"The Onion" bills itself as "America's finest news source." When then Sen. Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, "The Onion's" headline captured the historic moment perfectly: "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job."
Longtime readers of the print version or the Internet site understand that "The Onion" isn't any more a legitimate news source than Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" or "The Colbert Report" are, though all three are deft practitioners of subversive humor at the expense of the nation's most powerful leaders and institutions.
The two comedy programs benefit from studio audiences who show they're in on the joke with laughter and applause. Alas, "The Onion" is the most misunderstood of the three because it isn't on television. A proper approach to stories at "The Onion" requires a capacity on the reader's part to process humor without cues like an audience's laughter.
This week, "The People's Daily," one of China's largest newspapers, ran a story it picked up from "The Onion" -- "Kim Jong-Un Named The Onion's Sexiest Man Alive for 2012." The Chinese daily ran "The Onion's" cheeky description of the North Korean leader without a clue as to how sarcastic and hyperbolic it was:
"With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman's dream come true. Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper's editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile."
"The Onion" is on something of a roll, lately. Two months ago, an Iranian news agency picked up one of its stories reporting that rural white Americans would prefer to vote for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than vote for Mr. Obama. Once again, the sarcasm was lost in translation.
There's something about the despotic mind-set that doesn't process irony very well. That's not surprising. The ability to laugh, especially at oneself, requires a realistic view of one's own foibles.
Despots and their propaganda czars fail to "get" subversive humor because after all of the truth-tellers are thrown in jail, they have no way of appreciating how ridiculous their regimes really are. Not to worry, though, "The Onion" is glad to pick up the slack.