The Great Irony Kerfuffle

  Jerome Shea       August 19, 2008      Weekend Wonk

Well, Shea is late again. I hated to interrupt the coinage sequels, and Macinstruct has been in the summer doldrums, Matt and I indulging ourselves in travel and just kicking back, relishing the welcome rain and dodging the heat. But now, like the Terminator, we’re baaack!

The presidential campaign slogs on even though neither candidate has been officially nominated yet. One yearns to comment on the latest flip-flop flaps, or the gaffes of supporters, like that doozy by Phil Gramm. But by the far the most interesting, and one that will be old news by the time you read this, is what I am calling the great irony kerfuffle. I mean, of course, Barry Blitt’s now infamous New Yorker cover that depicts Barack Obama as a secret Muslim jihadist and his wife, Michelle, as another Angela Davis. We are talking here about irony, or satire, or parody, or whatever. I have seen all these terms used, so for our purposes we will just stuff them under the ramshackle roof of irony.

Irony has caused more trouble over the years than my least-favorite nephew. Although it makes for great puns, “irony” has nothing to do with the ferrous metal. Rather, it comes from the Greek “iron,” meaning a mask. Irony says—or in this case draws—the opposite of what it means, and as Leonard Pitts points out, it has always been tricky. (More than that, it is a profound mystery, but that’s fodder for another wonk.). The columnists and the letter writers have been all over the map on this one. The New Yorker defends itself on the grounds that the cover is clearly meant to be ironic, satiric. In other words, the artist is trying to mock the garbage that has been stinking up the internet for these last several months, the claim that Obama is a secret Muslim who, if elected, will deliver us into the hands of the jihadists. Along with this are the allegations that he took his Senate oath on the Koran, not the Bible, that he can be seen to be visibly upset when the national anthem is played or the Pledge of Allegiance recited (rather like a vampire cringing before a crucifix), and so forth. In The New Yorker’s view, these charges are so utterly outrageous that no one could doubt that the cartoon is designed to ridicule them (and ridicule is supposed to be a very powerful disinfectant of noxious ideas).*

On the other side, there are always those who just don’t get it. These may be miswired literalists (that is the only way I can understand some students that I have had) or those who, putting it charitably, have trouble distinguishing between the plausible and the utterly implausible, or those who are willfully obtuse. The gold standard for satire of this type is Jonathan Swift’s famous essay, “A Modest Proposal” (1729), in which he proposed that the English consider fattening up, cooking, and eating Irish babies.** His real point was that they may as well consider eating them because such behavior could hardly be any worse than the effect that their draconian policies were already having on the Irish. Some of the English, of course, took his words literally and wanted his head. Irony is tricky. It may be, however, that Swift’s satire did help to shame the English into revising their Irish policy. Such a result is very hard to gauge, but that at least was Swift’s intent.

Anyway, both political camps denounced the cover, and the summary of views in The Week is entitled “The New Yorker: When irony fails.” But for once I find myself agreeing with Kathleen Parker, who recommends that those people who are having the vapors should get over it. Far better to tolerate and even encourage satire than to tacitly encourage censorship when you disagree with what you read or see. More discomfiting is the suspicion—no, more than a suspicion—that the elite consider satire too dangerous a tool. The enlightened can enjoy satire, can “get it,” but it will just unduly agitate the great unwashed, confirming for them their warped, ignorant views, and that’s something that we can’t afford.

Two points. First, a satiric cartoon is not going to disabuse those who believe such tripe anyway. Second, I think that the percentage of people who really don’t “get” satire is minuscule. Leonard Pitts decries the fact that one of his readers responded with “WOW, the [sic] New Yorker got it exactly right, for once.” Pitts says that this was written “without a trace of irony.” I disagree. It seems more likely to me that that reader recognized what The New Yorker editors were trying to do and just turned the tables on them, accusing them, in effect, of trying to satirize the truth. Those smarty pants dupes spoke the truth without even knowing it, so there!

The difference between Swift’s satire and Barry Blitt’s satire is that Swift was able to nurse some hope that his target audience would see the light. Maybe Pitts has a point when he says—as have others—that reality (Monica Lewinski, Cheney’s quail hunting misadventures, legions of political lies) has itself become so outrageous and absurd that “satire has become superfluous.”

I hope not. Perhaps the satiric impulse has become attenuated, but it’s still out there. Consider some of our catch phrases. “I just love Barry Manilow’s music…NOT!” or the ubiquitous ironic qualifier “(no, really)” or the ironic denial “Gas will be back below three bucks a gallon by Christmas—yeah, right!”

Surely the only animal that can appreciate irony is the human animal, and some among us would like to do away with it. Now that’s ironic.

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