Jewish World Review July 6, 2000 / 3 Tamuz, 5760
of Being Earnest
Ironic nations are formerly great nations; irony on a national scale is an expression of fatigue with the expensive, exhausting business of being great. The ironic nation is the nation as self-willed has-been, formerly earnest and formerly consequential, now marking time in the twilight state that is halfway between mattering and not, in permanent danger of being annexed by Disney. France is the exemplary ironic nation. France has been ironic for nearly the entire modern age, which is why it has been impotent for nearly the entire modern age. No nation provides so clear an illustration of the dangers of irony as France: You sit in a cafe long enough, wearing black and muttering ironic observations on the passing scene, and one day the passing scene is the German army, again. Isn't that ironic?
England is a bifurcated nation, irony-wise. The ruling class has been ironic (more ironic even than the French, apparently just out of ancient competitive spirit) since Virginia Wolfe or possibly Oscar Wilde, and is by now so deep into the stuff that it will probably never again produce anything of actual value. But the England that is, to borrow a phrase, a nation of shopkeepers, has never embraced irony and still cherishes the idea of England and the English as great and good. These were Margaret Thatcher's people, and as the example of Thatcher proves, they remain capable of pushing aside the ruling class's objections--there is no figure in modern times that the better sort of English gentleman and gentlewoman objected to so furiously as Thatcher--and steering England into periods of earnest glory still.
Of the other formerly great European powers, Germany is not exactly ironic but it isn't terribly earnest anymore either, which in Germany's case is an excellent thing. Russia has never been ironic; it is nihilistic, which is incomparably worse. The rest of the world consists of hungry nations, which are definitionally unironic (irony, like environmentalism and population control, is a luxury of wealth), nations that gave up dreams of glory so long ago that they have worked through the irony phase and have settled into other conditions (the Scandinavians are happy, to the degree that Scandinavians get happy, just to be beautiful, comfortable and left alone; Spain just wants to have fun) or countries such as Canada that never had dreams of glory in the first place.
Then there's us, the only great 20th-century power that has not succumbed to fatigue and embraced irony's narcotic rest. We started out in deadly, bloody earnestness and we have never stopped. Earnestness conquered the West, freed the slaves, built a republic and a democracy, gave us a car in every garage, invented the blues, country-and-western and rock-and-roll, killed Jim Crow and defeated both the fascist and the communist strains of totalitarianism.
Lately, there has been talk that we, too, are ironic now. This is untrue--it is true that we are having a hard time finding something of sufficient size and import to be earnest about, but that is another matter. An ironic nation would have regarded the Clinton-Lewinsky affair with morbid pleasure. Was there ever a farce better suited for irony--was there ever a tale of blacker humor? No, never. So how did Americans react to this choice offering? By and large, with disgust, despair and fury. The only difference of opinion among most was with regard to the principal object of disgust, despair and fury--Bill Clinton or Ken Starr or the media or the Republicans or, for many, all of the above.
Not long ago, an earnest young man named Jedediah Purdy wrote a book decrying irony and what he saw as the growing tendency of Americans toward irony. Americans promptly made Mr. Purdy's worries the subject of earnest debate. This is not how Evelyn Waugh would have handled it.
No, give it up, America. It's hopeless; we're hopeless. We are not an ironic nation. We are people who take Monica Lewinsky seriously, people who take Jedediah Purdy seriously. You can't weave irony from wool like that.
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