Volume 18 Numbers 2, 3, & 4, 2008
Tyranny of the Dichotomy:
|Image retrieved August 27, 2008 from www.theonion.com/content/node/27948|
Abstract: After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, President Bush and his administration immediately framed the attacks as a stark, morally soaked, dichotomized choice between Good and Evil, a type of frame of which Phillip Wander has referred to as “prophetic dualism”: either you are with us or with the terrorists. This rhetorical framing of the attacks not only positioned the Bush Administration and its partisans firmly on the “good” side of the dualism, but also reappropriated any critique of the Administration, or even critique of the dualism itself, as being definitionally on the “evil” side. In this paper, I argue that the satirical newspaper The Onion used the double edged nature of irony as well as the humor and playfulness of satire to invite readers to critique the Administration and its policies in a way that was not automatically reappropriated and dismissed by the framework of prophetic duali sm. Specifically, The Onion published two types of stories that playfully encouraged readers to see shades of gray in a rigid framework that demanded a black and white understanding of the world. First, The Onion published articles that called attention to ambiguities in the mutual exclusivity of Good and Evil. Second, The Onion published articles that highlighted ambiguities and incongruities within each supposedly monolithic side of dualism.
In the emotion-laden days following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, American writers, editors, and pundits wondered out loud what the attacks meant: for the world, for democracy, for our national identity. One unusual strain of this discussion focused on what seemed at first glance to be a peripheral topic: irony, or more specifically, the death of irony. In a Time magazine article entitled “The Age of Irony Comes to an End,” Roger Rosenblatt declared that, before 9/11:
Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes – our columnists and pop culture makers – declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life. Who but a slobbering bumpkin would think, “I feel your pain”? The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything. The consequence of thinking that nothing is real – apart from prancing around in an air of vain stupidity – is that one will not know the difference between a joke and a menace.” (79)
Many agreed. Camille Dodero of the Boston Phoenix wondered if “a coddled generation that bathed itself in sarcasm will get serious” (Beers). Peter Kaplan, editor of the New York Observer, observed that, for the media industry “irony is on the junk heap now… Irony is the mold that grows on old things” (Kirkpatrick). “Are you looking for something to take seriously?” asked Rosenblatt. “Begin with evil” (Rosenblatt 79).
President Bush was one step ahead of Rosenblatt. His Administration, the Republican Party, and its supporters immediately, forcefully, and repeatedly invoked an old, yet very useful and efficient emotional framework for making sense of the terrorist attack: the dichotomy of Good versus Evil. Many Americans, in their shock and grief, wholeheartedly bought in to this framework, which soon became the accepted paradigm for American foreign policy, lasting well into the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And while this framework for making sense of the attacks helped to unite the country together in our distress and sorrow, it also had profound consequences for dissent. This either/or construction not only had the effect of demonizing the terrorists, it also worked to demonize anyone who questioned either side of the binary or even the construction of the binary itself. Any interpretation that differed from the official account of the attacks was labeled suspect, unpatriotic, even treason ous. In a sea of American flags, red, white, and blue backdrops, and “United We Stand” bumper stickers, those who disagreed with or even had questions about the official version of events were guilty by association and directed to keep their opinions to themselves. What started as the official government version of events quickly became the only legitimate version of events.
While the vast majority of news organizations quickly adopted the official frame, one newspaper began a series of cogent critiques of the Bush Administration and its newly named War on Terror. In fact, on October 10, 2001, just one month after the terrorist attacks, it ran the following story: “Freedoms Curtailed in Defense Of Liberty”:
WASHINGTON, DC— Responding to the threats facing America's free democratic system, White House officials called upon Americans to stop exercising their democratic freedoms Monday.
Ari Fleischer urged Americans to keep their mouths shut…. "Now more than ever, if we want to protect democracy for future generations, it is vital that nobody speak out about the issues of the day."…
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who advocated permitting the CIA to engage in various illegal activities during a recent Tonight Show with Jay Leno appearance, stressed the importance of not merely submitting to freedom-curtailment policies, but also blindly agreeing with them.
"Now is not the time for such divisive, destructive things as dialogue and debate," McCain said. "Now is not the time for, 'My opinion is just as valid as yours,' and 'What are my country's leaders doing and why?' and 'I have a question, Mr. President.' Now is the time for one thing and one thing only: The defense of the American democratic ideal. Any and all who disagree with this directive, or who have different ideas about how it should be accomplished, should learn to shut their mouths." (“Freedoms Curtailed”)
This is, of course, not your typical newspaper. The article above comes from the satirical newspaper The Onion, self titled as America’s Finest News Source (“Freedoms”). In what follows, I argue that The Onion was a sly critic of the Bush Administration and their policies, especially during early days of the War on Terror when critique was difficult. Specifically, instead of directly criticizing the Bush Administration or their dualistic rhetoric, The Onion playfully used satire to introduce ambiguity into the powerful dualism of Good versus Evil, holding up the dualism for ridicule. It did this by both featuring stories that questioned the mutual exclusivity of the dichotomy itself, as well as stories that introduced complexity into each seemingly monolithic side of the dichotomy. In order to more carefully examine The Onion’s subversive satire, however, it is first necessary to look at the rhetorical context th at made overt and direct criticism of the Bush Administration in the years after 9/11 difficult.
“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Using a dichotomous frame like the one President Bush used in the quotation above to describe the attacks of 9/11 has proven over time to be an exceptionally effective symbolic architectonic. Phillip Wander, in an 1984 article examining the rhetoric of the Eisenhower-Dulles Administration during the Cold War, calls this type of Manichean binary, the “either/or” dichotomous framing of foreign policy, “prophetic dualism:”
In its perfected form prophetic dualism divides the world into two camps. Between them there is conflict. One side acts in accord with all that is good, decent, and at one with God’s will. The other acts in direct opposition. Conflict between them is resolved only through the total victory of one side over the other. Since no guarantee exists that good will triumph, there is no middle ground. Hence neutrality may be treated as a delusion, compromise appeasement, and negotiation a call for surrender. (342)
Prophetic dualism thus is ideologically rigid, authoritative, and presents a stark, mutually exclusive choice between two morally soaked alternatives. According to Murray Edelman, frames like prophetic dualism construct an “enemy” defined by inherent characteristics, rather than an “adversary” defined by the current political process: “Enemies,” according to Edelman, “are characterized by an inherent trait or set of traits that marks them as evil, immoral, warped, pathological and therefore a continuing threat regardless of what course they pursue, regardless of whether they win or lose in any particular encounter, and even if they take not political action at all” (Constructing the Political Spectacle 67). Adversaries are spatially and temporally defined by the context of the particular situation; an enemy is forever.
