In Praise of The Onion’s American Voices

For all the attention their stories receive and how often their news headlines get reposted, The Onion’s American Voices column has a way of being overlooked. Well, we should talk about it more, because it really is one of their funniest and best features.

American Voices has been so reliably well executed for such a long time it’s almost easy to take its quality for granted. And looking at the same six pictures, three at a time, as their names change week after week and their occupations grow boringer and boringer (recently: Machine Fastener, Assistant Managing Editor, Braille Typist, Hair Sample Matcher, Unemployed, Unemployed, Unemployed) it’s hard to keep in mind how brilliantly absurd this idea was when it started. Not to mention the reality it lampooned: that the “man on the street” opinions you read in the local papers were often just made up. (“Local papers”, if you’re unfamiliar, is a thing that used to exist; ask your parents.)

Besides all that, and besides its twitter-like brevity ( a couple of years ago I would have said “haiku-like”), what I love about American Voices is it’s The Onion at its most brutal. American Voices has always been some of the most incisive, cutting, and honest comic takes about the darkest issues we face at Americans. In between the usual PR fluff that makes up this type of feature in most news organizations (New Facebook App Tells You Suitors Waiting, Subway Now Largest Restaurant Chain), American Voices raises questions about political topics that go ignored elsewhere, and their short answers point out moral complications behind our actions with a directness that I don’t see anywhere else. (Also sometimes, they ask questions about Morrissey.)

Take this Tuesday’s question, about Bradley Manning. Manning has been the forgotten element in the WikiLeaks tale, the US Army private who supplied the information about military actions in Afghanistan that first put WikiLeaks in the news. While Julian Assange has gotten all the attention, Manning has been held without trial in solitary confinement since May, an act that Human Rights Watch has highlighted as an equivalent to physical torture; psychologists have demonstrated that it exacerbates mental illnesses and creates a disproportionate incidence of suicide. But this is something America does to many of its prisoners, so no one cares.

The reason Manning made the news lately is the revelation that he has now been forced to sleep naked and stand naked outside his cell for inspections. The military claims is for his own protection, which would mean it’s only a coincidence that these are the exact same techniques the C.I.A. used at Abu Ghraib to interrogate suspected terrorists. When the State Department spokesman criticized the treatment (and note this is the spokesman, not just a spokesman), the Obama administration forced him to resign.

“This is why I never talk about someone who I know for a fact is being abused. It always causes way too much drama.”

Not many news outlets, and fewer political comedians, are talking about this and why it’s significant and complicated and ethically troubling. But The Onion is. They asked Rick Allison, Railroad Car-Inspector, what he thought about it, and this is what he answered:I mean, Jesus Christ, these are some sad lines. All I need is two sentences to know that this fictional Mr. Allison carries around with him a lifetime of domestic strife and hurt. But also, he’s a monster. And since morally, if not legally (though I think legally too), anyone who knows about the occurrence of abuse and allows it to continue is implicated and guilty as an accomplice to that act, Mr. Allison also happens to be making a pretty damning statement about the consequences of Americans’ silence on this issue.

The voices in American Voices are sometimes sarcastic, sometimes sincere, and sometimes so sarcastic the sincerity bleeds through from the other side. You can often feel outrage in this column, sometimes in the answers — the glue mixer who’s angry at food stamps; the utility operator who thinks Billy Ray Cyrus is too quick to blame society for his problems — but more often in the questions being asked. It’s an outrage we should all be feeling more often, and doing more about, if only we weren’t so hung up with all our daily Area Man concerns.

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.

In Praise of The Onion’s American Voices