"On: Crown Thy Good"
L.A. Weekly
September 8 to October 4, 2001
by John Powers

 

Where were you when the age of irony crumbled to the ground? I was sitting in my kitchen innocently reading Time, when I was suddenly struck by the headline: “The Age of Irony Comes to an End.” Below was an essay by veteran sermonizer Roger Rosenblatt, who managed to find a silver lining in the deadly terrorist attacks on New York and Washington: America, he wrote, might enter “a new and chastened time” in which people would no longer believe that “detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life.”

Of course, if anything on this planet deserves to be treated ironically, it’s the sententiousness of Rosenblatt, a onetime Harvard prof who now plays the Troubled Conscience of America for both Time and PBS. Yet in the days that followed, I kept reading about people who agreed with him, everyone from Vanity Fair’s sleek editor Graydon Carter to conservative columnist James Pinkerton in the L.A. Times, who was abluster with grim satisfaction: “Seinfeld won’t disappear, of course; it’ll be rerun, somewhere, forever. But everyone now knows that there’s more to life than nothing, that some things really matter.”

Thanks for clearing that up.

At first, America did seem chastened, especially our national leaders: David Letterman donned a new sobriety, an obviously shaken Conan O’Brien urged kids not to be cynical. Even brainy Jon Stewart had an emotional meltdown worthy of Network’s Howard Beale. You couldn’t blame them. Faced with death and destruction, they felt that hosting TV shows was trivial and making their usual jokes was obscene. They were just being decent.

It’s part of the ongoing rhythm of media culture that we artificially break time into symbolic decades about which we draw easy moral lessons: The ’60s were too free, the Reagan era too greedy. Even before the attacks, we were constantly lectured about the Clinton era’s dot-com foolishness (tortoise vs. hare, etc.). Now we’re hearing from pundits who use the events of September 11 to bash the ’90s, grousing about our obsession with scandal (O.J., Monica, Gary Condit) and fondness for Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Despite the vaguely Falwellian tone of the moralists, such petty decadence hardly called down the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; it merely helped Fox News’ ratings. Anyway, it’s not as if we were given a fateful choice — “Would you rather watch Survivor or stop international terrorism?” — and couldn’t tear ourselves away from the next immunity challenge. Say what you want against Seinfeld, it’s no more trivial than the radio escapades of Fibber McGee and Molly that folks listened to during World War II. The problem is not our pop culture’s frivolity but the cynicism of our bought-and-sold political elite (including highly paid media luminaries) whose activity leaves ordinary people with very little to do but be ironic about their powerlessness.

In fact, American life would soon be dismal if people were to buy into the puritanical clichés of those who hate the lightheartedness — the saving flip side of our national sense of rectitude. Our artists and entertainers shouldn’t start censoring themselves because of the new Wartime Political Correctness. I don’t want The Onion to be shy about mocking the president; it will sadden me if thick-necked NFL color men start feeling guilty when they talk about “warriors” or throwing “the bomb.” America may be Rising, as CBS tirelessly insists, but that doesn’t mean David Letterman should talk seriously about terrorism: I’d rather hear his “10 Best Reasons Not To Send Your Kid to Camp al-Qaeda.” As the British demonstrated during the blitz, you can fight the enemy and be ironic at the very same time; in fact, irony helped keep things bearable when the bombs were whizzing overhead.

A few weeks ago on Charlie Rose, Stewart remarked that The Daily Show’s brand of irreverent social commentary was easy because things were going well. Ironically, the disaster may well give him the chance to make his show even better. Stewart’s not a snotty jerk like Craig Kilborne or a faux regular guy like Bill Maher; his show’s target was precisely the sort of hypocrisy and cant that, in the coming months, will be flying from the mouths of our leaders. The Republicans will predictably exploit American war fever to make the rich richer — on ABC’s This Week, George Will lectured us on the patriotic need for corporate tax cuts — and the gutless Democrats will sign off on everything for fear of losing their seats. The Daily Show may never again be quite so blithe, but Stewart can make its silliness smarter and more pointed than ever. Only dullards think you have to be earnest to be serious.

 

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