Isn't it ironic?

British comedian Simon Pegg discovers that Americans can 'get' irony, after all.

"There is one cultural myth that just won't die," he argues. " 'Americans don't do irony.' This isn't strictly true. Although it is true that we British do use irony a little more often than our special friends in the US. It's like the kettle to us: it's always on, whistling slyly in the corner of our daily interactions."

But he then goes on to discover shows like Arrested Development, The Simpsons and The Larry Sanders Show, as well as the incredible popularity of Shaun of the Dead on this side of the big puddle. So we Americ ans are ironic, after all.

It's a cute, clever essay but is this a very British thing -- to be this slow on the uptake? Seven years ago, the painfully earnest Jedediah Purdy gained a quick blaze of celebrity with his argument that Americans suffer from too much irony. In For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Committment in America Today, Purdy claimed we were all lazily settling for the glib and dismissive. We're all David Letterman now. Yet soon afterwards, Michael Kelly, editor in chief of The Atlantic Monthly, hailed Americans for our lack of irony, our sturdy faith in the obvious.

To learn how these opposing observations are both right, you'll have to read the jump.

A diet too rich in irony?
Americans apparently are either overindulging or seriously deficient

by Jerome Weeks
September 3, 2000

Ealier this summer, Michael Kelly, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly, exclaimed, "God bless our un-ironic country.... Nothing so marks America, and Americans, as the quality of un-ironic earnestness, and for nothing else are we so mocked. Must we be so serious? Why, yes."

Why, no. Late last year, Jedediah Purdy leaped to celebrity by arguing that Americans suffer from exactly the opposite -- too much irony. In his book, For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today, the 25-year-old author see too many Americans lazily resorting to the "debunker's language." We have increasingly withdrawn from public life, he believes, because we've become a glib, jaded nation. We need to recover a sense of civic involvement and the language of public belief.

So which is it? Are Americans irony-poor or irony-clad?

Mr. Kelly's jubilation about our all-American earnestness appeared in print the same week in July that saw such wholesome, sincere films as, ahem, Big Momma's House and Road Trip. And a few weeks later, the smart-mouthed Dennis Miller joined Monday Night Football. It's easy to conclude that Mr. Kelly, as the popular saying goes, is wack.

Yet both authors are right, in their ways. Mr. Kelly was referring to our political scene (he was writing in The Washington Post, after all). For Mr. Purdy, on the other hand, America's political thinking may be a problem, but our "ironic attitude is most pervasive in popular culture."

In fact, we live in an oddly bifurcated country. In American politics, everything spoken for public consumption must be above-board, decent and forthright. Meanwhile, in pop culture, every player comes armed with a snarky grin because we've seen it all before.

In his new book, Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton, professional White House helper David Gergen pines nostalgically for the 1980 election campaign. All three candidates -- John Anderson, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan -- "provided clear choices for the electorate. They said exactly what courses they intended to pursue if elected."

This is our American political ideal: straight shooters whose words can be taken at face value. Skepticism, wit and sophistication are not particularly valued in our candidates. Indeed, the basic accusation many against any American politician is that he doesn't believe what he says, that he's a hypocrite, a manipulator.

In short, that he's a cynic.

"If you listened only to our public pronouncements," says William Chaloupka, "especially during the recent conventions, you would have to conclude that American culture is resolutely and completely anti-cosmopolitan, anti-ironic. But it's not true."

Politicians may sound forthright when they speak officially, says Dr. Chaloupka, who teaches political science at the University of Montana. But as he argues in his book, Everybody Knows: Cynicism in America, the American system of government practically requires a degree of cynicism to function. Congress could not operate, could not broker deals, if our representatives didn't shade the truth, didn't abandon bills dear to their constituents to finagle some advantage on another bill.

What is noteworthy about Everybody Knows is Dr. Chaloupka's argument that Americans could actually use more irony, certainly a better sense of how irony works, how words can have different meanings than the obvious ones. He admires the "operators," those people who are clearly cynical, who employ irony yet aren't emotionally crippled by it. They get their jobs done.