Because of the very human propensity to define oneself against an evil Other who is fetishized as everything “we” are not, prophetic dualism also seamlessly taps into a virtuous self-definition for those on the “Good” side of the dichotomy.  According to Edelman, “To support a war against a foreign aggressor who threatens national sovereignty and moral decency is to construct oneself as a member of a nation of innocent heroes” (76). This paradox – being both a hero and an innocent victim simultaneously – makes the Good as impervious to critique as the Evil are to any claim of praiseworthy, or even human, qualities. The dualism admits no space for questioning.
Wander argues that prophetic dualism is very useful as a governing mechanism. This interpretive framework made it easier for the Eisenhower Administration to govern because it positioned not only the United States, but more importantly, its leaders, firmly on the “good, decent, and at one with God’s will” side of the life or death struggle with the Soviet Union. This, in turn, “encourage[d] a heightened dependence on the established order” on the part of the American population (345). If the enemy is Evil, it is the foremost job of the Good to protect its people.
Setting up prophetic dualism as the prevailing frame, however, requires a system of interrelated communicative networks beginning at the White House and flowing down to the public. Robert Entman describes this process as “cascading activation” (418). Just like a cascading waterfall in the real world, the rhetoric, ideas and emotions engendered by the frame flow more easily downhill; those that start at the White House, flow down through political elites and the press to the public unimpeded gather the most strength and speed and thus are the most persuasive. According to Entman, ideas can encounter obstacles at different levels on the way down or even flow back up the heavily stratified system, but, again like a real world waterfall, this is much more difficult, requiring an impressive counterforce to “pump” the ideas back up through the network (419-20). 
At the top of the cascade, President Bush began to invoke the authoritative, morally soaked dichotomy as the dominant frame the morning after the attacks: “The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror, they were acts of war… This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil…” (Bush, qtd. in Entman 415). Drawing on Kenneth Burke’s discussion of binaries, Coe et al., argue that repetition is very important to the “establishment” phase of a new interpretive frame (“No Shades of Gray” 236). To establish this frame as the hegemonic interpretation, the Bush Administration would need to constantly repeat the terminology of prophetic dualism, which would then be reiterated exponentially as it cascaded down through the echo chamber of political elites, press, and public – and this is exactly what happened. Just eight days later, in a speech to a joint session of Congress and televised live, the President spelled out the binary in its starkest, most memorable terms: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” (Bush “Address”). He repeated the dualism often, in instantly recognizable and unambiguous language. 
There were very few obstacles and no legitimate competing frames from political elites as prophetic dualism cascaded down to the public in the months following the attacks.  The press also obliged, not only by repeating the terms of prophetic dualism in their coverage of events, but also by actively seeking out opportunities to reaffirm that they, too, were on the correct side of the dualism. Coe et al. found that the editorial pages of twenty major U.S. papers continued to repeat and endorse the president’s prophetic dualism through March 2003 (241). Fox News’ Irena Briganti put the situation of journalists rather bluntly: “Given the choice, it’s better to be viewed as a foot soldier for Bush than a spokeswoman for al-Qaeda” (Johnson, qtd. in Finnegan xix). Anchor of the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather, also famously expressed his support for the pre sident on Late Night with David Letterman: “George Bush is the president… Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where” (Finnegan xix). Not all journalists were ready to line up, but few publically expressed their misgivings. In fact, many have argued that the mainstream media completely abdicated its traditional role during this time.  Apparently, watchdogs were unnecessary for those who are on God’s side.
Not surprisingly, Americans in turn adopted prophetic dualism as their way to make sense of 9/11 and threw their support behind the president. President Bush’s approval rating jumped from 51% on September 10, 2001, to 86% on September 15 and then to the all time high for any president since Gallup started asked this question in the 1940s: 90% on September 22, 2001 (Hetherington and Nelson 37). The “rally ‘round the flag” effect that always occurs after a major foreign policy event is not surprising – after all, this was a violent terrorist attack on American soil - but the resonance and duration of the effect can partially be attributed to the successful establishment of the prophet dualism frame. 
No frame, however widespread and powerful, could have complete adherence; in a democratic society, some dissent is inevitable. However, dualisms in general and prophetic dualism in particular construct a rhetorical milieu designed to stifle critique. Speaking again about the Eisenhower Administration, Wander argues: “During these times of national crisis, patriotism virtually became law, critic ism of government policies grounds for censorship, public protest evidence if not of treason then some lesser form of Un-Americanism” (343). Additionally, there is an overtly religious component to prophetic dualism that makes questioning and critique not only unseemly but also immoral. As Wander observes: “God dampens public debate. How can one argue with God’s will when it is clearly expressed?” (344). While 9/11 did not bring the magnitude of threats and intimidation to critics that accompanied the McCarthyism of th e early Eisenhower era (unless one was of Middle Eastern descent), any overt and obvious act of questioning or criticism of the Administration provoked an equally overt and obvious reinvigoration of the power of the dualism by someone from the Bush Administration. For example, in response to questions about the use of military tribunals, the loss of attorney/client privilege in suspected terrorism cases, and the detention of hundreds of immigrants without warrant, John Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee in December of 2001, “….To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends” (Gullo).  The implicit threat in a statement like this was not physical in the sense tha t the critic would disappear or be jailed or executed for her opinions. The threat existed at the level of meaning; the rhetorical line had been drawn. One’s freedom was not necessarily in question, but one’s loyalty was, and that had ramifications. Within the prophetic dualistic frame, there was no way to legitimately voice dissent.
