the public sphere nor does it inflict its opinions upon its readers with an iron fist. Rather, it beats around the push, allows for other perspectives, and ferments public discourse by pointing its finger at what The Squirrel sees as a valuable topic.
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