I largely dislike reading op-ed columnists. All too often, columnists hem and haw and posture and drop references to their famous friends and fancy trips. They make points that are obvious. They are overly pious. They hew to the party line. They love moderation. They love pointing out how they love moderation even more than they love moderation. They give credit where it is not due for politeness’s sake. They gin up fake controversies out of deadline desperation. They feign shock they don’t really feel. Even when I agree with them, I am bored by about paragraph three.
It's not neccessarily the idea of op-eds I hate; it's the execution. The best op-eds in the country are written by the staff of The Onion, though they're often published as news articles. The satirical paper, which turned 25 on Thursday, still does plenty of hilarious articles on the mundane (“Nation’s Single Men Announce Plan To Change Bedsheets by 2019”), but its writing on current events has becoming increasingly biting. What they share in common with the best opinion writing is an ability to elegantly locate and dismantle a problem with an economy of words. In recent months, as Buzzfeed pointed out, the site has published a spate of crusading articles calling out the Obama administration’s inaction on Syria. (“Obama Deeply Concerned After Syrians Gassed to Death on White House Lawn”). After the Newtown shooting, “Fuck Everything, Nation Reports” was what I wanted to read, not insta-commentary on gun policy. “Congress Fiercely Divided over Completely Blank Bill That Says and Does Nothing” is just BARELY absurdist. “U.S. Continues Quagmire-Building Effort in Afghanistan” was a more pithy summary than the world’s best position paper. Racism (Report: Now Sadly the Best Time in American History to Be Black) and sexism (“Teenage Girl Blossoms Into Beautiful Object”) are slammed deftly, sharply, and blessedly un-earnestly.
In other words, The Onion has figured out a way to do a high-wire trick: they’ve made moral outrage funny (without slipping into moralizing, as "The Daily Show" sometimes does). It’s not always laugh-out-loud; the site’s most trenchant commentary is often rather mordant and can rub some people the wrong way. "Men Are the Best,” went one angrily sarcastic column “authored” by the women who’d been locked in a Cleveland basement for a decade. But The Onion structurally bypasses the worst failing of many an op-ed columnist: taking themselves too seriously. The Onion won’t cop to even having an opinion. On Syria, the site’s editor in chief Will Tracy told Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray, “I wouldn’t say we’ve staked out an editorial line so much as we’ve chosen to acknowledge two equally valid points of view at once. Specifically, we want to support the rebels because of our own strong financial ties to the jihadist movement, but we also want to support Bashar al-Assad because he’s been a close and dear friend of the paper for nearly two decades.”
The Onion can be wicked on the subject of specific people. John Kerry is a particular disappointment (“Man Who Couldn’t Beat George W. Bush Attempting To Resolve Israel-Palestine Crisis”). But it is rarely cruel, surprisingly. "What you have to be really careful about is what the target of the joke is," Tracy told NPR. "And if the target of the joke is wrong, if you're targeting the victim or someone who doesn't deserve our ire, then it doesn't feel right and it also doesn't feel funny."
The Onion isn’t Democratic or Republican. It’s clearly got a left-leaning outlook, but the editorial position is more properly characterized as against bullshit. This can include everything from the highhanded way Barack Obama deals with the press (“Dear The Onion,” reads a letter to the editor “from” him, “Just a polite reminder that you have to print whatever I send you”) or the appalling things campaigns make politicians do ("Romney Murdered JonBenet Ramsey, New Obama Campaign Ad Alleges”) or CNN’s unseemly pageview-trolling (“Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning.”) Bullshit also includes the way people go through the motions of “dialogue” (as in this faux opinion column titled “America Needs To Have a Superficial Conversation on Race”) or fake-apologize (“The Onion isn’t sure exactly what it did wrong but it’ll apologize if that’s what you need to hear to move on”). Bullshit is even the way people deal with veterans, and what war does to people. (“Town Nervously Welcomes Veteran Back Home.”)
But there are limitations to the against-bullshit. It is sometimes difficult to be FOR anything if you hold that position, and that is one way in which a traditional op-ed page can do something valuable The Onion cannot. This was evident this week, when, after having beat the drum for Obama to do something in Syria and it finally looking as if he might, The Onion published a piece entitled “Experts Point to Long, Glorious History of Successful U.S. Bombing Campaigns,” reminding Obama of a series of deadly imbroglios from Vietnam all the way up to Libya. You could look at that piece and conclude that The Onion had changed its opinion of the best course of action. Or: you could realize what it is that The Onion seeks to do, which is to unmistakably, unrestrainedly point out the truth. The best kind of opinion column doesn’t rely very heavily on opinion—and that’s not an Onion headline.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer for the New Republic.