More indicative of the power of prophetic dualism than the overt rhetorical pressure by Bush Administration officials, however, were the nongovernmental and public outcries against those who asked questions or critiqued the Administration. While the Dixie Chicks are probably the most well known of those who suffered personally and financially for daring to criticize the president,  Bill Maher is a more interesting example in this context because he did not directly criticize the president or his policies. He simply disagreed with the foundation of the dualism itself: the mutual exclusivity of Good and Evil. Speaking on his soon to be cancelled ABC television show, Politically Incorrect, just six days after the attacks, Maher agreed with conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza, who took issue with President Bush’s foundational contention that the 9/11 terrorists were cowards. Said Maher: ''We have been the co wards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly'' (Bohlen). However, we, on the “Good” side of the dichotomy, can’t – by definition – be cowardly. Therefore, according to the logic of prophetic dualism, Maher must be, if not exactly with the terrorists, then, at the very least, suspect, unpatriotic. The remark first cost Maher the sponsorship of Sears and Federal Express, who said that they received angry letters from viewers about Maher’s comment. Soon ABC affiliates began dropping his show and by May of 2002 the show was cancelled. When White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked about Maher’s comments at a press briefing, his comment was revealing. He did not attempt to logically refute Maher’s assertion. Instead, he simply reiterated that prophetic dualism preemptively disallowed critiqu e: “This is a reminder to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is” (Dadge 107). 
As an interpretative framework, prophetic dualism remained hegemonic and dissent remained muted until well into the Iraq War when it slowly began to erode along with President Bush’s popularity. In what follows, I argue that The Onion refused to take prophetic dualism seriously. Specifically, instead of explicitly criticizing the Bush Administration or their dualistic rhetoric - something very easily reappropriated and then dismissed within the frame as we saw with Bill Maher - The Onion used satire to plant ambiguity into the carefully drawn and policed dualism of Good versus Evil and thus prompting the reader to reevaluate the frame. By introducing a little levity into the unflinching gravity of prophetic dualism The Onion successfully reframed Bush Administration policies for their readers and talked back to the powers that be.
How can one critique in a situation where any overt and obvious dissent that is not precluded preemptively is automatically reappropriated into a hegemonic interpretive frame which labels it unpatriotic? Satire provides one such method of indirect critique and, contrary to Roger Rosenblatt’s suggestion that 9/11 caused irony’s death, I argue instead that ironic discourse, this time in the form of satire, was not only alive and well after 9/11 at The Onion, it also functioned as one of the few effective forms of critique.
Before I turn to a more detailed discussion of The Onion however, it is first necessary to look briefly at both ironic and satirical discourse. Both are notoriously difficult to define and a discussion of one usually includes reference to the other. Irony is by far the larger category, with satire usually classified as one type of ironic discourse. Irony has also been the topic of countless scholarly considerations, not only because it has been a topic of study by many disciplines for thousands of years but also because it is, as Linda Hutcheon notes, “the mode of the unsaid, the unheard, and the unseen” (Irony’s Edge, 9). Although irony usually requires a minimum of two people - the creator of irony and a potential audience – it is an indirect, ambivalent, ambiguous mode of communicating meaning, making it problematic to classify definitively. Cognitive scientists Raymond Gibbs and Herbert Colston characterize irony as “a device of both mind and language for acknowledging the gap between what is expected and what is observed” (Irony in Language and Thought, ix). Donald Muecke offers this definition: “What can be said, putting it very simply, is the art of irony is the art of saying something without really saying it.” Specifically, according to Muecke, irony must, first, have a “double-layer,” meaning that it must be able to be viewed at least two different ways, one literally and one from the point of view of the ironist. Second, there must always be some type of incongruous opposition between the two layers and third, there must be an element of “innocence.” Either the victim or the reader must be unaware of the other layer, or the ironist must pretend to be unaware of it (The Compass of Irony, 19-20). Thus, irony suggests that somewhere, somehow, things don’t exactly mat ch up. There is a rupture, a disjuncture, an ambiguity lurking somewhere in the transmission of meaning. I use the term “lurking” purposively here, because irony is often intended to be subtle; one needs hints and clues, by definition contextual, that signal to the audience that they should be wary, that there might be more going on in this particular situation than a literal interpretation would have them believe. In a more fluid rhetorical context, irony is often employed merely as clever word play; in a more repressive rhetorical regime, the ambiguity inherent in irony becomes a potent way to critique in an indirect way.
Satire almost always employs the double-edged nature of irony. In fact, almost all satire is ironic, but not all irony is satirical.  For irony to be satirical, it must be, as Northrop Frye observed, “militant” (An Anatomy of Criticism, 223). It has a grievance with someone or something, a problem to expose and, according to George Test, the satirist “exploits the ability of irony to expose, undercut, ridicule and otherwise attack indirectly, playfully, wittily, profoundly, artfully” (Satire, 17). In fact, Test argues that satire has four components: aggression, judgment, play, and laughter. These four appear in different measures in different modes of satire, but all are required. The presence of aggression, according to Test, is probably the least controversial aspect of satire. Often described as beastlike (biting, snarling, railing, ca rping) or as violent (sharp, scourging, razor or whip-like) satire’s symbolic aggression can be more or less direct, more or less subtle, but it is always present (15-16). It is also judgmental. According to Test: “Whether the target is vice or folly, absurdity or enemies of the state, the satirist is concerned with passing judgment” (28). What stops satire from being a rant, as well as helps protect the satirist from danger from her target, however, is that the aggression is accompanied by play and laughter. Wordplay, parody, fantasy, burlesque, grotesque, farce, and fables are often the devices of satire and use the double layered nature of irony to provoke laughter, often ridiculing, in the audience.
