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The Onion's Sweet Scent

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
02.24.2000 | BOOKS

Our Dumb Century
Edited by Scott Dikkers and the Onion staff
Three Rivers Press, 1999

The last thing the Onion needs is more effusive praise, but I'll just say this anyway: Our Dumb Century is a flat-out brilliant, milk-spurting-out-of-your-nose tour de force of razor blade studded, dangerously informed wrecking ball humor. There, it's out.

The book offers up an interpretation of the past century through the crystal lens of America's finest news source, and the result is flawless. Dikkers and crew systematically sear the folly and wickedness of the American Century with pitch-perfect evocations of the myths that have fueled and sustained its wild ride, from Industrial Progress ("Nation's Skies Filled With Beautiful Black Smoke"), to the Space Race ("Outer Space Falls to Communists"), to the Domino Theory ("US loses Vietnam War; Ford urges all Americans to Salute Our Vietcong Rulers").

Surprisingly, none of the bite the Onion brings to the nineties is lost in shifting focus to more remote eras. In fact, much of the material in the book outshines that found in the weekly edition. It is clear that an impressive amount of research went into the first half--as well as a reading or two of Howard Zinn's Peoples History--and I would not be surprised if their was some academic input along the way. In any case the tone of the different decades evoked is spot-on and demonstrates at least an advanced graduate student's knowledge of the nation's past. The use of historically accurate minutia embedded within the larger themes is nothing short of masterful.

Which isn't surprising coming from a progressive posse based in Madison, Wisconsin, a town famous for leftist politics, great historians, and great leftist historians. The Onion might even be seen as part of a long tradition of Madison dissent, flowing from Robert La Follette and William Appleman Williams to the present, where a free weekly paper mixes satire with the politics of Noam Chomsky to produce an all but unanswerable critique of American culture, from fast food to the stock market to the CIA.

But unlike their Midwestern predecessors, the Onion can't take this protest shit too seriously. The writers were perhaps once involved in radical politics, but have since decided to beat the bastards with ice cold irony and momentary, forgetful fits of belly laughter. One is reminded of Stanley Kubrick and his early attempts to research Dr. Strangelove, which he originally intended to be a drama along the lines of Failsafe, a nuclear-themed drama released earlier in 1964. The more Kubrick learned about the Air Force, the arms race, and the logic behind it all, the more he knew his film could only be satire. The spirit of that film, which makes us laugh at what normally makes us cry, is the same spirit infusing the Onion; which is to say the healthy and humane breath of intelligence made manifest in these dark times.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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