When I was a senior undergraduate, I participated in an oratorical contest in Pennsylvania between Christmas and New Year. We were asked to address challenges associated with the coming year. Since I was a hot-shot, full of myself, and admiringly sardonic, I introduced my speech with a poem that began: “The New Year engulfs us with startling ease, so down with man and down with the trees.” I got second place because I used poetic sleight of hand rather than cool, hard logic to make my case. One judge suggested that I might have been more sensitive to the season, including the Incarnation and Winter Solstice; after all, I was young and there would always be plenty of time for the Apocalypse.
The Apocalypse has finally arrived, courtesy of Buzzfeed, which just published a piece about “How the Media Will Report the Apocalypse: It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” Now with its WTF, LOL, and OMG prompts and snarky, hyperbolic edge, Buzzfeed is not exactly The Onion or even Jonathan Swift, but it nails the tone and voice of major media reporting on the mutant zombie invasion and parsing out blame. For the NYT, the end is “a regrettable and premature finale,” though an Op-Ed piece agonizes over a ruined wedding.” Britain’s The Guardian reports that Islington in North London, my birth town, is up in flames and the BBC, true to its mission until the very end, is giving the zombies equal media time. A piece on a fashion guide for surviving the toxic wasteland might not be over the top. Of course, with electronic communications unplugged, it is perfectly reasonable for the NSA to be shooting down carrier pigeons.
Britain’s Daily Mail reminds us that they “Bloody Well Told You” that the welfare state, immigration, single mothers, trade unions, gay marriage, the war on Christmas, and Bulgarians would bring about the end of civilization. For Fox News, there is only one word for it: Obamegeddon. MSNBC, trying hard to be relevant, blames the right wing zealots for cutting funding for anti-zombie programs. Reddit wants our help in finding these creatures but only if one has a degree in forensics or owns at least one box set of The Walking Dead.
“Modern Farmer” reminds us that our money is worthless; only goats matter. True to form, NPR goes on a pledge drive, pleading: “For the love of God, send us Guns.” And TMZ shows us Ryan Gosling’s disembodied skull. Though I gave this effort a “W,” or Winner, the satire grows stale towards the end, perhaps because much of what is parodied is already considered a bit of a joke by many Americans. A reasonable response to the Fox blather about the War on Christmas or the fact that Santa Claus is white might be to watch the Daily Show. The very unfunny Karl Marx is quoted as saying: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, than as farce. Perhaps the same can be said of our political discourse.
After 9/11, Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter said on September 18, 2001, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.” In 2011, Michael Hirschorn in New York magazine wrote that Carter was trashed for his remarks. The Onion and Saturday Night Live were back at the humor and irony game by October. At that time, Hirschorn raised the question of what irony really means and suggested that perhaps we were too used to the reflexive, postmodern irony found in Seinfeld and the Simpsons to assign 9/11 to our collective psyches the way we have done with Pearl Harbor and other events. Or maybe we were too caught up in our webby world of self-indulgence.
Hirschorn writes that, after John Stewart, “It is hard to cite an influential author, essayist, blogger, artist, or musician who has brought the full range of ironic whizbangery … against the very-more-powerful political-financial complex that is dragging this country to Depression-era levels of inequality.” This was written more than two years ago and retains more than a ring of truth.
Hirschorn seems prescient about our Brave New Alice-in-Wonderland World. “It may be the confluence of 9/11 and the dominant culture of webby self-expression that may have dealt irony a double death blow. The habit of retailing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, now abetted by Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, was born in the ashes of 9/11. They are mediums that repel the ironists and embrace the earnest-ists in a warm, gooey, communal hug (insert emoticon here).”
The Buzzfeed piece suggests that anything can be parodied because we live in a viral, 24/7 world where up is down and fictions are treated as fact. This is our existential plight. We see this in our politics, where there exist few mediated, agreed on truths. Or worse, truth become personalized, solipsistic and narrow, an invitation for us to act like one of Sherwood Anderson’s grotesques; I believe in one and only one truth and that truth is me. Hit the Like button if you agree.
Irony is still very much with us, but it’s the situational ironies found in the old Seinfeld episodes that survive in many incarnations. It’s been almost three hundred years since Jonathan Swift published his A Modest Proposal, suggesting that one way to solve Ireland’s problems of famine, poverty, and finances was to eat its young, with a one-year-old considered to be the most nourishing, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled. Published under the name Dr. Swift and presented as a very sober, logical, philosophical treatise aimed at preventing children of the poor from becoming a burden on parents and nation, this broad satire was a nicely cloaked criticism of the Catholic Church, wealthy landowners, the ruling class and a nation that in a sense was already eating its young. Swift took full aim at the powers that condemned the young to a life of poverty and a Church that enshrined this condition in its theology.
The good news is that this book is no longer on the list of banned books, having been replaced by books about sex. Sadly, few people seem to read this slim volume except English professors who still squeeze meaning from this modest tome, enduring any hardship to grab that last shot at tenure. Even better news is that A Modest Proposal has entered the English language as a metaphor and a conceit, spawning thousands of examples of modest proposals dealing with everything from racism on campus, to reducing Mexican illegals and mother-in-law visits. Not surprisingly, this metaphor has also entered the gun control debate with one blogger, sounding very much like an NRA meme, suggesting after the Newtown murders that children should carry guns to school and also be taught to gang-tackle armed gunmen. We learn through some interlocutor that this advice, in the spirit of Swift’s pamphlet, was meant to be ironic. I missed it entirely.
Swift might not be pleased that we are still consuming our young.