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America’s Ironic Identity

America’s Ironic Identity

Originally published at The Revolutionary Conservative.

Everyone seems to realize that America is coming apart, that the political and cultural divides are widening, and that the trajectory does not look promising. Those who aren’t there yet are getting there, and in the midst of the panic, everyone is looking for a why. What has caused this fracture? What has divided America, from one into many?

Some people talk about race; others talk about cultural Marxism. A few lay the blame at the feet of the very peace and prosperity we’ve experienced since the end of the second world war. There is at least a grain of truth in all of these, but those who put the blame for the partitioning of our nation on these reasons alone are in many ways looking at the first layer of effects, rather than the cause; like saying “this hole seems to be the cause of the bleeding,” without regard for the hot barrel smelling of hot gunpowder a few feet away.

The fact is that Rome did not fall because of racial diversity (although that didn’t help). It also didn’t fall because of cultural Marxism — indeed, the quasi-socialist intentions of Lucius Catiline were foiled and fended off in the 1st century. And the Western Roman empire was under serious military and financial stress in the decades before its collapse. The possibility of “bread and circuses” seemed to have little to do with the situation of the nation as a whole. It was simply allowed, and market demand did the rest. There is a corrosive agent that lies somewhere in the infrastructure, in entertainment or in the city. Lest this seem like a historical flourish, contextually unrelatable to the American present, Jefferson expressed concern over our transition to a manufacturing, industrial society back in 1785:

…Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phænomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistance, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes perhaps been retarded by accidental circumstances: but, generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unfound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.

–Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIX

At a broad level, Jefferson’s concerns are informative. But without a distillation of the specifics — a how, rather than invocations of general correlation — it is easy for poll-booth patriots to shrug off any possibility of personal responsibility in the decline of the nation they claim to love.

The truth will set you free, but first it stings like a bitch.

A few days ago, I finally got around to reading an essay I’ve had bookmarked for over four years now: “E unibas pluram“, by David Foster Wallace. What inspired me was the stepping down of Gavin McInnes from his leadership in the very group he started — the Proud Boys — and something about his lengthy, half-ironic, apologetic non-apology reminded me of the problem with irony, and with television personalities like McInnes. It was enough to make me furiously slam out a short little condemnation of his cowardly antics elsewhere. But on deeper reflection, McInnes is not really the problem. At least, he is a manifestation, and not the source — the bullet, rather than the man behind the gun, to return to a previous metaphor.

Wallace’s essay traces the rise of television as entertainment, the contradictory nature of people sitting for six hours a day (the American average) immersed in an alternative reality that they know is not real. It is pseudo-voyerism, in which the watched know they are being watched, are, in fact, brilliantly talented at “acting natural,” despite the oxymoronic nature of the request. And we, the watchers, willingly acquiesce to act, knowingly participating in the illusion. We laugh at the bad magician, pretending not to see his tricks while priding ourselves in noticing how it all works, while the magician pretends to slip, and mocks his own ineptitude, giving the audience a wink. The joke is that we can see the joke, which is that we can see the joke, which is that… ad infinitum.

Wallace notes that the cultural critics of television have been decrying the vacuous and poisonous nature of television for decades, but that the criticism always seems to fall on deaf ears. It is not so much denied as it is simply thought of as unnecessary by the viewing public, sitting in their armchairs watching the television criticize itself for six hours a day.

What explains the pointlessness of most published TV criticism is that television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It’s not that charges of nonconnection have become untrue. It’s that any such connection has become otiose. Television used to point beyond itself. Those of us born in like the sixties were trained to look where it pointed, usually at versions of “real life” made prettier, sweeter, better by succumbing to a product or temptation. Today’s Audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what’s not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.

Richard Dyer observed a similar trend from Hollywood, noting how the audience’s awareness of the inauthentic nature of the medium of television created a perception that the only authentic characters were those who embraced their own inauthenticity, perhaps sometimes allowing the veil to slip and reveal their “true” selves off-set. Hence the market for learning about the “private lives” of actors and actresses. The need to keep up with the Kardashians. The wellspring of ironic self-conscious exposure is bottomless, and it is also self-deceiving. “I’m only joking” is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from “at least I’m honest about being ironic.”

Of course, this is not entirely unique to television. C.S. Lewis observed the kind of moral ambiguity allowed for by irony in the Screwtape Letters, where Screwtape wrote about how people seemed to excuse themselves of any and all kind of mean or immoral behavior, so long as it could be construed as a joke of some sort. But the nature of television is so essentially prone to irony, given its slough of contradictions, that it accelerates the decline. Just as agrarianism preserves the republic.

