Once Removed

I’m excited to announce that my new novel Once Removed (2020, Turnstone Press) is set for release this September and is available to pre-order now! Ask for it at your local independent bookseller!

An affectionate pastiche of small-town Mennonite life, replete with duty, folly, irreverence, and joy.

—David Bergen

Hilarious as Schitt’s Creek, sinister as Hitchcock, Once Removed gives us Timothy Heppner, the quintessential non-resistant Mennonite, in a comic tour de force that exposes the friction between progress and preservation, ethnic pride and ethnic embarrassment, commerce and heritage, truth and boosterism, and the coercion and acquiescence that is as real to the big city as to a small town.

-Armin Wiebe, Grandmother Laughing

Timothy Heppner is a frustrated ghostwriter struggling to make ends meet in Edenfeld, a small Mennonite community bulldozing its way towards modernity. A member of the Preservation Society but desperate to keep his job with the mayor’s Parks and “Wreck” department, Timothy finds himself in an awkward position when he is hired to write an updated version of the town’s history book. Fuelled by two warring loyalties, the threat of personal bankruptcy, and a good deal of fried bologna, Timothy must find his own voice to tell the one story that could make—or break—him.

Honest and laugh-out-loud funny, Once Removed explores the real cost of progress in this new Canadian classic.

You can also download a PDF sample of the first two chapters here:  Once Removed Sampler.

Humour in Dark Times

Last night, after a long semi-stressful day–one of the craziest that I can recall in recent memory–my wife and I decided we needed to wind down with a movie.  Even though Erin, no doubt, would fall asleep within a few minutes, she rebuffed my suggestion of The Blob. Too scary. Night of the Living Dead was a no-go for her, too.  I perused my selection of (mostly) classic films. (Yes, I still buy physical discs. I’m just like that, okay). Alright, well, what sort of film might be appropriate? The Seventh Seal, the Bergman film about a knight coming home from the crusades during the Black Plague and facing off with Death in a game of chess? Maybe not tonight. Eventually I pulled out a couple selections: Dr. Strangelove and The Big Lebowski.

Erin pondered the options and chose the supremely funny and quotable The Big Lebowski.  As predicted, she fell asleep pretty quick, even before the nihilists threaten to cut off the Dude’s “Johnson.” But while she was awake she laughed till there were tears in her eyes and, later, when she fell asleep, I carried on laughing without her. And, you know what? For two solid hours I didn’t think once about the coronavirus. I didn’t even grab my phone to see the latest death tally. I just watched…and laughed.

We need humour in dark times. It’s not the only thing we need, of course, but it’s something. It’s healthy.

Back in February I spoke about “Humour in Dark Times” at the Ottawa Mennonite Church. Of course, for us in Canada, the coronavirus wasn’t really on our radar yet at the time, but I was reminded of that lecture title again last night.

There are a lot of things we need right now. Community. Faith. Science. Leadership. Level-headedness. And, no, not toilet paper. However, maybe, we also need some humour once in a while. As long as I can, and as long as I think it’s helpful, I will try to provide that on the Daily Bonnet.

And tonight I’ll probably throw on Dr. Strangelove while my wife sleeps in my arms.

Highlights of 2019 by Daily Bonnet Author Andrew Unger

I started the Daily Bonnet on a whim, really. Back in 2016, I wrote one article about Steinbach city council moving the entire community to the Mennonite Heritage Village and posted it on my website. After a few days I noticed that thousands of people had read it and I figured, “hey, people seem to like this stuff. I could write more of that.” And so I did, and a few months later, I launched the Daily Bonnet.

Thanks, everyone, for reading, commenting, and sharing my posts over the last year. Writing the Daily Bonnet is a lot of fun and I plan to continue to write posts as long as it remains so.

2019 was quite an interesting year, with some unexpected highlights. When I started the Daily Bonnet, I never would have predicted that it would be mentioned in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the Canadian House of Commons. I’m still a little stunned about all that. I also had a number of speaking opportunities and even filmed an episode of a local food TV show, which was a lot of fun. All of this from a few schmaunt fat jokes!

You know what else happened this year? I turned 40, the Bombers finally won a Grey Cup, and my father retired from many decades as a pastor. I’m not sure of the implications of all this on my psyche, but I guess the fact that I’m no longer a pastor’s son means I can move beyond the schmaunt fat jokes, right? Haha.

I’m really looking forward to 2020 and will have some very exciting news coming up in the next few months.

