The State of Irony


I appreciate your reference to my discussion of angels in the book. This has been totally overlooked. So, mainly, have the discussions of Wired magazine and Fast Company. Anyone who tried to describe America mainly in terms of irony would be silly. Irony is a prominent pose. So is a kind of spirituality, sincerity, and mawkishness that even those who utter it often can’t seem to take seriously–for good reason. So also is the conceit of the info-tech and business culture: that the digerati, or the Free Agent, have solved the problem of human happiness. All of these strike me as basically unreal. That’s why I discuss them together in a chapter called “Avoiding the World.”

I think these attitudes feed each other. Clinton-style politics, with the rhetoric of heavy feeling, sincerity, and moral purpose–combined with the behavior of salesmanship and self-dealing–gives boatloads of credibility to reflexive skepticism about politics. The whole unsavory cultural Beast With Two Backs gives everyone else impetus to opt out in favor of personal perfection: Enter the Free Agent.

This is why I cringed when I saw myself described in the New York Times Magazine as the avatar of “The New Sincerity.” If I woke up on Sunday to find someone cashing in on one tired position in a tired cultural muddle, and doing it by way of a claim for his own sincerity, my response would be: “Who is this creep?” People are reading the book, and I think they’re seeing that that’s not what I mean to be doing.

A last word on government and clean streets. I really do believe that, in and out of the narrow realm of elections and committees, we do good and necessary work when we put some effort toward caring for and enhancing–realistically, with clear eyes, in a way that we can sustain for years rather than over a short burst–the things we care for most. My book is at heart a letter of thanks to people who do that, despite everything, and a love letter to the possibilities that they show the rest of us. There won’t be a moral renewal, since we’ve always been creatures of deeply mixed character, but our moral continuance can have more or less of both preservation and betterment.

Here’s to more.

This has been a terrific exchange. Thank you.