Unpeeling The Onion

How politics kills humour

Artillery Row

“Noel Gallagher Misgenders Sam Smith, Calls Them a Fucking Idiot.”

Surely one of the great all time Onion headlines? Proof that the veteran satire site (veteran at least by internet standards) is right back on form?

Except, of course, that it isn’t the Onion. It’s the NME — erstwhile bad boy of rock journalism. It is trying to report on an actual thing that really happened. 

The headline is hilarious — and I say this with some confidence, as it made my mates, my wife, and my intensely inclusive and sensitive 18-year old daughter laugh, a triple as rare as that achieved by Emile Zatopek. A true Negroni of evenly balanced mirth. 

The hilarity comes from the pearl-clutching panic in NME’s a-copic reaction

I don’t think it’s the story, the bluntness itself, which is so funny. That is after all pretty standard fare from Noel Gallagher. We’ve all seen at least as big a spadeful of strong language and forthright opinion shipped by the ever more Gerry-Anderson-puppet-like pop star before now. 

The hilarity comes from the pearl-clutching panic clearly audible in the NME’s utterly a-copic reaction. They (I use the pronoun here to refer to the editorial board which I assume is genuinely plural, rather than a gender-diffuse individual) are in a flap. They sound like a character in a sitcom — The Vicar of Dibley, perhaps (itself challenging enough in its day), with Emma Chambers’ character desperately trying to alert Dawn French to the mayhem that has overtaken the fête. 

I am not (if only because I need to be able to use my front door without recourse to a shit shovel) actively advocating that one should “misgender” Smith, or any other delicate blooms that might wilt in the chill wind of Fowler-approved usage. Certainly not out of spite. Who would break a butterfly upon a wheel? 

Yet the elevation in rock and roll, of all places, of absurd protocols that must be observed on pain of excommunication, a byzantine system of delicate glass tendrils that must be carried at all times in one’s head, a crystal maze of grammatical snares as fascinatingly impractical as any imagined by Borges to prevail in some fictional Oriental dynasty of the 5th century whilst Europe laboured in the mud, is surely ripe for satire of the kind which The Onion not long ago had a reputation for wielding?

Well, no, it seems not. Instead, The Onion thinks the appropriate target for its Medusa gaze is JK Rowling’s alleged indifference to the hurt she is causing by sticking to her adorable little guns over sex-defined rights. You know, those devastatingly transphobic screeds such as “People who menstruate? I’m sure there used to be a word for those people and “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives”. Ugh. Literally shaking. 

Within this kind of hate-filled rant, The Onion clearly discerned its target. They set up a slide show format to flesh out the pretty sparse Q&A format of their devastating critique — an imagined interview with the disgraced novelist.

“Thanks for doing this interview with us today,” they courteously opened with. “Tell me which genitals you have right now,” barked back the fictional Rowling in their heads. “Don’t you find it hypocritical to publicly attack a marginalized community when your fortune and fame comes from books that champion a bullied outsider?” begged another question. “Well, that’s fiction. I’d be very anti-Harry Potter if he were a real person,” sneered Joke Rowling. 

And so on.

It’s at once horrible and horribly familiar. It is a trajectory which so many titans of comedy have described in recent years, brought low by the tripwires of Lilliputian morality. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, the Daily Mash brand when transferred to TV as The Mash Report, The Simpsons, 98 per cent of the BBC, book publishing and the nation of Scotland. Only South Park, Viz and a handful of independent content creators on YouTube remain, camped out in the woods, practising long bow and drinking mead. 

It gives us the distinctly uneasy feeling of being preached to by our betters

It might simply be regarded as a manifestation of Conquest’s Second Law, whose ubiquity in the modern world is so entrenched that I should probably ascribe one of my shortcut function keys to its citation. 

For those unfamiliar with it, prepare to see the world as if through long-overdue prescription lenses. It is generally given as, “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing”. It is not hard to think of examples. It probably correlates with the natural replacement of adventurers and innovators with the managerial class, and the failure to detect the presence of human resources until it is in its fourth stage. 

Comedy is not an organisation. It is decentralised and chaotic, and consequently it should be as hard to hit or “capture as Al Qaeda hoped to be. The unhappy fate described by Conquest did not befall Mencken, Bierce or Twain, or Perelman, Groucho or Coren. Nor, lest I be accused of a narrow, chauvinist focus, Joan Rivers.

So why has so much modern satire become so cringe, so apparently protective of and deferential to the pretentious, pompous and preposterous?

Ed West has written, as perceptively as usual, on the issue from a British perspective:

Today, with the exception of our miniscule armed forces and the royal family, no arm of the establishment is less progressive than the public at large (and even the royals are shifting in the Meghan Markle era). Whether it’s academia, the civil service, the third sector, legal profession, finance or the Church, the overwhelming majority of high-status people have broadly liberal social views.

These are the views which now inform professional satire, leaving so many of us unreconstructed groundlings in the dirt. It gives us the distinctly uneasy feeling of being preached to by our betters instead of entertained. 

As Kristian Niemietz (a free market economist by trade, but like Henning Wehn, an acute observer of our mildly alien culture) says, “There’s a simple reason why people like [redacted woke comedian] cannot be funny. Comedy is supposed to be transgressive; comedians say things that we may secretly think, but wouldn’t say in public. [RWC] does the opposite: she says the kind of stuff that we are socially expected to say, even if we secretly think it’s bollocks. You cannot be transgressive if your views are 100 per cent in line with every prevailing orthodoxy of your age. [RWC], as an enforcer of orthodoxy, is by definition unfunny. Objectively.”

The early 20th century visual artist Henry Mayo Bateman had a series known as “The Man Who … ” These cartoons featured “comically exaggerated reactions to minor and usually upper-class social gaffes” (thanks, Wikipedia) such as “The Man Who Lit His Cigar Before the Royal Toast”, “The Man Who Threw a Snowball at St. Moritz” and “The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass at the British Museum”. 

Even in Bateman’s pre-war day, he was mocking the absurdity of such conventions. The sixties were supposed to do away with all that baggage and affectation for good, welcoming in a brave new world of straight talking and a level gaze. Now, it seems, Bateman is back. “The Man Who Misgendered Sam Smith” is a modern classic. 

Ah, well. As Grandpa Simpson said, back when the show was funny — “I used to be with ‘it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’ anymore, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary. It’ll happen to you!” Believe it, kiddo. If it can happen to Noel G, it’ll happen to you. 

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