Ironic Engagement

The Hidden Agenda of the Anti-Ironists


Unlike the thousands of World Trade Center victims who spent weeks officially missing before being declared deceased, irony was pronounced dead while the embers were still hot. In a 21st century update of the regrettably mistaken maxim that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, the end-of-irony announcement swept the nation with force and flatulence.

"One good thing could come from this horror: It could spell the end of the age of irony," wrote Roger Rosenblatt, essayist for Time and Jim Lehrer's Newshour. "For some 30 years—roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright—the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously." That self-scolding sentiment was echoed around the country, perhaps second only to the canard that we had been punished for our "isolationism."

"We've been a smirky, arrogant bunch," ran a typical item—titled "Will tragedy change us for the better?"—in the Sacramento Bee. Graydon Carter, a Spy magazine founder and now editor of the page-heavy and idea-light celebrity glossy Vanity Fair, asserted that the media's ironic pose "was on its last legs," adding, "I have a feeling something fresh will emerge. When you have something so cataclysmic happen you almost can't help it. You had a whole new kind of writing after World War II."

If you get past the offensiveness of thinking anything good will come of mass slaughter or the dubious belief that taking a page from the decidedly unironic book of Islamic zealotry is the best course for our nation, the death of irony has some appeal. Certainly, withering sarcasm feels hollow and meaningless after the horror of the attacks. Then again, so do World War II movies.

But this particular funeral is one we had attended many times before Mohammed Atta took his first flying lesson. Since at least the late 1980s, various sages have been pronouncing the end of irony. Indeed, Rosenblatt, who specializes in the precious word soufflés popular with earnest public broadcasting fans, had himself already announced irony's defeat in a 2000 New Year special issue of Time.

The War On Irony never had a clear enemy. Any concept that describes the corporate froth of Entertainment Weekly, Swift's "Modest Proposal," and the deadpan satire of The Onion is already broad enough to be valueless. That Graydon Carter—whose journey from the vitriolic Spy to the starfucking Vanity Fair has been a real-time illustration of the axiom that we become what we most despise—is considered an ironic fellow at all demonstrates how weightless this argument is.

In any case, deadpan japery isn't the cause of disaffection but the result. What Rosenblatt calls "prancing around in an air of vain stupidity" was never the sole province of the celebrity culture; it applied equally to self-important essayists, solemn anchormen, and an uninterrupted string of state departments whose rambunctious and provocative foreign policies betrayed the non-interventionist sensibilities of the populace and left us open to the wrath of omnicidal fanatics. The wisenheimers who paid no respects to such dolts did not get us into this mess—straight-faced true believers of all stripes did.

But what Rosenblatt—author of a memoir of attending Harvard during the Vietnam War and the new, fret-filled Rules for Aging—has in mind isn't really a rejection of Juvenalian satire but a scolding of a younger crew that never took generational spokesmen like himself seriously. Note that his chosen time frame of "the last 30 years" coincides neatly with the decline of baby boomer impregnability, as a new cohort has been willing to ignore the nuncios and Kodak moments of the '68ers.

And now those same spoiled little pricks even have their own galvanizing national tragedy, one that in less than two hours reduced not only the Kennedy assassination and Kent State but even Pearl Harbor to relative insignificance. What has vanished from the earth isn't irony or skepticism. It's the ability of the generational priesthood to keep claiming that kids today never had it tough.