The Onion Satirist Baratunde Thurston Speaks to Colgate Community

Alanna Weissman

On November 9, Baratunde Thurston, Harvard-educated Director of Digital at The Onion and author of the blog Jack & Jill Politics, gave a talk entitled,”The Fifth Estate: How Satire Saves Democracy” to a packed Love Auditorium. Co-sponsored by the African, Latin, Asian & Native American (ALANA) Cultural Center, the Classics Soci­ety, the Institute for Philosophy, Politics and Economics and the College Democrats, the humorous, audience participation-heavy talk focused on how, in Thurston’s words, satire – the fifth estate – “checks the fourth, which checks the other three.”

Thurston began with a brief family history, in which he detailed the lives of his pioneering relatives – among them his grandmother, the first black employee for the Supreme Court – and his childhood in Washington, D.C. He went on to show slides of articles from The Onion, a satirical newspaper which publishes funny yet thought-provoking headlines such as “Black Man Given Worst Job in Nation” (with reference to the 2008 election) and “Nation Waiting for Protesters to Clearly Articulate De­mands Before Ignoring Them” (with reference to Occupy Wall Street), as well as examples of satire from politically turbulent countries such as Egypt, Nigeria, Colombia and Afghanistan. Thurston stressed that “in America, the cost of speaking out is low,” and provided examples of the reverse, playing a controversial Chinese sa­tirical cartoon – censored in its creator’s home country – entitled “Blow Up the School.”

Thurston concluded his talk with a comical-yet-sobering excerpt from his upcoming book, How to Be Black, in which he discusses topics such as race relations and “the forced deseg­regation of cafeteria tables” at Sidwell Friends High School, his prestigious alma mater. After a question and answer session in which Thur­ston stressed that there are “no lines satire won’t cross,” Donovan’s Pub sponsored a dinner dur­ing which students were invited to converse with the personable speaker.

Junior Neal Xu, a classics major and one of the students who had the privilege of speaking to Thurston individually, said he enjoyed the lecture.

“I have always been interested [to see] if we could find any ‘universality’ in major literary and performative genres in different cultures,” Xu said.

Consequently, Xu found the multinational examples to be a highlight of the evening.

“The example of the satirical video on the Chi­nese education system is particularly moving to me, for the very scenario was almost the exact reflection of my own life before going abroad to study in Ger­many and England,” Xu said. “Though I do not understand Arabic or Nigerian, I do notice similar patterns of rhymes and pauses that transcend the boundary of languages and cultures.”

In a time when political tumult abounds in the country – and controversial race issues on Colgate’s own campus – Thurston’s talk, which was unof­ficially titled “Satire, Freedom and Black People. Yes, That Is the Title,” provided a refreshing view­point made all the more relatable by good-natured racial humor, a light mood and openness. Hope and the prospect of progression were pervading themes, even if (or, perhaps, especially if) that elu­sive and ever-evolving goal was achieved through satire. Admirably, Thurston’s lecture eschewed mentioning specific bipartisan political differences and instead focused on universalities: humanness, censorship and the need for change.

Indeed, the nature and environment of the talk rubbed off on attendees.

“This event brought together some groups that seldom coincide, such as ALST and the Classics,” Xu said. “Beyond simply bringing different groups together, this event is even more successful in that it has pointed out many shared, invisible, literary and social values fun­damental to any society that are often ignored and smothered by more superficial differences.”

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