Satire is thus well positioned to work within a more repressive rhetorical regime because it can “[embed] a threatening idea in a non-threatening form.” (Boyd par. 8). The ambiguity of the dual layered nature of irony combined with the presence of satire’s often playful, laughing yet aggressive and judgmental attitude make it less likely that it will be addressed, or even noticed, by those who are the object of the aggression and judgment.  In fact, the ambiguous, double layered construction of satire always has the ability to retreat back to the literal as need be. Thus, it can operate rather stealthily. Instead of overt criticism of powerful people, satirical pieces can circulate as simply ridiculous literal suggestions – although, hopefully, some will know better.
This last point deserves more explanation. According to Test, satire requires a public, or counter-public in this instance, that understands the second non-literal ironic layer of meaning: “Satire by its very nature asks an audience to make a connection between the work and the context in which it occurs, be it social, political, religious, aesthetic…” (32). The multilayered nature of satire demands that its audience be “sophisticated about the audience context in which the satire transpires, sensitive to the means at work, and sympathetic in sharing the aggression and judgment” (32). This creates what Wayne Booth calls a “tight bond,” a conspiracy of sorts between the author and the audience that gets the joke (A Rhetoric of Irony, 11). Linda Hutcheon argues that marginalized groups, specifically postcolonial and feminist in her discussion, often turn to irony, and by e xtension, satire, as a counter-discourse and from that become a “discursive community,” one that can then challenge the hegemonic power (89). The literal layer of discourse is made for the consumption of for those in power while the underlayer can be used to problematize that same power. The double-layered construction of all kinds of ironic speech, R. Jay Magill argues, thus refuses to be governed by the powers that be; in fact, it cannot even be governed by what it actually said. As the comedian Stephen Colbert remarked while he was a correspondent on the fake news program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:
I can retreat from any statement I’ve ever made on The Daily Show without anyone impugning my credibility because I’ve never claimed any. But a pundit has to back up what he says with statistics and some study from the Pew Research Center…I don’t. And so I can say anything because I’m not asking you to believe that I mean it. I’m just hoping that you’ll laugh at what I say. [But that] doesn’t mean I don’t mean it. ( qtd. in Magill 5)
As Colbert’s remarks demonstrate, satire is “not serious about seriousness” (4-5). It does not automatically venerate nature, customs, institutions, traditions, history, or power. It doesn’t necessarily respect hierarchy. Because of this, Magill argues that “ironic insights can provide a muscular counterweight to the dominant culture and politics of an age; it challenges power assumed natural, or more poignantly, that overreaches its authority. Most importantly, the ironic mentality is rooted in a belief that individuals have the legitimacy to challenge those structures of power” (58). 
After 9/11, prophetic dualism became the powerful interpretive frame for much of the United States. In what follows, I argue that The Onion refused to be governed by this frame. The Onion, as Magill suggests above and as Rosenblatt accused, took neither Good nor Evil very seriously. Specifically, instead of directly criticizing the Bush Administration and their dualistic rhetoric, The Onion uses the multilayered nature of ironic satire to judge and to ridicule the stark dualism of Good versus Evil by (1) suggesting ambiguous relationships between the starkly drawn and mutually exclusive sides of the dichotomy and (2) highlighting shades of gray inside of the both sides of the supposedly monolithic opposites of the dichotomy.
democracy — a political system characterized by protected individual rights and liberties for certain lucky countries in the Middle East.
participatory democracy —1. a system of governance by the people, for the people 2. archaic: our own system of governance.
support for terrorism —a key plank in the Democratic party platform, along with killing babies.
--Selections from The Onion’s 2004 “ Election Glossary”
First published in 1988 by a group of former University of Wisconsin students and unemployed journalists and now relocated in New York City, The Onion is consistently one of the most popular sites on the web with more than 3 million hits weekly, in addition to 690,000 print newspapers in ten cities. More than 1 million more people listen to The Onion Radio News each week, and in 2007 The Onion launched the Onion News Network, which provides 24 hour video news (The Onion, Mediakit).  The Onion’s Our Dumb Century was a New York Times Bestseller and won a Thurber Prize for American Humor. The Onion is not only popular but it has won critical acclaim as well. The New Yorker has called The Onion “the funniest publication in the United States.” (The Onion, Mediakit ). On NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, reporter John Kalish went even father, estimating that The Onion might be the most widely read humor publication on the planet (Kalish).
The Onion is satirical parody of a newspaper, which means that it has both the double layered ambiguity of irony and also the aggression, judgment, playful attitude and connection to laughter of satire. To achieve the double layer of meaning necessary for irony, The Onion must look like a newspaper and it does.  It has sections entitled “Video,” “Sports,” and “World,” as well as “Election 08,” “Local,” and “Nat'l” sections” very similar to the online versions of The New York Times and The Washington Post. There are opinion columns, “American Voices,” and “Horoscope” sections,  as well as “ STATshot: A Look at the Numbers That Shape Your World,” which presents statistics on issues The Onion thinks wil l be of interest to its readers. The visual format mirrors a “real” online paper; pictures punctuate the storylines with “serious” captions. 
But The Onion is not “real” news and this helps create the ambiguity in meaning necessary for irony. While The Onion looks like a real news source and often, although not always, relies on real world events, it is not a “real” newspaper and is replete with technical misrepresentations and false statements. Its stories, features, and columns are fake – lies in the strictest factual sense. They include quotations from imaginary people, imaginary quotations from real people, and make-believe scenarios, settings and situations. Some stories are quite crude and many contain (and these are real) curses and profanity.  Parts of the paper are quite silly, actually, and are meant to be harmlessly amusing, but they still aren’t “real” in the sense that they can be confirmed and verified. 
Parodying the sober and seemingly impartial language and layout of a newspaper also gives the content an air of legitimacy, objectivity, and respectability which then allows an automatic contrast with both the judgmental, yet mischievous and funny, satirical content of many of the articles. The journalistic form, says former Onion editor in chief Rob Seigel, is "the vessel.… It has to look like real journalism to create the comedic tension between what is being said and how it is presented” ( qtd. in Wenner). Accordingly, The Onion is generally considered to be very funny. I would like to argue, however, that The Onion is much more than just a joke; it did its small part in attempting to slow the cascading activation of prophetic dualism by both playfully calling attention to ambiguities in hegemonic frame itself, as well as by highlighting shades of gray in what are constructed to be the mutually exclusive option s of Good and Evil. The Onion invited its audience to critically examine the Bush Administration’s policies, but in a way not easily reappropriated and dismissed by the hegemonic frame.
