Our Dumb Century

The Onion

Our Dumb Century: The Onion Presents 100 Years of Headlines from America’s Finest News Source’ is a satirical humor book written by the staff of ‘The Onion’ and published in 1999. The chief editor of the book was Scott Dikkers, with specific sections edited by Robert D. Siegel, Maria Schneider, and John Krewson.

The book, spun off from ‘The Onion’ weekly-newspaper format of dryly satirizing current events, features mocked-up newspaper front pages from the entire 20th century, presented as though ‘The Onion’ had been continuously in print since before 1900. The publication of the book is in itself a parody of other end of the century retrospectives that had been published in 1999, notably ‘Time’ magazine and ‘The New York Times.’

The book satirizes many common beliefs, trends, and perceptions. For instance, in response to the John F. Kennedy assassination theories, one headline declares, ‘Kennedy Slain By CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons’ and that he was shot ‘129 times from 43 different angles.’ This is later followed up by an article proclaiming that the ‘Warren Commission admits to killing JFK.’

The book often takes a cynical look at American foreign policy over the ages, describing past events with revisionist, modern-day perspectives. For example, the Pearl Harbor attacks are described as being an attack on a ‘colonially-occupied US non-state’ and President Woodrow Wilson encourages Americans to fight in World War I in order to ‘make the world safe for corporate oligarchy’ The article on the 1920 granting of women’s suffrage states ‘Women Finally Allowed to Participate in Meaningless Fiction of Democracy.’ The article on the beginning of World War II is ‘WA- (headline continued on page 2),’ with ‘WA-‘ in especially large print.

Smaller stories in the book satirize social and pop-cultural trends of their respective eras, such as the faux-advertisements and gimmicks that abound in the top and bottom corners of the pages. Since the book was written before the year 2000, its prediction for that year satirized Y2K and religious prophecies, including ‘Christian Right Ascends to Heaven,’ ‘All Corporations Merged Into OmniCorp,’ and a small graphic listing meteors headed for Earth by size.

There are a number of running gags through this supposed history of the twentieth century, which are not immediately apparent. One is the existence of a piece of farmyard equipment called ‘The Chicken Raper.’ Another is that every major celebrity trial, from Fatty Arbuckle to O.J. Simpson, is referred to as ‘the trial of the century.’ A third is the newspaper fear-mongering by drawing a caricature of America’s enemy du jour (among them, Spaniards, Nazis, and hippies) sexually assaulting an anthropomorphized Statue of Liberty.

Three consecutive pages show a fictionalized end to Richard Nixon’s presidency which loosely parallels the end of Gary Tison’s life: First Nixon is arrested for his connection to the Watergate scandal; the next week’s headline says he then escaped and is on the lam; the third says he was gunned down in a shootout with cops (but Spiro Agnew is still at large). A more subtle satire is the rise of a (fictional) company called ‘Global Tetrahedron,’ which first appears as a small business in the first decade of the century and gradually grows into a multinational behemoth.

Several events from the classic film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ are also used as stories, such as ‘Mr. Potter To Pay Fifty Cents on the Dollar’ during the Great Depression and ‘Harry Bailey Wins Congressional Medal of Honor’ in the World War II section, with Harry S. Truman quoted in the latter story as saying ‘we owe a great debt to George Bailey for pulling Harry out of the ice when he was 9’ and saying George was declared 4-F because of his ear. Eventually, in the 1980s, George Bailey is indicted as part of the Savings and Loan scandal.

Also present is the frequent theme of moral outrage at the amount of sex in popular culture, beginning with a depiction of women’s undergarments reproduced from a Sears catalog, then extending to jazz music (also thought to have sunk the Titanic), and culminating in ‘Hippies Celebrate Fuck Summer ’67.’ The space race is repeatedly covered, including such articles as ‘Bleeping Two-Foot Tin Ball Threatens Free World’ about the Sputnik launch ‘Soviets Ahead in Dog-Killing Race’ about the flight of experimental animals, and finally ‘Holy Shit, Man Walks on Fucking Moon,’ a recreation of the Apollo 11 landing, complete with a radio transcript filled with profanity.

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