Barack Obama and the End of the Irony Age?
About a year and a half ago, a friend of mine named Ned explained a problem he was having. He had recently attended concert by a mutual acquaintance of ours, a minorly successful pop-singer-songwriter who plays piano, bops his long brown hair, and belts out ballads of love and introspection. Ned said the guy had a great voice and the music was pretty good too. But, to his great frustration, he couldn't even begin to take the show seriously, because the expression of emotion was too pure, too genuine. In other words, even though he really wanted to, Ned couldn't accept the performance, because it was completely devoid of irony.
Irony is the central characteristic of the present generation. Defined by Merriam Webster as "the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning," irony is typically employed to illuminate truths in art, music, or literature, or to expose hypocrisy. But today, for a huge portion of young, educated members of society, irony is much more than a rhetorical or literary device. It is the very lens through which we view the world. Indeed, so imbedded are our thought processes in irony, we have a hard time identifying what irony actually is. And we find it nearly impossible to understand, or accept, the world in its absence.
Don't believe me? Let's take a look at the facts. We – the generation I'm talking about – get our news from the fake news program The Daily Show, our entertainment from the pop-culture-reference-riddled cartoon Family Guy, our clothes from the Salvation Army, and our music recommendations from the snarky, sarcastic articles on web magazines like Pitchforkmedia.com. We like our books and films to be self-referential (or self-aware, as I like to say) and, when they're not, we label them cliché or melodramatic. We're suspicious of anyone with money or power and wary of promises of all kinds, especially those from politicians. We may or may not think there's a God, but either way, we cannot bring ourselves to fully believe in a single religion, because of all the negative associations. Irony, in its many manifestations-cynicism, skepticism, sarcasm, parody, to name a few-permeates our every observation and decision. It is the only way we know how to view the world. We are constant joke-crackers and one-eyebrow-raisers, always ready to expose a falsehood or undermine a hypocrite.
This worldview didn't arise out of nowhere, of course. Our experiences have taught us that there are real reasons to question sources of power, not only the obvious ones like the government and big oil companies, but institutions like CBS News, Paramount Pictures, The New York Times, the Democratic Party, and MoveOn.org. It's hard to argue we're wrong to interpret the world the way we do, when Jon Stewart does a better job questioning the course of the country than so-called real journalists, and the best way to determine what's going on in Iraq is to believe the opposite of what the president says. (Recall Orwell: "War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is Peace...")
Many have wrongly interpreted my generation's ironic tendencies. A middle-aged woman in LaGuardia Airport recently told me that she was disappointed with the apparent apathy of today's youth, when she compared our attitudes to those of her generation, in the 1970s. I take issue with this assessment; we are but a smart, innovative, and practical people. Our brains are wired for globalization and Web 2.0 in ways that are parents can't understand. We are therefore better equipped to dream up solutions that actually fit the problems of contemporary society. What makes us different-from you, LaGuardia woman!-is that we recognize there are precious few things in the world born from pure motivations. Those idealistic activist movements made popular in the 1960s and 70s-the many "isms"-have their flaws too; in our eyes, they don't get a pass on examination and criticism. We can't rationalize latching on to an ideology that seems reactionary or unrealistic, so we tread softly, preferring to define ourselves by our individuality rather than our associations. Speaking from experience, it's not the easiest way to live.
Enter Barack Obama. If someone were to design a candidate to appeal to the young generation, they would have been hard pressed to do a better job than Obama. I don't have to explain this too much-you know what I mean. Obama's very biography oozes with elements that appeal to postmodern brains. He seems to embody the ideas of the literary theorists people like me fell in love with in college, like Jacques Derrida and Frederic Jameson. Obama calls for us to deconstruct society's petty binaries: Democrat vs. Republican, black vs. white, rich vs. poor, straight vs. gay. These categories are inadequate, he tells us, and if we frame our debates with them, we will limit our thought processes and our ability to solve problems. Maybe I haven't been paying close enough attention, but Obama is the first politician I've ever heard say anything as intelligent and true as that.
More remarkable is the fact that Obama has been able to inspire the most difficult-to-inspire generation in history, in an un-ironic way. As a casual progressive for most of my short life, I've never been too much of an activist and neither have most of my friends. Even when I've supported liberal candidates, I've never felt inspired or understood by them. But when I read the printed transcript of Obama's now infamous speech on race, on the subway ride home to my apartment in Harlem, I – a middle class white girl from the Midwest – cried. Finally a candidate was talking about a complicated aspect of life in a way that wasn't patronizing. Obama didn't have to do that, the speech on race, and it was an incredible political risk. But he did it to help facilitate an intelligent public discussion of a subject that people never discuss honestly, except behind closed doors. I found myself asking a question that I might have scoffed at a few years ago: What if everyone did come together and help one another? Maybe we really could change the world.
The wave of un-ironic optimism has washed over more than just me and my peers. Since Obama's election, it seems like everybody really wants to fulfill Obama's promise of a new politics that unites rather than divides. Petty political attacks toward Obama have been frowned upon, and criticisms have been framed more as helpful suggestions than negative jabs. We're so happy, we don't even know what make fun of: Saturday Night Live has struggled to find an Obama-mocking shtick that people are willing to laugh at. Sure, one reason for all the positivism may be that circumstances are so dire right now, it's a necessity that we overcome our differences and work together to find solutions. But the other part is that we are sick to death of irony. We want to believe in something.
Don't get me wrong; I don't think irony will suddenly disappear as a relevant force in society. (And so the title of this essay is, of course, a hyperbole.) For instance, I'm pretty sure The Daily Show will still have material during the next four or eight years. But when the Great Depression hit the U.S., people no longer wanted to read F. Scott Fitzgerald's stories of disaffection and decadence. How will the un-ironic positivism of Obama, the candidate and president-elect, affect what resonates in art, music, and media, once he becomes president? And, to bring it back to Ned, how will it affect our thought processes? Will we subconsciously reject the kind of irony that seems to exist merely for the sake of mockery? Will we be more willing to accept straight-forward expressions of hope and love? Or will we demand honesty at all costs, even if it makes people uncomfortable?
I guess we'll have to wait and see.