Irony is dead.
Sound familiar? That’s what some cultural critics said after Sept. 11, 2001, now called 9/11.
That national calamity marked the end of sardonic detachment, some thought. Sarcasm was out. Absurdity was out. Sincerity was in.
Ironically, this assertion managed to stand up about as long as a bad comedian.
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Last week, on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, the satirical news site www.theonion.com reported that Homeland Security and the CIA were warning America the next 9/11 could be on a different date.
“The report, based on intelligence gathered by field agents, found that a future 9/11 might take place on an entirely new month and day, including 4/24, 6/13, or even 10/12,” The Onion said.
You may recall that the irony-crushing 9/11 occurred just months after George W. Bush’s first inauguration. Before September 2001 was over, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” was commenting on the “irony is dead” theory, noting that the fires still smoldered at Ground Zero, so whether irony truly had gone up in smoke was hard to say — the future, as ever, unforeseen.
In what were prophesied to be the irony-free years that followed, millions of Americans chose to get their news not only from Fox or CNN or the Washington Post, but from satirical sources such as The Onion, “The Daily Show,” and Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” a show that daily refines irony’s temper and shine.
These past few weeks, Stewart and Colbert have celebrated the Bush years, during which irony did not just rise again, over a post-9/11 world, but soared like a screaming eagle.
Has Barack Obama shot it down? The hope inherent in the election of America’s first black president has pundits again saying irony’s out.
Weeks after Obama’s victory, the New York Times’ Andy Newman noted that author Joan Didion was saying the country had become an “irony-free zone.”
As Salon.com’s David Beers reported in 2001, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter then hypothesized “the end of the age of irony,” as did essayist Roger Rosenblatt, in Time magazine.
What is irony?
Typically it’s sarcasm: Our tone conveys the opposite of what our words mean literally. “You are so sweet,” you deadpan when your idiot boyfriend says he loves your being late for a date because he flirts with your sister while he waits. And is she seeing anyone? He’s just curious.
Check www.dictionary.com and you’ll see “irony” also means “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.”
Like when people say “irony is dead” after 9/11, and then seven years later Stephen Colbert wins an Emmy.
In Obama’s election, the ultimate irony may have been overlooked: Without President George W. Bush, could there have been a President Barack H. Obama? Did America embrace Obama’s “hope” and “change” because he promised an end to the arrogance, deceit and denial lampooned these past eight years on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report”?
Should Republicans complaining about Obama’s election not credit George W. Bush, who tried so hard to be a hero that he was vilified? Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
Irony is not dead, but a light-hearted spin on serious matters often is misinterpreted. Some people didn’t get the Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction at Obama’s inauguration: “Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”
(“That’s the best Dr. Seuss book ever,” Colbert quipped after playing a clip.)
Lowery apparently was alluding to a 1940s Jim Crow blues song by Big Bill Broonzy. Alan Lomax’s “The Folk Songs of North America” says the chorus goes like this: “If you’re white, you’re right; if you’re brown, stick around, but if you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.”
Lowery is 87. The song was copyrighted in 1946, when he was 25. He’s among the few who would know the context.
America’s satirists have yet to treat President Obama with the same irreverence to which they so joyfully subjected President Bush. So perhaps we are, at the moment, traversing an “irony-free zone.”
But we shall cross over.