What’s so bad about irony?

Irony has a few different definitions, but generally speaking, it is the a revelation of meaning through a juxtaposition of opposites. This can be employed (i.e., through sarcasm), or it can be simply observed (i.e., noticing a paradox or tragic flaw in a character). On the surface, this seems to be not only an entertaining skill — a good ironist is literally funny — but downright useful. “Wouldn’t it be ironic,” a French commander might have mentioned, “if the Germans went around the Maginot again, like they did in the first World War?”

But the danger lies in the confluence of a number of factors. First of all, irony has no capacity to create things that are beautiful, to identify truth, or to acknowledge beauty. It is an inherently destructive skill. Secondly, because irony is inherently destructive, and does not stand for anything, irony is a safe preemptive posture. It is an impermeable suit of armor, leaving you open to no criticism, because you cannot be attacked for views you don’t really hold. And people are not legally allowed to beat you for slander, so long as the libel is ironic.

“Lighten up, man.”

“It’s just a joke, man.”

You become the super-hero of plausible deniability.

And finally, because irony is humorous, the act of satire is rewarded and incentivized by raucous laughter… How excellent! Is it any wonder that the depressed and the bullied so often become comedians?

“It’s totally not bitter vengeance on a society that rejected me… man!”

The point is, we have allowed the destructive act of ironic criticism to run completely unchecked. While the executive, judicial, and legislative branches all check each other, and even the “fourth estate” can be checked (and recently, has been, in a financially brutal fashion), the comedic ironists and court jesters have rendered themselves virtually immune from equivalent checks, in part because of the asymmetry in power wielded by those who fill up the TV programming with content. As a result, irony has hollowed out the core of our identity. Through irony, the following things have been made to look ridiculous and indefensible: patriotism, nostalgia, capitalism, socialism, communism, religion, atheism, nationalism, sympathy, Walmart, the president, critics of the president, plumbers, global warming critics, tiki torches, social justice, republicans, democrats, guns, big trucks, craft beer, hipsters, and of course, television.

Just to name a few.

Bill Maher and John Stewart (and of course, Gavin McInnes) are reflections of the existential poker-face of irony that Wallace speaks of. Ultimately, television is not the cause of this — it’s just an accelerant. But as a result of all of this distancing of ourselves from the ridiculous, (the result of irony portraying good things and bad things alike as absurd, (the result of allowing ironists to stampede unchecked over everything because we lack the legal language to restrain them)), there is now nothing left to defend except platitudes. Like Gavin McInnes’ unelaborated “Western values.”

Why defend your border when the very concept of your nation is clearly silly? Why defend Christianity, or any other religion when the very concept of an old man in the sky is obviously patently absurd? Never mind what the reasons are; if you have to ask — if you bother to inquire — you’re simply too stupid to catch it. A brilliant trap for stupid people.

Why did irony never catch that one?

Perhaps it was ironic that McInnes was on the cusp of leading the proper response to his own natural calling. The Proud Boys, after all, nearly resembled the role that Homer gave to the heroic silencer of demoralizing irony:

The rest now took their seats and kept to their own several places, but Thersites still went on wagging his unbridled tongue- a man of many words, and those unseemly; a monger of sedition, a railer against all who were in authority, who cared not what he said, so that he might set the Achaeans in a laugh. He was the ugliest man of all those that came before Troy- bandy-legged, lame of one foot, with his two shoulders rounded and hunched over his chest. His head ran up to a point, but there was little hair on the top of it. Achilles and Ulysses hated him worst of all, for it was with them that he was most wont to wrangle; now, however, with a shrill squeaky voice he began heaping his abuse on Agamemnon. The Achaeans were angry and disgusted, yet none the less he kept on brawling and bawling at the son of Atreus.

“Agamemnon,” he cried, “what ails you now, and what more do you want? Your tents are filled with bronze and with fair women, for whenever we take a town we give you the pick of them. Would you have yet more gold, which some Trojan is to give you as a ransom for his son, when I or another Achaean has taken him prisoner? or is it some young girl to hide and lie with? It is not well that you, the ruler of the Achaeans, should bring them into such misery. Weakling cowards, women rather than men, let us sail home, and leave this fellow here at Troy to stew in his own meeds of honour, and discover whether we were of any service to him or no. Achilles is a much better man than he is, and see how he has treated him- robbing him of his prize and keeping it himself. Achilles takes it meekly and shows no fight; if he did, son of Atreus, you would never again insult him.”