Thanks again for reading my work.

Happy New Year!

Andrew Unger

Brian Mulroney Cartoons: My First Attempt at Satire

In the spring of 1992, my father accepted a pastoral position in Calgary and our family moved from Manitoba to Alberta, heart of Reform Party country. I think I had an interest in politics before then, but it really ramped up when I arrived in Calgary at the height of Preston Manning mania. Ahh, yes, those were the days…

It was about this time when I started to dabble in political cartooning. I had always been a writer. As a young child I wrote poetry and short stories. However, there was a period, say 1992 and 1993, when I churned out literally hundreds of political cartoons, most of them focused on my arch enemy at the time: Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Recently, I discovered six notebooks full of these cartoons in an old desk. I honestly have not looked at them in decades. Examining them now I can see that most of them were not that funny and the artwork was not very good, but, hey, I was 12 and I’m quite certain this was my very first foray into satire.

These cartoons have remained unseen for twenty-seven years, but I present a few of them here for your perusal now. Enjoy!

A good Mennonite kid always has to weave in Biblical analogies:

“This time, though, God didn’t provide the ram.”

Well, that’s quite a trio!

“House of horrors”

He did have a  big chin….

“Mulroney slides”

This one is about as sophisticated as it gets….

“Stop. Time out!”

I actually think this one is kind of funny. Do you remember those “Tax this, Brian!” bumper stickers?

“Tax this, Brian!”

Ahh, yes, the classic angel and devil on the shoulder!

“Mulroney’s peer pressure.”

And then, as I page through these notebooks, I notice that they just stop, literally right in the middle of an unfinished Kim Campbell cartoon. My interest had waned or moved on to other things….

Teaching Satire: Resources for Educators

From about the age of twelve to fourteen, I filled Hillroy notebooks with poorly-drawn, occasionally funny, political cartoons. Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister at the time and it was fun to exaggerate the length of his chin while offering my Junior High critique of his tax plan. I can’t say this type of writing was ever encouraged in any classes I took in school. It was just this thing I did on my own. My cartoons were never shown to anyone.

Later I became an educator myself and have been teaching high school English Language Arts for fifteen years. I taught a unit on satire for about twelve years before I started The Daily Bonnet, a satirical news website that focuses on my own Mennonite cultural and religious background.

Satire is a powerful communication tool and a form of writing that is increasingly common today. However, it’s not often understood very well. My intention here is not to provide lesson plans (those, I assume, you can put together yourself), but rather to draw attention to a few concepts that are essential if you want to give your students a better understanding of satire. I highly recommend that you have your students write their own satires as well. It’s challenging, but a lot of fun and quite rewarding when they see the finished product.

There is no “fake news” crisis. If there’s a problem, the problem is lack of literacy. I firmly believe that if people are being “fooled” by “fake news” (whether satire or deceptive fake news) it is not the fault of “the Russians” or anyone else who might be churning out misleading memes in a basement somewhere. Failure to understand or “get” satire, and failure to be able to differentiate between real and fake news, is entirely a literacy issue and the solution lies, then, not with politicians, but with teachers and parents.

By reading and writing satire, students should develop critical thinking skills and creative writing skills. Beyond that, it’s actually a lot of fun! Whether you’re a teacher, student, or just someone interested in learning more about satire, I hope you’ll find these resources helpful.

Click on the links below to learn more:

Understanding satire: What makes people laugh?

Understanding satire: What is satire?

Understanding satire: What is “fake news”?

Understanding satire: How to detect satire

Understanding satire: Examples of satire

Understanding satire: Cognitive biases and satire

Writing satire: Tone in satire

Writing satire: Types of exaggeration

Writing satire: Are you punching up or punching down?

So Who Writes The Daily Bonnet Anyway?

Hello. I’m  Andrew Unger, a church-going Mennonite pastor’s son from Steinbach. Surprised? Well, some of you know me as Andrew J. Bergman, the pen name I used from 2014 until now.

I used the pen name for two years before starting the Daily Bonnet, the name selected as a tribute to my grandfather, an amateur poet. However, as the Daily Bonnet gained more notoriety and I was invited to speak in public and write for other publications it became a bit of a hassle. How do I introduce myself? etc. etc. It is a family name, my mother’s maiden name, but I’ve decided to make it simple. Andrew Unger it is. That’s my real name. Besides, a pen name doesn’t seem very Menno now does it?

This will also make it much easier for you to find me on the Grandma’s Window genealogy website. We’re all frintschoft now aren’t we anyway?