For cascading activation to be effective, the hegemonic frame must originate with the top most political elites. They set up the original frame, which then is exponentially echoed as it cascades down through other political elites, the media, and finally, the public. In this case the Bush Administration and their allies frequently repeated one or both sides of the prophetic dualism frame, which eventually became the hegemonic interpretive frame of 9/11. Later Saddam Hussein was simply added to the Evil side of the dualism, despite a lack of evidence of any collaboration between him and Osama bin Laden.  Because the Bush Administration repeated the dualism early and often, many of The Onion articles critique the administration by introducing ambiguity into the frame at the level of origin, teasingly alerting its readers to the frame’s shortcomings. For example, the same day that Ari Fleischer reminded Amer icans that they needed to watch what they say (September 26, 2001), The Onion ran the following story in its first issue since the 9/11 attacks: “U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With”:
WASHINGTON, DC—In a televised address to the American people Tuesday, a determined President Bush vowed that the U.S. would defeat "whoever exactly it is we're at war with here." …
Bush is acting with the full support of Congress, which on Sept. 14 authorized him to use any necessary force against the undetermined attackers. According to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), the congressional move enables the president to declare war, "to the extent that war can realistically be declared on, like, maybe three or four Egyptian guys, an Algerian, and this other guy who kind of looks Lebanese but could be Syrian. Or whoever else it might have been. Because it might not have been them." …
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), one of Congress' decorated war veterans, tried to steel the nation for the possibility of a long and confusing conflict…."Christ," McCain [said], "what if the terrorists' base of operation turns out to be Detroit? Would we declare war on the state of Michigan? I suppose we'd have to.” (“U.S. Vows”)
One week later as more information on the attackers became available, The Onion ran a “News In Brief” story entitled: “U.S. Urges Bin Laden To Form Nation It Can Attack”. While both of these stories are based on a factual truth – President Bush did set up the Good/Evil frame before he knew who had attacked the United States and there was some confusion as to how to deal with mobile, stateless terrorists – both of these stories also drew attention to the false confidence and the strategic nature of the Good/Evil dichotomy that President Bush created, introducing ambiguity into the rhetorically rigid frame. President Bush made claims about the mortal soul of the attackers before he even knew who they were or why they attacked. Either you are with us or with the terrorists said the president, but who exactly are the terrorists? By wittily setting up the false scenario, The Onion encourages its readers to assess the frame critically. What if we are the terrorists, as John McCain points out so eloquently in the fake quotation above? As an interpretive frame, prophetic dualism presents a single clear choice between two starkly drawn alternatives. As Phillip Wander argued above, under prophetic dualism neutrality is considered an illusion, compromise is viewed as appeasement, and negotiation is the same as surrender. Seeing shades of gray is defined by the frame as a lack of resolve. Frames that admit some uncertainty, i.e. framing the attacks as a crime rather than evil, would not be so vulnerable.
Other stories that invite judgment by confusing the easy “either/or” of the dualism include “U.S. to Arab World: ‘Stop Hating Us Or Suffer The Consequences’” which begins “In a strongly worded ultimatum Tuesday, President Bush warned the Arab world …‘You have exactly 10 days to put aside your deep-rooted resentment and rage toward America and learn to like us’” (par. 1). Here The Onion does not come out and directly criticize the frame, but it uses what Donald Muecke calls “irony by overstatement” (70-1). The Onion story uses the same either/or logic of prophetic dualism, but in exaggerated form which highlights prophetic dualism as a rhetorical tactic. Related examples of ironic overstatements that muddy the foundational binary of prophetic dualism are “Bush Seeks U.N. Su pport For 'U.S. Does Whatever It Wants' Plan” in October of 2002 and the March 2003 article “U.S. Forms Own U.N.”:
"The U.S.U.N. resembles the original in almost every way, right down to all the flags outside our headquarters," said Condoleezza Rice, a U.S. delegate to the U.S.U.N. "This organization will carry out peacekeeping missions all over the world, but, unlike the U.N., these missions will not be compromised by the threat of opposition by lesser nations."
In its first act, the U.S.U.N. Security Council unanimously backed a resolution to liberate Iraq's people and natural resources from the rule of Saddam Hussein….
Added [Vice President and U.S. delegate] Cheney: "I can't tell you how much easier it is to achieve consensus when you don't have to worry about dissent." (“U.S. Forms”)
In the quotation above, The Onion introduces ambiguity into prophetic dualism’s Good/Evil binary by insinuating that we must be the only “Good” country, hence the need for our own “ inter”national body that will let us do what we, the “Good,” need to do. Since it is impossible to define every single one of the other 187 nations in the United Nations as “Evil”, the binary becomes more ambiguous and therefore less sustainable. 
The story “ U.S. To Fight Terror With Terror” follows a slightly different logic. The starkly drawn Good and Evil are not supposed to, cannot by definition, use the same tactics as the enemy:
It's vital to remember that these terrorists hate freedom," [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld said. "Well, guess what? From now on, we're going to hate it even more…Elliott Abrams, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director For Near East and North African Affairs, said that the Bush Administration acknowledged the ethical inconsistencies of its opposing-terrorism-through-terrorism stance, but doesn't really care” (“U.S. To Fight” ).
“Privileged Children of Millionaires Square Off on World Stage” works in a similar fashion. It also disrupts the dualism by alleging that the dichotomy is not as stark as prophetic dualism would have us believe. Here the article playfully insinuates that Bush’s privileged upbringing, family fortune, youthful indiscretions, and later spiritual awakening are very similar to the life of Osama bin Laden, as is the huge economic gulf between both leaders and their soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan:
"We're gonna go in there and take out bin Laden," said Joseph Barton, a 19-year-old Army reservist from the impoverished rural village of Sissonville, WV. "This one's for W." Barton then loaded his rifle and prepared to advance on a battalion of 18- and 19-year-old Taliban soldiers in the impoverished rural village of Qalat, Afghanistan. (“Privileged Children”)
According to The Onion, the two leaders have much more in common that the prophetic dualism would allow us to believe. 
