Your Feelings of Superiority Over Chinese Fooled by The Onion Are Unwarranted

Americans aren't exactly the most subtle humans.

The Chinese state-run newspaper celebrated North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un being named the “Sexiest Man Alive,” with a 55-image spread, and accompanying text that read: “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.”

The only problem is, he was named the world’s sexiest man by The Onion.

After Internet users happily pointed out the mistake, the English version’s web address returned a “page not found” message late yesterday morning.

This is not the first time the satirical outlet duped the Chinese government. In 2002, the state-run Beijing Evening News, the biggest tabloid at that time, published the fictional account that the U.S. Congress wanted a new building and that it might leave Washington. (The Onion article was a spoof of the way sports teams threaten to leave cities in order to get new stadiums.)

Just two months ago, Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency reprinted a story from The Onion about a supposed survey showing that most rural white Americans would rather vote for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than President Barack Obama.

We can blame these “misreads” on cultural differences and language barriers.

But what’s Rush Limbaugh’s excuse? One of his most memorable gaffes is the impossible-to-believe-even-for-Limbaugh attack of Barak Obama’s graduate school thesis, based solely on a description of the thesis on a satirical website.

What about the rest of us? I think that reality TV, creative nonfiction and memoir, 24-hour news channels, and constant access to breaking reality make us literalists, less able to identify metaphors. As my friend Jonathan Burr says, “With the proliferation of media outlets, we have entered an era of confirmation bias on all fronts.”

Limbaugh believes that Obama criticized the Constitution in his thesis because he already thinks badly of him. I believed that Romney bullied a peer in prep school because that sat well with my idea of him. What’s obviously absurd to one reader seems more than plausible to another.

Obviously, the place where religion and politics intersect seems the most ripe for misinterpretation, since passion gets in the way of clarity as well. Last month, I wrote about the right-wing attack on Lena Dunham’s pro-Obama spot, which was shaped around a confessional premise of her “first time.” She blew the metaphor open 14 seconds into the clip, but that didn’t stop people from attacking the video for its “pro-promiscuous sex message,” a message surely unintended by Dunham, and invisible to me.

This week, I read about Michael D’Antuono’s painting, now on display in Boston, that renders Obama as if he is being crucified. “The crucifixion of the President was meant metaphorically,” D’Antuono stated. “My intent was not to compare him to Jesus.”

D’Antuono blamed the controversy on the conservative media “trying to promote the idea that liberals believe the President to literally be our savior.”

I think we should all try to remember what we learned in freshman comp (or from our grandpas): Consider the source.