As I write this column on Sept. 11, 2002, it has been exactly one year since the destruction of the World Trade Center, the bruising of the Pentagon, and the sacrifice of Flight 93. But today marks an equally solemn event for me personally, as one year ago today saw the death of irony. In the great, quick-shot tradition of the American television press, it took less than a day for newscasters across the country to begin telling us what our future would almost certainly be in the wake of this tragedy. And the first target of the press’ hatred, was irony. The New York Times printed the obituary. In the “New America,” this cute little literary device would have no home.
Poor irony. What did it ever do to anyone? At most, it’s occasionally confusing. But it’s never hurt a living thing. And yet by noon on the 11th, it was on the chopping block.
“Today will certainly mark the end of the age of irony,” I heard remarked. “A generation which has thus far been set apart by their skepticism and deep resentment of their elders, will now have to search for new faith, discard their cynicism, and band together for their country.”
It was as if every newscaster in the land took the opportunity of Sept. 11 to ream out their ungrateful teenage kids on national television: “Today’s events will leave their mark on the future– much in the same way that my son Robbie put a 10-inch scratch in the passenger side of my Benz wagon pulling into a clearly marked compact car-sized space at the mall. Sept. 11 will be remembered for many things, but mainly for the fact that my son is a spoiled little pot-smoking jerk.”
I, personally, have missed irony for the past 12 months. Really, it was one of my favorite weapons. Since its demise, I’ve found it difficult to put into words how I feel watching our president slam al Qaeda while driving golf balls on a monthlong vacation at his Texas ranch– Hmmm. Isn’t the fact that George W. Bush embodies everything that al Qaeda hates about America — our wealth, leisure time and smirking national smugness– isn’t that kind of, dare I say it, ironic?
Of course not. How dare you. The man’s our president, for God’s sake. Have some respect.
It is a shame that this has been perhaps the most ironic year in our nation’s history, and irony wasn’t even here to see it. It’s like we threw a party and forgot to invite the guy we threw it for.
This has been a strange year for me. I wander around this country, looking at what we’ve built in the aftermath, staring at the Disneyland attraction that we have made out of our country’s darkest hour– and I can’t say a thing.
The comment that has followed a loud, tactless person such as myself around this year is, “Oh, it’s too soon.” In other words, Sept. 11 jokes aren’t funny– yet. It’s too soon. Wait a while, though, and then have all the fun you want. But right now, come on, Greg. Over the line.
The flaw in this comment, and in the “everybody watch what everybody says” code that accompanies it, is that there will never be a time when it is no longer too soon to joke. The day will never come when Americans collectively wake up, shower, eat their sugar cereal, and on the way to work, realize that it’s now OK to share a few twin towers riffs around the water cooler. It’s NOT too soon to say anything, because Sept. 11 will never be funny. It will never make for amusing conversation, and if you think that it will, then I never want to talk to you. Richard Pryor is funny. The Catholic Church is funny. Sept. 11, the event, is not.
What IS funny, though, is everything that has followed the event. America’s reaction to its new war and new lot in life has been deeply, darkly hilarious. It’s not too soon to say that those “Freedom Kits” sold on television — those assorted plastic flags and bonus bumper stickers that sell for $20 a pop — those are funny. It makes me laugh, hard, that there are many people in this country who think that the way to support their homeland is to make some ruthless, tasteless entrepreneur a rich man. I laugh without fail when an enormous Suburban, driven by some housewife who doesn’t need a Suburban, passes me in the right lane with two spasmodic little star-spangled banners clipped onto the ski rack. Does this woman not understand that it is because of her and her gas-guzzling killer automobile that we are about to go to war with Iraq?
Moreover, does anybody else think this is funny?
There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts on Chapel Street with an airbrushed caricature of a crying bald eagle on its window, flanked by the big bubbly words: “Dunkin’ Donuts Salutes Our Heroes.” Today the sign outside of Walgreen’s read: “We Will Never Forget.” They also don’t want you to forget the special on toilet paper, now through the 30th. These people want your money. They don’t want to pay tribute to you or your loved ones.
I have a theory. Irony isn’t dead at all. It’s living in a trailer park in Paramus with Andy Kaufman, alive and well. But we are told to ignore irony, and so we find it easier to walk around and think that there’s nothing at all funny or insulting about being assaulted by Walgreen’s attempt to sell you deodorant, disguised as honor. Wouldn’t it be honorable for Walgreen’s, just for one day, to shut off the blinking sign, to spare us its 24-hour commercialism?
I’ll say it, so Tom Brokaw had better break out those little black boxes. It is ironic that in this year, our country has not stopped to reflect on its global image: that of a bunch of fat hedonists who destroy the environment, take other people’s oil, eat up four-fifths of the world’s food, and crank up the air conditioner in their Jaguars when they fart all over the leather interior after a particularly rich meal. It is ironic that we have not changed our ways at all — that rather, we have only adapted our salesmanship to fit our tragedy. It is ironic that, by refusing to change in the name of “not letting the terrorists win,” we are playing directly into the terrorists’ stereotype of the American, throwing fuel onto their fire. In the name of not letting the terrorists win, we are helping the terrorists win.
Be cynical. Be skeptical. Resent everything. Tastefully, intelligently, judge all you see. It’s not too soon. It’s not too late, either. The age of irony has not ended. It is a new day.
Gregory Yolen is a junior in Pierson College. Total dork, too. I met the guy once.