The Onion ran another series of story which honed in on the ambiguities inherent in prophetic dualism, encouraging the readers to evaluate and judge the veracity of the frame. Instead of disputing the dualism directly by disrupting the mutual exclusivity of the dichotomy, these stories call attention to the complexity and diversity within each side of the dualism. While President Bush consistently and repetitively defined each side as a monolithic, The Onion, instead, chose to emphasize each side’s muddiness and complexity, again asking the reader to assess the frame. I will examine the Evil side of the dichotomy first. While fewer in number compared to the stories focusing on the diversity in the Good side of the dichotomy, many of the “Evil” stories were quite striking, for example “Bush Sr. Apologizes To Son For Funding Bin Laden In 80s”, “Vital Info On Iraqi Chemical Weapo ns Provided By U.S. Company That Made Them” and “Bin Laden’s Mother Worried Sick: ‘For his dear mother's sake, I wish he'd carry out an attack…Just so I know he's all right.’" (par. 7). All three stories variously imaginatively highlight possible shades of gray within the Evil side of the dualism. The first two stories highlight an ambiguity at the heart of the construction of “Evil:” the fact that we were “friends” with both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the past. Does that mean that we routinely did business with Evil when it suited our needs? Does it mean that they were mislabeled by President Reagan and the first President Bush or that it is necessary to support Evil when they fight against those who were even more Evil, in this case, the Soviet Union and Iran? Ambiguities abound. The most interesting of these stories, however, occurred in the first issue after 9/11 - &ldquo ;Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell”:
JAHANNEM, OUTER DARKNESS—The hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon expressed confusion and surprise Monday to find themselves in the lowest plane of Na'ar, Islam's Hell.
"I was promised I would spend eternity in Paradise, being fed honeyed cakes by 67 virgins in a tree-lined garden, if only I would fly the airplane into one of the Twin Towers," said Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11, between attempts to vomit up the wasps, hornets, and live coals infesting his stomach. "But instead, I am fed the boiling feces of traitors by malicious, laughing Ifrit. Is this to be my reward for destroying the enemies of my faith?" …
According to Hell sources, the 19 eternally damned terrorists have struggled to understand why they have been subjected to soul-withering, infernal torture ever since their Sept. 11 arrival. …
"I was told that these Americans were enemies of the one true religion, and that Heaven would be my reward for my noble sacrifice," said [Abdul Aziz] Alomari, moments before his jaw was sheared away by faceless homunculi. "But now I am forced to suckle from the 16 poisoned leathern teats of Gophahmet, Whore of Betrayal, until I burst from an unwholesome engorgement of curdled bile. This must be some sort of terrible mistake." (“Hijackers”)
Prophetic dualism discourages a close examination of either side of the dichotomy. In contrast, the satire of The Onion gives a much more complex picture. While The Onion clearly thinks that the terrorist acts were terrible enough to warrant eternal punishment by Islam’s own standards, words in the story above like “confusion,” “surprise,” “struggle to understand,” and “terrible mistake” present the terrorists as people who were duped by a charismatic leader who lied to them, rather than as uniformly and purposively Evil, as prophetic dualism demands.
The Onion also draws attention to the complexity of the hegemonic side of the dualism, the side that will inevitably win because God is on this side: the Good. Under prophetic dualism Good is the opposite of Evil, but it is just as monolithic, and thus, pointing out its striations and blemishes also invites the reader to reassess the power of the dichotomy. For example, President Bush declared on September 20, 2001, in his address to the nation that “Freedom and fear are at war. … The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” A little later in the same speech, he added “They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other” (Bush, “Address”). The Good in this scenario would obviously be the pr otectors of freedom and justice, the Evil would revel in fear and cruelty. The Onion, however, reports this a little differently, using pointed satire to call attention to the fact that, despite the dictates of prophetic dualism, “freedom” is not an absolute good in this country. For example, in December of 2002, The Onion ran the story “Bill of Rights Pared Down to a Manageable Six”:
A Republican initiative that went unopposed by congressional Democrats, the revised Bill of Rights provides citizens with a "more manageable" set of privacy and due-process rights by eliminating four amendments and condensing and/or restructuring five others. The Second Amendment, which protects the right to keep and bear arms, was the only article left unchanged….
“We're not taking away personal rights; we're increasing personal security," [Attorney General] Ashcroft said. "By allowing for greater government control over the particulars of individual liberties, the Bill of Rights will now offer expanded personal freedoms whenever they are deemed appropriate and unobtrusive to the activities necessary to effective operation of the federal government." (“Bill of Rights”)
“U.S. Capitol Cleaning Turns Up Long Lost Constitution” also makes the same point (It was behind the couch), as does the story from the beginning of the essay: “Freedoms Curtailed in Defense Of Liberty.” All three stories use the ironic technique of overstatement, which is taking an idea or issue that is factually true and then stretching it to its logical extreme. This technique raises questions about President Bush’s dichotomous portrayal of freedom as something “they” hate and “we” venerate, again asking the reader to critically appraise the frame. “CIA Chief Admits To Torture After Six-Hour Beating, Electrocution” and “American Torturing Jobs Increasingly Outsourced” also introduce ambiguity into the monolithic “Good”. According to President Bush above, justice an d cruelty are at war. If we torture, on which side of the war do we belong?
The Onion also blurs the Good in more subtle ways. For example, in March 2003 The Onion ran stories like “U.S. Continues Proud Tradition of Diversity on Front Lines” detailing the decades long “spirit of inclusiveness” in the lower ranks of the armed forces. This is not a direct comment on prophetic dualism, but it certainly raises an unseemly issue that the Bush Administration would not want to highlight, again requesting that the reader stop and assess the frame. How do class, gender, and race function on the Good side of the dichotomy? A related article portrays President Bush as actually putting his life on the line for his beliefs in Iraq: “Bush Bravely Leads 3rd Infantry into Battle.” President Bush’s lack of military experience and privileged background are stressed here, again not with a direct discussion, but by praising the President as willing to risk his life just like the hundreds o f service-men and women whom he ordered to Iraq, something we know to be untrue:
"Bush is the real deal, and when he talks about fighting for freedom, he means it," said Pvt. Tom Scharpling, 21. "He'd never ask one of us grunts to take any risks for our country that he wasn't willing to take himself."