On my new website, andrewunger.com, you’ll find information about speaking events, blog postings, and upcoming book releases! If you haven’t already, you can follow Andrew Unger on Facebook and Twitter.

When People Think Satire is Real…

Recently I wrote a satirical article for The Daily Bonnet with the headline “Canada Pays Off Entire Federal Debt One Day After Marijuana Legalization.” Surprisingly the post went viral and actually became the most read post ever on The Daily Bonnet. If I could write a post like that every day I would, but one thing I’ve learned after two years of writing the Daily Bonnet is there’s really no way to know ahead of time how popular or viral a particular post will be. The popularity of the marijuana post, however, drew attention from fact-checking websites such as Snopes.com and Pulitizer Prize-winning PolitiFact.com, both of whom pointed out that not only was the article false, but it should have been obvious to readers that it was satire.

Why, one might wonder, would a post with such an outrageous and obviously-fictitious headline need to be fact-checked? The sad reality is there are some people who have trouble discerning fake news, even satire, from real news. I was asked to comment on this article by a few journalists, including one from PolitiFact. I responded to his request, but the article had already been published, so my comments were not able to be included. However, his questions got me thinking about the whole idea of fake news, satire, and political discourse. Here are my thoughts.

Fake news: a few definitions

It’s important to be precise about what we’re talking about here, because the term “fake news” is used, as far as I can tell, in at least three different ways:

  • satire or parody news  – satire or parody, in the style of a news article, intended to entertain or make social commentary, but not to deceive.
  • false news – blatant lies with no other intended purpose than to get clicks or to mislead people. These are often memes.
  • biased news – this is what Donald Trump means when he says “fake news.” He’s referring to real news outlets that he believes are biased against him.

Why do people fall for fake news?

I think the factors that contribute to someone believing false news to be true are actually very similar to the factors involved in people confusing satire for real news. I’m not basing this on any scientific research, but based on my observations as a satire writer for a couple years, I think there are two major factors that contribute to people “falling for it.”

  • Some people are not conscious enough of their own biases
    • This is huge. Many satire articles play on generalizations or exaggerations of reality. So, for example, if you’re pre-disposed to disliking Justin Trudeau, you’re much more likely to fall for a satire article that makes him look ridiculous. If you’re a Trump hater, you’d be more likely to believe an anti-Trump satire article to be true. Schools often educate students on media literacy (for example, detecting bias or opinion in reporting), but it’s just as important to emphasize metacognition and awareness of one’s own biases, because this is exactly how people confuse fake news (or satire) for real news. A general rule of thumb on the Internet is to be extra skeptical of anything that seems to confirm your biases. If you like it too much, if it seems to agree with what you already believe…you better be cautious, because it’s probably B.S. We tend to trust things we agree with, but given the nature of Internet algorithms, it’s actually things we agree with that we should be most skeptical of.
  • Some people are only reading the headline
    • Have a look at this headline: “Canada Pays Off Entire Federal Debt One Day After Marijuana Legalization.” If you’d pause, for just half a second, and think about it, you’d have to know that wasn’t true, or at least have reason to doubt it. But, let’s say the headline was not obviously satire – well, then you read the article, of course. In this case, there are jokes about the Prime Minister’s blood shot eyes and the finance minister being high while crunching the numbers – these are dead giveaways that the article is satire. But if you’re only reading the headline, or only skimming the article, you’re going to miss this stuff. Unfortunately a lot of people are doing just that.

I’ve also encountered a few people who are unaware of what satire is or that it exists, but with the prevalence of satire these days those people are quite rare.

It’s a literacy problem, not a “fake news” problem

The fact that some people get duped by fake news is not Facebook’s fault. I don’t blame the Russians either. This is entirely a literacy issue.

There have been numerous attempts to address fake news, most of which, thankfully, respect the art form of satire and have focused their attention on deliberately-deceptive false news. Facebook and Google Ads have blocked some users. People consult Snopes or PolitiFact to check if something is real or not. People check sources to see if something is a legit news outlet. There are even some plugins you can install in your web browser that alert you to fake news or satire.

While I value fact-checkers and consult them regularly, I think all these aforementioned methods are not addressing the root of the problem. If people lack that “spidey-sense” that says, “hey, this is satire,” or, “hey, this doesn’t seem right to me,” then it’s not even going to dawn on them to consult a fact-checker.

The issue is literacy and the only real solution is education.