The Scrapbook has always believed that larger lessons can sometimes be gleaned from smaller, even seemingly inconsequential, events. Consider, for example, this week’s misinterpretation of a recent post on the Onion—the treasured website that features satirical “news stories” and hilarious videos that are virtually indistinguishable from “real” television news reports.
The Onion recently designated North Korea’s Kim Jong Eun as its “Sexiest Man Alive,” in imitation of People magazine’s annual Sexiest Man Alive feature (Mel Gibson, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper, etc.) and Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive (Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Mila Kunis, etc.). Kim Jong Eun, of course, is the 29-year-old son of the late North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il. He is also the current dictator—or figurehead, depending on your point of view—in Pyongyang; and while frightening in his way, not exactly everyone’s idea of a Sexiest Man Alive.
Here is the Onion’s description:
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. Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile.
To be sure, The Scrapbook also believes that satire which needs to be explained is probably not successful satire. But we feel constrained to point out that the Onion’s description of Kim is just a half-millimeter removed from the way People would go on (and undoubtedly did) about, say, Jude Law or Johnny Depp. One need only momentarily gaze upon images of North Korea’s Supreme Leader to realize that the Onion mash note (“round face . . . impeccable fashion sense . . . famous smile”) was intended to mock, not exalt. And yet the editors of the online version of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist party in Beijing, picked up the Onion story and featured it, along with a 55-page photo spread of Kim.
This is either very funny or mildly disconcerting. For the editors of the People’s Daily Online read English and must surely have seen the Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive feature fully in context with other Onion features. And yet they seem to have taken it entirely at face value, and seen it not for the obvious joke that it is but a rare Western compliment to the dictator of a Chinese client state.
This is not the first time that a totalitarian news organization has comically misconstrued the Onion. During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, the official Iranian news agency excitedly reprinted an Onion story about some rustic Americans who would rather vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than for Barack Obama, quoting one “West Virginian” to the effect that he would prefer to take in a baseball game with the Iranian strongman because, unlike Obama, “he takes national defense seriously.”
Which proves either that dictatorial regimes are continuously in search of positive coverage, from any source; or that years of living in a police state tend to condition, distort, and eventually dull the critical faculties.
The Scrapbook’s perspective is this: While there is much to be concerned about in a xenophobic, aggressive, nuclear-armed People’s Republic of China, there is some consolation in the knowledge that we are pondering a potential adversary whose propagandists look at North Korea’s Kim Jong Eun—and see the Sexiest Man Alive.