In Defense of Irony

  • For no apparent reason, the media have become very excited about For Common Things, a book by a Yale law student named Jedediah Purdy. No one else is reading it, but in my earnest effort to join the media elite and thus get a promotion, I too want to write about this book.

    Mostly I want to say that Jedediah Purdy is a funny name. And also that his argument that irony is poisoning our culture is really stupid. That's the kind of argument we ironists use. We also use idiot and scalawag. But ironically.

    I called Purdy's publicist and asked if I could speak to him. Fifteen minutes later, Purdy called. This made me think that earnestness might be a good thing. Then I realized that you have to jump on any media opportunity when you're trying to sell a book called For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today.

    I asked Purdy if the book wasn't just an excuse for not having a sense of humor. He said, "That's a pretty nifty little piece of psychological deductionism." I took that as a yes. Then, to make conversation, I asked him his favorite movie. He paused and said, "I like movies, but I don't orient to them with the same sophistication as a lot of folks."

    Now that I've allowed Purdy his equal time as per the National Association of Columnists bylaws, I want to explain why irony is necessary, besides the fact that without it, I'm unemployable. First of all, irony is much more fun than earnestness. Earnestness is thanking God after scoring a touchdown, while irony is having 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife. Earnestness is what you hide behind when you have nothing to say. Unless you hide behind irony, which is much cooler.

    True belief led us to the Cuban missile crisis, while the post-Watergate era allows us to divest emotionally from our government so it can do important work on campaign-finance reform. And skepticism without irony is totally unfun. It leads to folk songs.

    By constantly checking ourselves for phoniness, irony forces us either to think more closely about how we feel or to joke honestly about the fact that we feel nothing. I'm worried that in the post-ironic world of Rosie O'Donnell, people suppress so much of their emotions that they believe they love Tom Cruise and peg their audience with Koosh balls.

    To argue further for irony, I am going to use Soren Kierkegaard's The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. I do this not only because it will make me look smart, but because I get to employ the underutilized o. Like that crazy Socrates, who made fun of his interlocutors while pretending to compliment them, Kierkegaard uses irony to force his opponents to avoid rehearsed answers and confront their true beliefs. He even wrote under pseudonyms like Hilarius Bookbinder, Nicolaus Notabene and Constantin Constantius. In the world of 19th century Christian philosophy, this is sidesplitting stuff, trust me. In the book, Kierkegaard wrote, "Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know it but loved by those who do." When I ran Kierkegaard's argument by Purdy, he said, "Kierkegaard is very neat."

    I like that Purdy wants us to consider the consequences of our attitudes. But I think the anti-irony movement is a longing for an innocence that existed only for one moment in Timothy Leary's lab. And if my name were Jedediah, I'd be so ironic, David Letterman would seem caring. Or I'd call myself Jed.