Tu stultus es. “You are dumb.” Last week, The Onion filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court beginning with those three Latin words. The case of Anthony Novak v. City of Parma, Ohio involves a man who was arrested and forced to spend four days in jail for creating a parody Facebook account satirizing the local police department. Novak sued, claiming that the city had violated his constitutional right to free speech. A federal appellate court ruled in favor of the police, and Novak is now seeking to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court.
Why did we file? Partially, because our livelihoods depend on putting parody out into the world and not being arrested for it. But more broadly, we filed because parody holds a powerful capacity that’s especially worth defending in the present moment: It gives us the ability to mimic the voice of serious authority and thereby kneecap that authority from within. We can take apart an authoritarian cult of personality, point out the rhetorical tricks politicians use to mislead their constituents, and even undercut a government institution’s real-world attempts at propaganda.
Still, you might be wondering, why would we begin a Supreme Court legal brief with that particular Latin phrase?
The simple reason is that the motto “You are dumb” captures what’s at the heart of parody: The form hinges on tricking the reader into believing they’re seeing a serious rendering of some specific form—a pop-song lyric, a newspaper article, a police beat—and then pointing out their gullibility when they realize they’ve fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the history of rhetoric.
Parody really is an old trick. The word has its roots in the Hellenic world. It originates in the prefix para, meaning an alteration, and the suffix ode, referring to the poetry form known as an ode. The first-century B.C. poet Horace’s Satires replicated the form of the ode—mimicking its meter, its subject matter, even its self-serious tone—but tweaked it ever so slightly so that the form was able to mock its own idiocies and be, well, funny.
The intention here isn’t to bore you with dry Latin linguistics. Rather, the point is that without the capacity to fool someone, parody is functionally useless, deprived of the tools inscribed in its very etymology.
Why is this important, though? What does parody provide that might not be possible by simply stating your critique outright, avoiding the need to confuse readers? One might respond that by going from the stale AP-style headline setup of “Supreme Court Rules …” to the punch line of “Supreme Court Rules Supreme Court Rules,” our writers are able to inhabit a specific self-important rhetorical mode of authorities and then deflate its authoritative tone from within.
Time and again, that’s what’s happened when deluded figures of authority mistake The Onion’s satire for actual reporting. China’s state-run news agency covered our proclamation of Kim Jong Un as the sexiest man alive in 2012 as if it were factual, publishing a slideshow of the dictator himself in all his glory. Domestically, Republican Representative John Fleming of Louisiana believed he needed to warn his followers of a dangerous escalation of the pro-choice movement after reading the 2012 headline “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex.”
The point we’re making is not simply that it’s funny when this happens—although, it can be extremely funny. Rather, it’s that when powerful people fall for what any reasonable person would recognize as absurd, it punctures their aura of self-seriousness. Indeed, parody relies on most readers being reasonable.
We’re getting deep into a discussion of an intricate legal filing intended to deconstruct the societal implications of parody, so your attention is almost certainly wandering. That’s understandable. So here’s a paragraph of legalese we included in our brief to ensure that the Latin dorks at the Supreme Court take our argument seriously: “Bona vacantia. De bonis asportatis. Writ of certiorari. De minimis. Jus accrescendi. Forum non conveniens. Corpus juris. Ad hominem tu quoque. Quod est demonstrandum. Actus reus. Pactum reservati dominii.”
“See what happened?” we asked the justices. “This brief itself went from a discussion of parody’s function to a curveball mocking the way legalese can be both impenetrably boring and belie the hollowness of a legal position. That’s the setup and punchline idea again. It would not have worked quite as well if this brief had said the following: ‘Hello there, reader, we are about to satirize an amicus brief. Buckle up, because we’re going to be doing some fairly outré things, including commenting on this text’s form itself!’”
Obviously, doing so would have spoiled the joke and come off as a bit stodgy, we explained in the brief. But more important, it would have disarmed the power that comes with a form devouring itself. For millennia, this has been the rhythm of parody: We convince you that you’re reading the real thing, then we pull the rug out from under you with the joke. The heart of this form lies in that give-and-take between the serious setup and the ridiculous punch line. Indeed, it was the grande dame of the satire world, Mark Twain himself, who said, “The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”
Of course, given that all nine of the Supreme Court’s justices—and several lower-circuit judges—have been blessed with the divine gift of infallibility, there’s no real reason for us to be explaining all of this to you. We have faith that the Court will see the wisdom in upholding the conventional function of parody and its role in pointing out the idiocies of the world.