Thus railed Thersites, but Ulysses at once went up to him and rebuked him sternly. “Check your glib tongue, Thersites,” said be, “and babble not a word further. Chide not with princes when you have none to back you. There is no viler creature come before Troy with the sons of Atreus. Drop this chatter about kings, and neither revile them nor keep harping about going home. We do not yet know how things are going to be, nor whether the Achaeans are to return with good success or evil. How dare you gibe at Agamemnon because the Danaans have awarded him so many prizes? I tell you, therefore- and it shall surely be- that if I again catch you talking such nonsense, I will either forfeit my own head and be no more called father of Telemachus, or I will take you, strip you stark naked, and whip you out of the assembly till you go blubbering back to the ships.”

On this he beat him with his staff about the back and shoulders till he dropped and fell a-weeping. The golden sceptre raised a bloody weal on his back, so he sat down frightened and in pain, looking foolish as he wiped the tears from his eyes. The people were sorry for him, yet they laughed heartily, and one would turn to his neighbour saying, “Ulysses has done many a good thing ere now in fight and council, but he never did the Argives a better turn than when he stopped this fellow’s mouth from prating further. He will give the kings no more of his insolence.”

–Homer, The Iliad

I am, of course, not advocating violence.

I just think that we might still have a culture if someone had been allowed to challenge John Stuart or Bill Maher, or their early equivalents, to a duel at some point.

Logistically speaking, it would not be particularly difficult to save America. We have, in the past, deported more people faster, closed down our borders more rigidly, rebuked communists more harshly, and imprisoned or killed our enemies more ruthlessly than we would need to do today in order to fix our schools, our taxes, our infrastructure, our military, our media, and our debt. All we lack is the will to do it. And we lack the will to do any of these things because will requires attachment. It requires care. It requires love.

The preemptive posture of ironic detachment precludes all of these. Ironic ambivalence corrodes the will. It eats away at the willingness to undergo even the slightest of risk or inconvenience in the pursuit of something meaningful, which could be mockingly attacked and derided. Nietzsche once said that he with a “why” can bear almost any “how,” but the corollary is also true: for him without a “why,” no “how” is bearable. Irony is acid on the canvas of our country, and fodder for those already suffering from metastasizing Dunning-Kruger. And our addiction to its mediums for our own gratification and amusement is fodder for the fodder-makers and acid-drippers.

None of this is to say that multiculturalism and historical cycles and pathological ideologies aren’t problems. They certainly are. But even here, Wallace identifies how television — the supreme medium of irony — reflects the negative effects of diversity:

TV is the epitome of low art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But TV is not low because it is vulgar or prurient or stupid. It is often all these things, but this is a logical function of its need to please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient and stupid interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor viewers are responsible for quality.

But in the end, it comes down to will: Thumos.

None of this should be taken as a condemnation of people who watch television. The devilish inner-ironist in me says “isn’t it ironic that you are sitting here, ranting about television while this essay was researched by watching television?”

Yes, it is ironic.

So what?

They say that hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue, but ironic self-flagellation is the more insidious compliment that virtuous consistency pays to nihilistic vice. When confronted with our inevitable failures to live up to our own standards and ideals, the ironist tries to call us hypocrites, and to abandon our values with him. But it is not hypocrisy to aspire to an ideal and fail. It is not hypocrisy for an alcoholic to slip back beneath the bottle, or for a sprinter to trip on the track. Hypocrisy is to hold one standard in public, and another entirely in private. Holding one standard, and failing, is simply human.

It would be a shame for people to lose their sense of humor, or their ability to identify contradictions and paradoxes. By no means should America become a dry and humorless place, a puritan dystopia of pure reason or devout piety. But perhaps we’ve given the talking class too much power. Perhaps we’ve been complicit in feeding the termites that have been chewing away at the foundations, and now the floor is creaking ominously.

As individuals, our power to rebuild what’s been broken is limited, to say the least. But we can begin by not making things worse. We can’t go around beating insolent mockers, but we can follow Adam Corolla’s advice and keep a “fuck off” in the chamber at all times (e.g., CLEVER CRITIC: “That’s ironic, you’re bringing up a television personality to criticize–” YOU: “Fuck off.”) We can’t quickly and individually reconstruct the values and institutions poisoned by the talking class, but when we see them starting to throw their spin, we can simply click the power-button on our remote, and maybe go outside for a change. Charles Dickens used to walk upwards of twenty miles a day; you can do one or two. It’s better for you. And we can’t necessarily avoid the war that’s coming, which may prove necessary as well as inevitable. But we can hopefully mitigate the damage, and if we remember the dangers of unchecked irony, we might come out on the other side as one, rather than many.

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