Politics & Policy

The Irony of Irony


Well, they went and figured it out. In trying to find someone to blame, the mob extended its door-to-door search of the culture into its second week. I had hoped they would rush past one culprit who’d been hiding in plain sight. I knew it was guilty, or at least as guilty as the 500 other things that have been blamed so far for this massacre. I hoped that if it held very still we could move on without an in-depth examination of the true opiate of the enlightened: irony.

Yes, irony. Sweet, sweet, irony. My dark master and ever-present companion.

The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter writes an excellent piece today on the dangers of a popular culture suffused with irony. And Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Maureen Dowd stubs her toe on precisely this point as well.

First, what is irony? Well, the people who know what they’re talking about will tell you it derives from the Greek, eironeia, meaning “simulated ignorance.” Paradoxically (gosh, I really wanted to use the word ironically here), the people most likely to know the literal definition of irony are the people least likely to appreciate it in its modern form.

Still, technically, irony is a rhetorical device used to convey a meaning sharply different from or even opposite of the literal text. It’s not just saying one thing while meaning another — that’s what Bill Clinton does. No, it’s more like a wink or running joke among people in the know.

Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a classic text in the history of irony. Swift argued that English lords should eat the children of the poor to alleviate hunger. There is nothing in the text which says, “hey, this is sarcasm.” Swift lays out a pretty good argument and it’s up to the reader to figure it out that he’s not really serious. When Homer Simpson says to Marge, “Now who’s being naïve?” the writers are winking at all those people who love The Godfather ( these people are commonly referred to as “men”). When George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld keep saying “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” every time they mention homosexuality, they are making an ironic joke about the culture’s insistence that we affirm our non-judgmentalism.

Anyway, irony is one of those words that most people understand intuitively but have a hard time defining. One good test is if you like to put “quotation marks” around words that shouldn’t have them. The “quotation marks” are “necessary” because the words have lost most of their literal “meaning” to the new politicized interpretations. I have trouble writing any “code words” the Left uses without quotation marks. “Building a bridge to the twenty-first century” has no meaning to me except “doling piles of cash to teachers unions and trial lawyers.” Gays’ and women’s “rights” are ruining the very meaning of the most honorable word in political history. Obviously it’s not just on the Left. Quotation marks descend like vultures on almost every political slogan and phrase. The “compassionate” in compassionate conservative is already a code word to many conservatives, meaning “squishy.”

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. At first the blame for Littleton fell on the popular culture — video games like Quake, Doom, Postal, movies like Natural Born Killers, The Basketball Diaries. So experts in cultural forensics went out and looked at these movies, played these video games. And it turned out that the culpable scenes and games were in fact ironic. The violence wasn’t supposed to endorse violence. In the movies, it was a send-up of our perceptions of violence. Stephen Hunter says that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was the first ironic hit movie. On one level, we watched the action, and on another level, we marveled at the thousands of tiny little tributes to the genre. I’m not sure he’s right. I think one could make the case that Star Wars was more ironic — telling an old-fashioned story with futuristic hardware. But the point remains that movies have been increasingly loaded down with irony for the last 25 years.

These “horrible” video games that everyone is beating up on are all about irony — and rock ‘em, sock ‘em fun for the whole family! (Quiz: Was that a) sarcasm b) irony c) just one guy’s honest opinion?) In the game Postal, a mailman goes around killing everything that moves. It is a very deliberate macabre joke about the stereotype of our men in blue. No, the other men in blue.

TV (ah sweet TV) is far, far more ironic than the movies, but the irony is comedic rather than violent. About half the dialogue in any given episode of Seinfeld is ironic. The Simpsons has more levels than a shopping-mall parking lot.

I idolize Bill Bennett, so I was crestfallen to find out he hates The Simpsons and that he and his wife don’t let his kids watch it. The problem, I think, is that they don’t get it (but I bet their kids would). They hear Bart say, “Don’t have a cow, man” and think well, that’s the text, therefore that’s the meaning.

This is the inverse of the problem of irony in America. Bennett is smarter than Homer likes bacon. The real dilemma is that there are a lot of dumb or lazy or bored or ignorant people who either don’t get it or choose not to get it. For them, the ironic meaning gets filtered out. Mobsters are reputedly huge fans of The Godfather. They don’t see it as a tale of individual moral corruption. They see it as a nostalgia trip to better days for the mob. And, truth be told, so do I and most of my friends. In the recently released Matrix, there are dozens of ironic touches — from references to Bruce Lee and old Westerns to tiny winks about Keanu Reeves’s stellar stupidity. These flourishes bring most of us out of the film for a moment and remind us that it’s more of a cartoon than a real bloodbath.

But, surely for some of us, it’s just bloodbath. Kids who play Postal or Doom or see The Basketball Diaries, don’t get it. Stylized violence and cultural references go over their heads, or fail to take them out of the visceral moment. They just have a lot of fun playing a game where you get to shoot a lot of people in the head.

My “girlfriend” thinks irony is “destroying” this country. I can’t really disagree (partly because she’s right and partly because she’d kick my ass). Her beef is that irony makes cynics out of all of us. We become convinced that the text is irrelevant and the only thing that matters is the subtext. We put on the epistemological equivalent of heat-seeking goggles, which “light up” the quotation marks in everything. She’s surely right about academia, where “aesthetization” is all the rage; having a clever or ironic interpretation is more important than offering an accurate one. In politics too, everything becomes a joke quickly. The moment of hope evaporates into long, hot days of cynicism.

This could be a sign of serious moral decay, especially among the elite. I know I’m deeply infected. We believe there’s nothing new to say, no great new cause. So, we speculate and cogitate on clever ways to say the same old thing or mask base motives with catchy new phrases like “building a bridge.” Or it may be a sign that we’re all growing up. I don’t know.

But surely there’s a problem when everybody else gets the joke except the kid with the AK-47.


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