According to reports from the front, many of the soldiers were initially suspicious of the president, doubtful that an Ivy Leaguer who once used powerful family connections to avoid service in Vietnam had what it took to face enemy fire head-on. However, Bush—or, as his fellow soldiers nicknamed him in a spirit of battlefield camaraderie, 'Big Tex'—quickly overcame the platoon's reluctance to having a "fancy-pants Yalie" in its ranks.
"Bush is the best soldier I've ever had the honor of fighting alongside," said Pvt. Jon Benjamin, 23. "I'd take a bullet for that man, because I know he'd take one for me if he had to." (“Bush Bravely”)
Donald Muecke calls this ironic tactic “praising in order to blame”. According to Muecke, this can take three forms: (1) praise for desirable qualities known to be lacking; (2) praise for having undesirable qualities or for lacking desirable qualities; and (3) inappropriate and irrelevant praise (67). All three forms can raise questions about the frame by targeting weaknesses in the supposedly unassailable Good. One of the most unsettling examples during this time period employed a similar tactic, although this one displayed a more serious type of satire than The Onion usually employs: “Dead Iraqi Would Have Loved Democracy:”
BAGHDAD, IRAQ—Baghdad resident Taha Sabri, killed Monday in a U.S. air strike on his city, would have loved the eventual liberation of Iraq and establishment of democracy, had he lived to see it, his grieving widow said.
"Taha was a wonderful man, a man of peace," his wife Sawssan said. "I just know he would have been happy to see free elections here in Iraq, had that satellite-guided Tomahawk cruise missile not strayed off course and hit our home."
A shoemaker and father of five, Sabri, 44, was listening to the radio at 3 a.m. when a missile launched from a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf veered off course and struck just feet from his house. Sawssan was away at the time, tending to an ailing aunt in the Baghdad suburb of Mansour.
"My husband was no fan of Saddam," Sawssan said. "He felt he was a terrible despot. If the Americans do drive him from power, it will be that much more of a shame that they killed Taha." (“Dead Iraqi”)
What does it mean when the Good indiscriminately kills large numbers innocent people, many more, in fact, than the number of innocent people killed on 9/11? The Onion’s satire repeatedly raises these types of questions and invites the reader to judge the veracity of the frame.
Finally, while most of The Onion’s articles targeted the originators of the prophetic dualism frame – the Bush Administration and its signature policies – it also ran stories that underscored the Democratic Party’s lack of power in the face of the frame, as well as the confusion of the American people who were waiting for information at the bottom of the cascade. There were fewer of these stories, but they functioned in a similar way and no one was immune from ridicule. Not surprisingly, many of The Onion’s stories revolved around the incompetence of the Democrats. Examples include “Democrats Somehow Lose Primaries” and “Kerry Makes Whistle-Stop Tour From Deck of Yacht” in 2004, as well as “Democrats Vow Not To Give Up Hopelessness” in 2006:
According to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Democrats are not willing to sacrifice their core values—indecision, incoherence, and disorganization—for the sake of short-term electoral gain.
"Don't lose faithlessness, Democrats," Kennedy said. "The next election is ours to lose. To those who say we can't, I say: Remember Michael Dukakis. Remember Al Gore. Remember John Kerry."
Kennedy said that, even if the Democrats were to regain the upper hand in the midterm elections, they would still need to agree on a platform and chart a legislative agenda—an obstacle he called "insurmountable."
"Universal health care, the war in Iraq, civil liberties, a living wage, gun control—we're not even close to a consensus within our own ranks," Kennedy said. "And even if we were, we wouldn't know how to implement that consensus." (“Democrats Vow”)
These stories do not call attention to the ambiguities within the dominant frame. Instead, they highlight the strength of prophetic dualism. The one group from which one would expect opposition to President Bush’s policies was completely reduced to incoherence in the face of the overwhelming power of the frame.
Interestingly, at the bottom of the cascade, American citizens were portrayed in The Onion as either overreacting or confused by prophetic dualism. The articles that highlighted overreacting to the threat of another terrorist attack ran along the lines of “Security Beefed Up At Cedar Rapids Public Library,”“Trick-Or-Treaters Subject to Random Bag Searches” and “Woman With Sore Throat Thinks It Might Be Anthrax.” Examples of stories highlighting confusion were “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake” in the first issue after 9/11 and “ Area Man Not Exactly Sure When To Take Down American Flags” in January of 2002:
Last Thursday, seeking to gauge public opinion, he asked coworker Jim Bowden when he thought the office should take down the flag hanging by the receptionist's desk. Bowden said it should remain ‘until the injustice is eradicated around the world and God's peace prevails’
‘I had no idea what Jim meant, but I guess now is clearly not the time,’ Wenger said. (“Area Man”)
The Onion writers appeared to realize that American citizens were at the bottom of the cascade and therefore rhetorically held hostage by the dominance of prophetic dualism, as well as the lack of any legitimate counter narrative. Because of this, The Onion reserved most of its scorn for the originators of the frame, the Bush Administration.
I have argued that The Onion refused to take the morally soaked, starkly drawn dichotomy of prophetic dualism seriously, writing stories that purposefully, albeit playfully, asked the reader to question and then to judge the hegemonic framework. Specifically, instead of overtly critiquing the Bush Administration or their dualistic rhetoric, The Onion uses the multilayered nature of satire to introduce ambiguity into the seemingly unassailable dualism of Good versus Evil. It did this by mischievously suggesting ambiguous relationships between the starkly drawn and mutually exclusive sides of the dichotomy and by highlighting shades of gray inside both sides of the supposedly monolithic opposites of the dichotomy.