"We spend way too much time on a supposed search for values," he says, referring to William Bennet's Book of Virtues. "We need to be more literate about paradox and contention, about the points of debate and friction" in society and culture.

What, more irony?

"Well, it would be difficult to have less irony" in American political speech, says Christopher Hitchens, political columnist and author of Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies. American politics is devoid of the kind of ironic language that fills British politics. The reason is simple, Mr. Hitchens notes. America has the empire, and Britain doesn't. Not any more, anyway.

There's so much more at stake when you're running the show. As a result, Americans (or at least our politicians and media pundits) tend to take politics very soberly. And this burden of imperial seriousness neatly coincides with our long-held Puritan sense of America as special. America is destined, America is on a mission.

Our lack of political irony is also a compliment to American pluralism, Mr. Hitchens believes. "It's a function of scale and, pardon the expression, diversity," he says. Simply put, irony requires shared assumptions. You need to know that your audience will get your joke, won't be offended. It's hard to make that assumption in a country as large, as polyglot, as ours. Hence, the overwhelming timidity, the bland sincerity of American political speech.

"Irony is the glory of slaves," wrote Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz. In other words, when you're running an empoire, you tend to make lofty, Official Pronouncements. But when you're the hired help, the subjugated people, you learn how to use the official language to mock your masters, to subvert their speech.

You learn how to use irony.

This is a fundamental oversight in Mr. Purdy's For Common Things, Dr. Chaloupka says. It doesn't recognize that irony can have a vital function. Irony cuts through sham and hypocrisy. Irony tries to keep us honest.

For just this reason, contemporary American literature -- Don DeLillo, Ishmael Reed, T. C. Boyle, Ann Beattie -- has been rife with different kinds of irony, irreverence, skepticism. The problem, novelist David Foster Wallace writes in his essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is that television has completely absorbed such irony, cheapened it, made it pervasive. We're all hip anti-authoritarians now.

And so we're all tiresome. Pervasive irony is narcissistic, Mr. Wallace argues. It shields us from others. It "tyrannizes us."

It may be pervasive, but what passes for irony on TV, says Dr. Trysh Travis, isn't really irony. The easy indifference, the implication that everything being said is in quotation marks or the scornful sense that the fix is in, that everything zips by so fast, why bother? -- these, the professor of literature at Southern Methodist University says, are marks of cynicism, not irony.

Irony is an aspect of language, a code used to indicate that we know things are not what they're declared to be. Nudge, nudge. Or, as Dr. Travis puts it, "irony is a rhetorical structure," while cynicism "is a mindset, it's an attitude." That's why it's pervasive and so hard to combat. It's a defensive stance against feeling.

It's that TV attitude that both Mr. Purdy and Mr. Wallace find so confining, so trivializing. If everything can be televised, then nothing can be 'real,' nothing can be fully human. It's all just ... television.

What has been striking about American literature and pop culture the past several years has been those writers, TV producers and filmmakers who have tried to out-smart precisely this TV-fed jadedness. It's what marks as similar such different works as Dave Egger's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, HBO's The Sopranos, NBC's Homicide and such films as Magnolia and American Beauty.

It's certainly debatable how well each of these has succeeded. But in each case, the artists involved have not gone for a put-on sincerity. They don't retreat from irony to some supposedly simpler belief. Instead, they've conveyed a knowingness about pop culture, a self-conscious irony: the jokey cleverness with footnotes and diagrams in Heartbreaking Work, The Godfather quotations in The Sopranos, the film noir qualities in Homicide. At the same time, they've tried to reach for something more profound, more heartfelt than mere irony.

In short, they are like Dr. Chaloupka's "operators." They're ironic but they get the job done. This is never easy. This is exciting. "Seek the depth of things," the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once advised. "Thither irony never descends."

copyright, The Dallas Morning News

February 12, 2007 9:32 AM |



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