It’s not irony that’s died, it’s paranoia, and it seems to me a worse loss than irony. If paranoia is not real — that is, if it’s completely justified — then there’s a flattening out of everything, and Don DeLillo has nothing to write about. If things simply are happening, not just might be happening, then there’s no room for the American hobby of wild speculation and obscure theories….”
by kristina eldredge
It’s funny how fast things change lately. The solemn murmurings about the death of irony that followed the Sept. 11 attack have largely been stilled, as the country realizes there’s a hell of a lot more at stake right now than irony. In fact, this morning I had an idea for an extremely black-humorous cartoon in which a postal worker lies in a hospital bed, severely ill with inhalation anthrax, and doctors out in the hall are conferring, the caption reading: “It’s touch and go with him, but what about the death of irony?”
Those poor fucking shmos, the postal workers! If ever there’s been a good time to be a terminally unemployable layabout, this is it. I guess that’s ironic. All my futile efforts to get a foot in the door of the New York media world are cast in a new light, as it seems that those who penetrated and thrived in the inner sanctum are now targets. But for the people who just have to deliver mail to these icons to be getting poisoned, that seems too sad for words. How much do postal makers earn? Is it a job worth dying for? My hunch is no. Yet they carry on. They are heroes, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
This is what I wrote before the death of irony became an obsolete concern: On NPR on Friday, Oct. 12, a writer for the humor paper and online publication The Onion was interviewed, seemingly so he could defend the merriment his publication has resumed displaying in the wake of the attacks of Sept 11. The Onion writer politely tried to give some thought to “the death of irony” when announcer Brian Leher mentioned the phrase, though The Onion’s style of humor is giddier and more explosively funny than mere irony. The writer pointed out that The Onion had done an entire issue devoted to the aftermath of Sept. 11, and that it hadn’t been funny, but then they had returned to business as usual, trying to be witty but still sensitive to the circumstances in the country.
“Some people have felt you have gone too far,” Leher said somberly. “For instance, this isn’t funny — this headline: ‘Arab Third-grader Runs From Playground, Crying “I Didn’t Kill Anybody!”’
“Well, that’s more under the category of commentary about what’s actually happening,” the writer explained.
But this is lighter: “Dildo Manufacturers Association: Nation Must Return to Normalcy, Purchase Dildos.” Lehrer seemed to be having trouble keeping his voice steady.
“Yes, that’s lighter,” the writer agreed, then mentioned the Dinty Moore headline: “Dinty Moore Breaks Long Silence on Terrorism.” Even Brian Lehrer seemed to be stifling snorts of laughter (along with everyone who phoned in) whenever a headline was read out loud. Callers were unanimous in their support of The Onion. One caller said he thought the war on terrorism was being fought by The Onion. He suggested we bomb our targets with the paper version of The Onion rather than any other propaganda.
The death of irony is such a non-issue. We are not experiencing a dearth — we’re awash in irony. Such as the day, back in September, when President Bush urged travelers to return to commercial flying, while on the same day announced he had authorized military jets to shoot down civilian planes if necessary.
Or — to mention the obvious — the repeated, urgent warnings of further terrorist attacks, coupled with reassurances that there is no reason not to resume life as normal. George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four seems to be invoked daily, the brainwashing chants his characters were forced to perform: “War is Peace! Love is Hate!” There are reasons for our leaders to be less than entirely forthcoming, we understand, but we are still on the receiving end of an awful lot of evasive and contradictory information.
What people mean when they say “the death of irony” is the death of sardonic humor, or the inappropriateness of parody or sarcasm. But as a perusal of the Onion web site will reveal, there’s nothing more consoling than a good guffaw over something as funny and accurate as: “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.” The Onion is written by clowns with a radar for silliness that in recent memory, only Monty Python have equaled. To rebuke them for being funny is like reproaching a bird for singing. They’re a national treasure, processing frivolity and genuine foolishness with perfect satirical pitch. For instance, I defy you to keep from laughing if you read the article attached to the headline: “Freedoms Curtailed in Defense of Liberty.” The Onion’s fictional versions of speeches by figures like John Ashcroft and John McCain are only mild parodies of the paradoxical pronouncements Washington seems determined to issue. The Onion just spins the paradoxes a little tighter, and you become helpless with laughter.
It’s not irony that’s died, it’s paranoia, and it seems to me a worse loss than irony. If paranoia is not real — that is, if it’s completely justified — then there’s a flattening out of everything, and Don DeLillo has nothing to write about. If things simply are happening, not just might be happening, then there’s no room for the American hobby of wild speculation and obscure theories. The world devolves into a simple “us versus them” landscape, and repression and conformity, which already seemed to loom just behind George W.’s boyish shoulders as he monosyllabically took office, become rampant. Now that we have a philanderer out of the White House, we can go back to the wholesome values of, say, the Eisenhower era. Which is, I swear, the way I felt watching Bush’s dishearteningly conservative cabinet picks began to fill the news with images of a throwback to pre-Clintonian diversity.
We haven’t been bombed back into the stone age, but we do seem to have been bombed back into an earlier America, one where church bells play “America the Beautiful” every day at noon, as they do in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I haven’t heard that song since elementary school, and as its pretty, hymnal notes fill the air every day, I’m transported back to being a credulous second-grader, one who believed adults could take care of me, and the gibberishy “purple mountains, majesty” was an incomprehensible but therefore unquestionable sign of their authority.
But we aren’t children, and we need more than simplistic reassurance. We need sophistication that shows us our leaders can respond to a changing world. Here’s an idea: Couldn’t we adopt our rhetoric to the newer America? Can’t we alter the Pledge of Allegiance to say “One nation, under many gods?” Couldn’t we sing, “God, Allah, Jehovah, Dios, bless America?” We’ve instituted many policies to protect our minorities — now let’s start honoring them with our symbolism as well. Because to invoke a Christian god for all America right now really is ironic — too ironic.