But so what? A satirical newspaper like The Onion seems quite insignificant compared to the power of the Bush Administration and its supporters. And it was. There is a vast asymmetry between the enormity and strength of prophetic dualism and the snarky, sometimes juvenile satire of The Onion. To put it more harshly, The Onion did not close Guantanamo Bay, stop the invasion of Iraq, or even prevent President Bush from being elected to serve a second term.
The importance of satires like The Onion, however, lie in what Linda Hutcheon calls “discursive communities” (96-7). Satirical performances such as The Onion, Hutcheon would emphasize, both draw on shared cultural knowledge and create new cultural knowledge in their wake, allowing potent counterpublics to form out of the watchful eye of the Administration. That is to say, The Onion was a kind of safe space for those who wanted to critique both the prophetic dualism frame and the policies the Bush Administration was pursuing under cover of the frame. The online format allowed articles to be forwarded, inside jokes shared, and it provided the knowledge that the silenced critics of the Administration were not alone in their judgement. There were others who saw what you saw, disagreed with the same things with which you disagreed, and that knowledge allowed for strength, hope, and patience until such a time that overt criti que could once again be spoken freely.
 Coe et al. studied fifteen major speeches by President Bush, beginning with his inauguration in January 2001 and ending with Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on March 13, 2003. They found that before 9/11, the Good/Evil dualism was present in fewer 10% of the paragraphs in presidential addresses. After 9/11, prophetic dualistic statements were often present in between 30 and 40% of paragraphs, with the high point on the first anniversary of 9/11 when the president’s address made mention of one or both halves of the dualism in over 60% of the paragraphs in his public address.
 In addition to a spontaneous chorus of “God Bless America” by lawmakers of both parties on the Capitol steps the night of the attacks (“Congress Vows Unity”), the Majority and Minority leaders of the House and Senate introduced a joint resolution giving President Bush the power “to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States” on September 14 ( H.J.Res. 64) and passed The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercede and Obstruct Terrorism Act (a.k.a. the USA PATRIOT Act) overwhelmingly one month later (H.R.3162). Legislatively, Congress was united.
 There is an emerging literature that details the failures of the media to question the Bush Administration’s version of both 9/11 and the Iraq War. See, for example, Zelizer and Allen, Dadge, Hatchen, Finnegan, Thomas, and Bennett, Lawrence, and Livingston.
 For more information on the surge in presidential popularity that almost always accompanies a major foreign relations event whether perceived to be a good or bad event, see, for example, Sigelman and Conover, Bowen, and O’Neal and Bryan.
 Vice President Dick Cheney was still invoking the frame, although with much less effect, on the five year anniversary of 9/11 in September 2006. On NBC’s Meet the Press he argued that any debate at home about foreign policy foster doubts in our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan: “And those doubts are encouraged, obviously, when they see the kind of debate that we’ve had here in the United States. Suggestions, for example, that we should withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq simply feed into that whole notion, validates the strategy of the terrorists” (Abramowitz A12).
 In the March of 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines made an off hand remark at a concert in London ten days before the invasion of Iraq: “Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” This single sentence led to protests, boycotts of their albums, public stomping of their CDs, and a blackout of their songs on country radio. See “Dixie Chicks ‘Shut Up and Sing’”.
 For example, ironic tropes known as Socratic irony, situational irony, cosmic irony, irony of fate, romantic irony, etc., are not considered satirical. For a detailed description of various scholarly approaches to irony stemming from rhetoric and literary criticism, see Knox, Booth, Muecke, Behler, and Dane.
 The classic example is, of course, “A Modest Proposal,” one of the most famous uses of satire and Jonathan Swift one of the most celebrated satirists in western literature. See Swift. The commentary on Swift’s satire is vast. See, for example, Bloom and Bloom and Fox. For discussions of more current satire, see Warner 17-37, and Farrar and Warner 273-96.
 However, it is important to remember that irony and satire are not inherently subversive or radical ( Hutcheon 10). Irony is a “tactic” in Michel de Certeau’s sense. In the Introduction to The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), he delineates between what he calls “strategies” and “tactics.” A strategy, says de Certeau, “assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper and thus that serve as a basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it…” (xix). A strategy, then, assumes and works from a stable intellectual and often institutionally reinforced position. For de Certeau “tactics,” however, operate a little differently than “strategies.” They have no “proper” place; they are mobile, homeless, utilitarian, dodgy, disloyal even. Unlik e strategies, tactics have no inherent borderline neatly separating some kind of a “proper” inside from that which is outside and thus can be used in the service of both conservative as well as subversive, repressive as well as emancipatory agendas.
 The official Onion website is www.theonion.com. The Onion officially has no by-lines; every major article is collaborative. Each week, each of the writers submits headlines, from which eighteen are picked for the next issue. All of the writers comment on the writing and editing of each piece.
 For the purpose of this essay I will be commenting only on the online version of the newspaper, although the description and analysis will be accurate for the paper version as well.
 The horoscopes are provided by Lloyd Schumner Sr., Retired Machinist and A.A.P.B.-Certified Astrologer. For example, the Cancer horoscope for February 19, 2008 is “ The giant pain in your ass is in fact not your mother, though the stars don't blame you for confusing her with colon cancer.” See “Your Horoscope.”
 The Onion does such a good job at impersonating a real news source that there are many instances of their stories getting picked up as “real” news by news networks. For example, on March 12, 2004, Deborah Norville on MSNBC picked up an Onion story that said that 58% of American exercise was televised.
 The Onion is actually quite well known for this kind of irony, what Donald Muecke calls the “mock heroic”, in this case, where the common/normal becomes worthy of “news.” See Muecke, 82. Examples would include the February 8, 2004, issue: “Hungover Couple Unaware They Broke Up Last Night” and “Day Job Officially Becomes Job”.
 The photograph accompanying this story is a real picture of Colin Powell and others sitting around the Security Council table, but it has been doctored. Instead of placards with the name of each respective country and flag in front of each member’s seat, the pictures shows a “United States” placard and flag in front of all seats. See “U.S. Forms Own U.N.”
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