The State of Irony


I think we may be muddying our terms here, though I’m willing to use “ironic” as an all-purpose catch-all that encompasses Oscar Wilde and Beavis and Butt-head (OK, maybe Beavis but not Butt-head): the general point being people who affect a posture of not taking things seriously, not caring, and not committing. I still disagree with you: I think the current American disease (especially among the hipster set) is a kind of false ingenuousness, which is marginally more icky than meretricious sarcasm and, by several factors, more boring. One of the top singles of the year was N’Sync’s “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You.” Until very recently, I would have thought treacle like this would have been laughed at. You find the same creeping sentimentality on the WB network (whose most popular show is the openly religious 7th Heaven), the best-seller lists (almost everything), popular music, politics (the until-now unbruited importance of God in Al Gore’s life). 1999 is like 1959, except with oral sex.

Tinkling up and down the keyboard of high-low–to borrow Tina Brown’s deathless metaphor–you find a vast vista of cheese, posey earnestness, protesting-too-much religiosity, and beyond-New Age solipsism. In your book, you discuss the rage for angels as symptomatic of one lodestar of America’s intellectual-moral flabbiness, but the problem is far more pervasive. This is why–to bring this whole argument full circle–we need irony.

I agree with you on principle that it would be nice to see a tide of moral renewal sweep the nation, but don’t hold your breath. “Clinton fatigue” notwithstanding, the public seems likely to continue valuing competence over character. Which is why an unapologetic asshole like Rudy Giuliani trumps a faker like Hillary Clinton anytime.

I’ll leave you with a question: If the government keeps the streets clean and safe and competently performs the functions that allow civic life to flourish, will that not establish the sufficient preconditions for a healthier body politic?