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The whole world is The Onion now

posted by Tim Carmody   May 25, 2018

(A version of this story is an excerpt from this week’s Noticing newsletter. You can read more about Noticing here.)

In a rare interview, Italian author Elena Ferrante observes that between corruption, poverty, violence, fear, and the deterioration of democracy, “today it seems to me that the whole world is Naples and that Naples has the merit of having always presented itself without a mask.” The world of Ferrante’s novels is the world in which we’ve all been living; the rest of us are just catching up to what Neapolitans have known all along.

It seems you could make a similar case for The Onion in the time of Trump: the world was already absurd and buffoonish, and now it’s taken off its mask. It does make telling jokes a touch more tricky. Editor-in-chief Chad Nackers explains the site’s approach, admitting that the writers’ job would probably be easier if Hillary Clinton had been elected.

What strikes me is how much he attributes to the site’s changes over the years isn’t to the administration, but to the atmosphere, which has changed since the days of Bill Clinton (and not just because of who’s been elected since).

When I started, there weren’t really too many humor sites. There definitely weren’t any humor news sites. A lot of times, nobody else was going to get their comment out as fast as we were going to get it out, by virtue of us having a website. Now it almost seems like on Twitter there are people who are professional comedians who are online all day. A story breaks and they’re making jokes about it.

Andy Baio recently posted a link that shows you your Twitter timeline as it would have looked ten years ago if you followed all the same people that you do today. For me, at least, it’s amazing how different the tone is — even in the middle of an historic election, in the early stages of an enormous economic meltdown, there’s a lot less politics, a lot less sniping, and a lot more diaristic writing. It’s not necessarily better; it’s just very different. And all of those things were happening then — it’s just that Twitter wasn’t understood as the venue where every stance was to be articulated, every statement was to be critiqued, and every line was to be drawn. There were fewer people around, it was a lot more homogenous, and far fewer people were paying attention.

I wonder often how future historians will think about this time (you know, with the usual grisly caveat that people survive to do history in the future): how much of today’s ugliness, violence, and corruption they will think of as an aberration of one man, or one family, one political party, one social media network, one television network, etc.

Or will they see it as an interlocking, self-contradictory system, all of which had a history, and all of whose parts shaped and enabled what happened — hopefully, good and bad things. I mean, even the people who’ve argued that the coup has already happened can’t agree on whether it began with the election, with Congress, or some time long before.

Maybe the future historians will be better at disentangling these things than we are. Or maybe we’re just all hopelessly tangled.