Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Must We Mean What We Say?

I went to get a haircut the other day (the German word for haircut is der Haarschnitt! Isn't that great? You can almost hear the scissors going schnitt schnitt schnitt!) when the song "Ironic," by Alanis Morissette, came on the radio. "Hmmm," I thought to myself (schnitt schnitt schnitt) "This is a song I haven't heard in a while." And so I started listening to it, and actually paying attention to the lyrics, and then I realized that this song wasn't about irony at all. It was more just a list of things that suck.

For example, "a black fly in your Chardonnay" is not irony. It just means that you need a new glass of wine. And "rain on your wedding day"? It may rhyme with Chardonnay, but if you think that that's ironic, then it probably means that you hired a very bad wedding planner who didn't order enough tents. The worst is probably a "traffic jam when you're already late". These are not instances of irony. They're minor annoyances.

Irony, on the other hand, entails (on some level) the distinction between what is and what ought to be. A successful application of it sets up all of the parameters for a situation in order to make you expect a certain outcome, but then it pulls the rug out from under your feet at the last minute by showing how all of these parameters actually lead to this other, unexpected conclusion. (A conclusion that is usually the opposite of what was expected.) Most importantly, irony - along with its mitlaufer satire - is supposed to show something that you thought you knew or understood or otherwise had figured out in a new light, so that you say to yourself (hand on forehead) "Ohmygod! I had never realized this truth about this thing that I encounter every single day before!"

For example, being told that "none of woman born shall harm" you and then getting skewered by a dude who was born via C-section, that's ironic. Being invited to your brother's palace for a feast only to find out after the fact that he fed you your own sons? Also ironic. But that "free ride, that you've already paid"? That's not ironic. That's just not paying attention to all of those signs that say, "Free Ride." (But, then again, signs can be tricky.)

I don't really mean to be hating on Alanis Morissette so much. I just feel that it's important to be able to distinguish between what is irony and what isn't. Especially in this day and age, when I feel like I hear the phrase, "Oh yeah? Well you can just go to Hell!... Wait, we're you being ironic?" more than I ought to. Irony is especially big among a certain demographic with which I share class, race, and education level. But most importantly, as it turns out, all of these considerations came to a head two days ago when this little drawing hit the internets:

Oh, yeah baby. You know you want to see it again. This image, as I'm sure you all know, has caused quite a stir. A dust-up. A hullabaloo, one might say. (German: das Tohuwabohu.) Detractors of the image claim that it is racist, sexist, fear-mongering, and generally in bad taste. (Which is a whole-nother issue that needs to be addressed.) It's defenders, on the other hand, claim that:
Anyone with an ounce of wit and a passing acquaintance with what's been going on during this presidential campaign will recognize Blitt's illustration as a compendium of the various false and defamatory allegations about the Obamas that have been spread across the Internet in what amounts to the cyber-spatial equivalent of an old-fashioned whispering campaign...
Or that the "Barack Obama magazine flap shows an irony deficiency". (Footnote: There should be a law against referencing maybe the highest form of comedy, irony, using probably the lowest form of comedy, a pun.) Or this, which, I think, is at the heart of the matter:
The fact is, it's not a satire about Obama - it's a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama.
My problem with this cartoon isn't that it is dangerously ironic or that it might (ironically) backfire and that large swathes of the population might not be in on the joke and therefore might think that the New Yorker is really saying that Obama is a Muslim and that Michelle Obama is a Black Panther. Most people, according to Timothy Egan, get that it's not a satire about Obama. Rather, the problem seems to be that it is just a bad example of satire. There's nothing new or clever in it. It doesn't have that enlightening, often times crushingly tragic, moment of realization that is the trademark of all good irony. The New Yorker's cartoon is more like those Seltzer and Freidberg movies that (and I am paraphrasing Rotten Tomatoes here) can't tell the difference between satirizing something and merely referencing it. The way I see it, the real crime of this picture is simply that it's not funny. All I see it doing is re-stating lies that have already been said, only maybe a little louder and cruder, in a way that completely misses the reason for and purpose of irony.

And it ought to be added to the list of things that suck.


Robyn B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flavia said...

Good points, all. Though, as VH1's "I Love Anything Michael Ian Black Will Talk About" series pointed out, since the song "Ironic" does not actually contain references to irony, it is, itself, one huge irony. Oh, Alanis...

But yeah, I gotta agree with you on pretty much everything else. But there is perhaps some merit in putting forward something so blatant (if unfunny) to get people to talk about and recognize the lies for what they are. Especially since vast swaths of the country STILL think Obama is/was Muslim.

- KBru, who randomly saw this post on facebook and is totally not internet stalking you I swear!

Joel said...

Wow... I never even thought about the song that way. Thanks, KB, that blows my mind! Also, I agree that we may be giving the public a little too much credit in their ability to "get" the satire. What's the latest stat on the percentage of Americans who think he's a Muslim? 12%? And the deeper question of course is is what's wrong with being a Muslim candidate? P.S. - Please randomly see more posts!

Robyn B. said...

I believe Mr. Jon Swift agrees with you:

"Then David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, issued a statement saying that the illustration is actually intended to be satire, a decadent form of humor invented by the Romans shortly before their civilization was overrun by barbarians."

jim v said...

When one goes to church for spiritual enlightenment but finds it not from the sermon but instead from reading his friends blog while in church (thank you iPhone ), that has to be ironic. The only hard part is containing ones laughter and not annoying the preacher.

As for the cartoon, something like that ends up mainstream and then goes beyond it's intended audience. I am sure that those that think Obama is a Muslim, have never before read the New Yorker ( it may be debatable as to whether they can read, but that is a subject for another day). But because of the subject matter, the media us bringing this cartoon to an unitended audience. Good news is I think those that believe the depiction where not likely to vote for Obama in the first place, so I am not sure this really was damaging to his campaign. Second the New Yorker got some attention it normally wouldn't (free advertising is free advertising).

What would be really ironic would be if Fox news realized that these depictions are racist, have no substance and therefore should not be given attention. Instead, they would report on the issues and become a fair and balanced network.

Then again I won't hold my breath.