Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Emperor's New Clothes, Or, In Defense of Irony




Amid an onslaught of compelling news, I am struck by a few observations:

When there is a mass shooting in New Zealand, that country swings into action, expressing its solidarity with the victims, asserting its opposition to bigotry, and changing the gun laws in quick succession.

When an attic fire consumes the roof of Notre Dame, exposing the 800-year-old interior to sky, wind, and rain, France commits to the herculean quest of restoring its iconic cathedral.

But, in the United States, when the President surrounds himself with affirmed racists, criminals, sycophants, Russian spies, and (at least one) anarchist intent on dismantling democracy... NOTHING HAPPENS.

Not yet, anyway.

And meanwhile, at the same time, the American public has one epiphany after another:

1. Sexual harassment is a real problem and will not be tolerated.
2. Racism does not cease to exist when white people adjust their attitudes toward black people.
3. Gender identity varies.
4. Sexual preference and gender identity are two different things.

Why can't we see that the Emperor in his new clothes is in fact naked with toilet-paper stuck to his foot?

I suppose this shouldn't be so hard to grasp, for a person who lives in the purple state of Wisconsin.

Trump has campaign rallies in Appleton, Wisconsin--that long-time sunset city where for many years there was literally, planted right beside the Entering Appleton sign, another sign warning people of color in the rudest possible terms that their lives would be in danger if they were found on the city premises after sundown.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Convention has chosen Milwaukee as its venue for the 2020 presidential primaries.

In the local news here this morning, there were three unrelated articles about sexual harassment and assault:

1. The husband of the dean at UW Whitewater has been found guilty of sexually harassing almost a dozen women students and faculty.  The dean, who had steadfastly defended her husband against his accusers, has been asked to resign--and she has.

2. An 18-year old high school student/lifeguard recorded videos on his phone of unsuspecting female students changing out of their swimsuits. He has been charged with two felons but is still attending high school...

3. A high school principal came under fire by community and school faculty for his dismissive remarks in response to the sexual assault of a female student in the school bathroom by three boys. ("Kids will be kids.")

So, yeah. Consciousness has been raised, even in these Wisconsin enclaves. Boys-will-be-boys is no longer a valid excuse for sexual assault.

Yet still, somehow, collectively, we fail to see that the Emperor's New Clothes are NOT REALLY THERE.

Blame the Republican Senate--or ourselves, for not protesting as fiercely and relentlessly as, say, the French...Or blame the Russians, for embroidering the Emperor's wardrobe out of a web of misinformation.

But don't blame irony.

Have you heard the straight-up complaints from the anti-irony movement?

I first heard a diatribe against irony on NPR, saying in no uncertain terms that irony is straight-up slimy and bad, and that people should try to be straightforward and good.

I could not disagree more.

While it is true that some people use irony to evade speaking truthfully, and some people who use irony evasively are incredibly obnoxious and slippery, those people would be obnoxious truth-evaders with or without the use of irony.

Without irony, they would still have access to ridicule. They could be ridiculing.  Salty. Offensive. Mean. Violent.

Irony itself is not the problem, nor the worst expression of the problem.

To focus on irony as the problem seems censorial.

If I were being paranoid, I'd go so far as to suggest that this silly brouhaha against irony is meant to muddy the waters of genuine concerns.

It bothers me that the anti-irony diatribe on NPR was delivered by a woman, inviting the listener to   pair the new intolerance of sexual harassment with a new intolerance for irony, which is straight-up stupid.

I reject any possible tacit suggestion that opposition to irony is somehow a part of or stemming from the current women's movement.

As a woman who opposes sexual harassment and sexual assault, let me clarify, for the record: I'm totally okay with irony. 

Moreover, I oppose the censorial spirit, and any possible mischief behind this noisy, foolish anti-irony bullshit.

It may be corny and sweet of me to be so direct, or maybe I'm just not feeling very witty, but yeah, irony is not the issue.  It is not an issue.  It is not.

In literature, irony is used to reflect the presence of God. You heard that right, friends: God.

Here's how it works:  Everything is going along a certain path, and we in the audience, using our keen human minds, surmise the direction of that path.

But then irony happens, and nothing is as it seems, the path is otherwise, and we find ourselves humbled by false assumptions.

Through that ironic turn of events, the author has created our experience of being humbled and confounded.

That confounding and humbling gives us a sense of the mystery of God, of the unlimited possibilities of the universe (call it what you like).

In literature, irony creates a sense of the mysterious nature of God and universe.  When we think we are right, we are wrong.  God works in mysterious ways...In art, this mystery is revealed via irony.

In dialogue, literary and pedestrian, the alternate definition of irony (sarcasm, double meanings) conveys human duality.

I know, it's deep. And it's Saturday. And it's sunny outside. I apologize.

But think about it, if you care to:  None of us are particularly straightforward, to the root.  At some level, there is always a sideways glance, a wished-for impossibility, a harmless love of murder mysteries, a desperate devotion to church...somewhere, in all of us who are not protozoan, there are those contradictions that make us complicated and interesting and human.

And in literature, as in life, that quality of being human is often expressed through irony.

So that's it, in a nutshellL Irony is nothing more than a few brushstrokes to paint God, in one aspect; or ourselves, in another.

If you're going to rage against irony, you might as well yell at the brush and paint.  Or a hammer. Or a nail.  It's just a tool, and nothing more.

Although, for some, irony can be an instrument. For Shakespeare, a Stradivarius.