Saturday, December 9, 2017

Reflections on the demise of irony

It took Al Franken, in his historic speech to the Senate, to point out the “irony” of the moment, in which he is resigning his seat in the Senate, bowing to pressure from his Democratic colleagues following allegations of sexual impropriety, while the president who has admitted to sexual impropriety on tape sits in the Oval Office, and another man, allegedly an abuser of young girls, runs for a seat in that same Senate.

Only when our public discourse has been drained of irony, and many of the other literary figures of speech, including the many nuances for which students once read and assimilated prose and poetry by such luminairies as Shakespeare and Milton, Donne and Cohen, could such a set of circumstances emerge. Literalism, in the form of microscopic deconstruction of each word uttered by a public figure reigns in a world also drained of trust, imagination, and the complexities of thought, feeling and perspective. Have we so specialized and polarized and infantilized ourselves, into this cage, and this elementalism? Restricting the literary to the writers, the poets and indeed, the songsters, playwrights and comics is little more than shedding our opportunity to see the world differently than merely as if it were being parsed by a judge and/or a plethora of lawyers.

A friend recently expounded on his sense of awe and wonder at the discoveries of an infinite number of galaxies far beyond our own. His simultaneously child-like and also highly mature and also balanced perspective on the universe is so refreshing, probably because it is so rare at least in our public discourse. The paradox of “child-adult” is not rare in our universe; it is the stuff of the tension that sustains our yin-yang, our systolic-diastolic, our medical-natural treatments, our male-female, our birth-death, and our ambition-disappointment vibrations of the many strings on our individual and our collective “violins”..making the music of our lives. And, by myopically and compulsively excluding half of the tension, we are falling into the trap of boredom, physical, emotional, psychic and creative boredom. And at least as a partial consequence we have to generate “extremeisms” to hold our gnat-like attention spans.

My friend’s awe, wonder, amazement and sheer joy at the mysteries of the universe(s) is available to anyone who grasps and celebrates with a similar awe, wonder, amazement and joy the opportunities of the many profound mysteries still waiting to be discovered about our bodies, our minds, our emotions and especially our personal and public relationships. Faiths, religions, and all of the multiplicity of human artistic expressions have both celebrated and been birthed by the tension of finding the beauty in the garbage heap, the ugliness in the make-up, the ironic juxtaposition of the sardonic witty story told at the funeral of a loved one, demonstrating both his complexity and his ability to enjoy the same irony. A parallel irony can emerge even from the deep and profound depression that follows  the birth of new child, closing a curtain on a deeply anticipated parental freedom, given that older children are now full-time students.

There is irony in the deep emotional response of an “alpha male” to the sudden death of his dear friend, unexpected because of the stereotype of “frozen” that has been imposed, partly by the alpha male himself, as a form of armour and protection, and partly by those who have worked and lived with the “armoured” man.

Irony is at the core of many of our most poignant and cogent moments. It is the kind of “highlighter” that imprints deep and transformative memories on our personal hard drive, one of the most instructive “teachers” of history. It is at the core of the life of a young boy whose mother chanted “Don’t read! Do something!” throughout his childhood and adolescence, who later became an English teacher and free lance journalist. It is at the core of the life of a young woman who believed that propriety was defined as repression only to discover it really meant, to others, a kind of compulsive “hiding” from discovery by herself and by others. Irony comes out of the surgeon instructor’s mouth when, in the midst of a complex surgery, he turns to his amazed students and remarks, almost inaudibly, “Just remember, you can put the stiches in, but you cannot heal the patient!”

Irony flows, retrospectively, from a stint in a social, cultural, linguistic and spiritual wasteland that nearly destroyed the pioneer, before he himself was discovered by his soul mate, herself dying in that same desert. And then there is the irony of a small-town boy/girl who grows to embrace an intellectual disciplined life of scholarship that brings honors like Governor General to his life. There is the irony that, for Canadians living between the Arctic and the monster elephant to the south, we have produced so much profound, universal poetry, hardly expected from this “repressed” and sandwiched land and people. And, ironically, we have done so little “shouting” and bragging about our value, that the world has come to appreciate our contributions, almost in spite of our (false?) modesty.

There is a kind of difficult and complex irony in the recent deluge of complaints of sexual abuse from dozens, if not hundreds,  of strong women seeking justice and equality, who then wonder out loud, if their chorus is not going to defeat many of the political, social, economic and cultural victories they have attained, because they have allowed no discriminatory differences between the many  complaints.

We are awash in personal and public ironies, which, if we were to take the time to notice, and then to reflect upon, we would have little choice but to embrace both the humour of how silly the human species is, (each of us individually and certainly all of us collectively) and also potentially how tragic our blindness to our own ironies really is.

Are we so blind to the opposite realities, from those upon which we are fixated, that we are in danger of actually believing we can and do control the universe? Or, perhaps are we so despondent and desperate that we cling to a one-sided perception and accompanying belief that we sabotage our own conception of reality, thereby resulting in what amounts to two megaphones blasting at and past each other, something we erroneously call, the public debate.

The contribution of the current American president to the withering and dying of irony in our public discourse is palpable, and present with every tweet and utterance, except when he is hoisted on his own petard (the transcript) and then, “Oh, he was just exaggerating!” blurts out of the mouth of Ms Huckabee Sanders.

It is important to be able and willing to engage in public discourse that paints pictures with authentic names, dates, dollars, commitments, and the full disclosure of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And that significant public standard is in such danger, from all levels of our institutions, especially the current White House, that we are at risk of losing our grip on reality.

Once that collective grip lets go, we all fall into a vast abyss of darkness and a morass of swamp, from which we will all be entangled for centuries.

One of the most underused, and undervalued tools in our quiver of arrows pushing back against the trump tsunami, irony, would be included in a memo from all of the news editors in all of the major news outlets, across the western hemisphere: Since the current president is obviously, blatantly and unconscionably manipulating every reporter, every editor, and every other world leader, into a cavern of doom, to suit his own heroic and tyrannical purposes, we need to pay so little attention to his very presence, that all reporters are hereby re-assigned to cover all of the other news stories, without resorting to the sacred maxim, “balanced reporting that covers both sides is the only kind that we tolerate.”

We are here to serve the American people, and to provide a fourth-estate balance to the public figures who seek our service, only now who so denigrate our existence and our integrity, that we can no longer serve both the president and the nation. And our priority must always be to the nation, especially when the president is out of touch with reality, and determined to demonstrate our lack of integrity.


Ironically, in so doing, he is bringing into disrepute his own integrity, and threatening the security of the nation at the same time. 

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