Following September 11, 2001, Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, pronounced irony dead. 2016 proved the rumors of the death of irony have been greatly exaggerated.
Irony is the use of words to express the opposite of their literal meaning. This literary form often includes strong doses of satire. Take for example, “The man said, ‘What a beautiful view,’ as he looked out the window at an alley filled with garbage.” Or this, “The woman worried herself sick obsessing on her health.” And the classic, Wyoming’s motto, “The Equality State.”
Irony is a useful tool when seeking to draw attention to the foibles of public officials and others with power. The humor is in the eye of the beholder. Jonathan Swift was one of the great writers to use irony. In his book “A Modest Proposal,” Swift urged starving Irish peasants to sell their children to the aristocrats for food, solving, he suggested both the hunger problem and poverty.
Irony can be difficult to detect among those who take things literally, even more among the targets of the irony. The Bible includes a great deal of irony. Consider the confrontation between the prophet Nathan and King David. After David raped and impregnated Bathsheba, Nathan confronts the King. Not directly. Nathan tells a story about a man who had only one lamb. A rich man took that little lamb from the man who loved it.
David’s anger seethed against the rich man. David couldn’t see the irony because the story was about him. Nathan had to draw a picture for the King. “You are that man,” he cried out.
This brings to mind a couple of recent items in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (WTE). First is the story of an attempt by certain Laramie County Republicans to censure others for the crime of exercising their constitutional rights by running against other Republicans in the recent election. (No censure for local GOP members” December 20, 2016). Ironic enough on its face, the article added classic satire as proof the literary form is far from dead. The targets of the censure resolution were accused of “conduct unbecoming a Republican.”
Not all readers will recognize the irony. It must have given a belly-laugh to those who did. Its use here displays the difference between irony and satire. Satire is the employment of irony for the purpose of indirectly, even humorously exposing the fallacies often present in contemporary political dialogue.
Then there was another letter-to-the-editor from Joe Elkins.
Many of you know Joe. You have to admire his tenacity. For eight years, he has been a relentlessly harsh critic of President Obama. His single-themed letters-to-the-editor have appeared regularly in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. He has used the space to offer his brand of proof that the President is not an American, is disloyal to the country, and is a Muslim born in Kenya. Joe harpooned Wyoming’s congressional delegation for not taking action to remove this villain from the White House.
Here comes the irony. On December 20, Joe wrote another letter, signaling a new era (“Liberal zombies need to accept Trump”). Having been abandoned by most Republicans in his search for the truth about Obama’s birthplace, he resorted to a different tact. Amnesia. To give Joe the benefit of the doubt, his claim included a statement that must have been intended to be satire. “Conservative Americans,” he wrote, “despite their serious trepidations about Obama’s liberal mindset, and despite numerous reports of widespread voter fraud, accepted the results of the election and hoped for the best.”
Amnesia or irony? Probably a convenient, virulent form of amnesia. Even so, I would hope that Joe could one day see the irony of his letter.
Don’t fault Joe. His is the opinion of a lot of Republicans who think Trump’s detractors should “just get over it.” Those of us with any sense of irony will have a hard time doing that. I predict others will see the irony long before the rest of us “get over it.”