Life Without Irony

Americans, being an open and straight-forward people, fond of telling things like they are, generally don’t get irony, or at least don’t like it much. Saying one thing and slyly implying a range of quite opposite things – if you’re hip enough, or sophisticated enough, or well-educated enough to see them – seems vaguely British – not Benny Hill British, but more Douglas Adams British. Sly people who seem to know a whole lot more than they’re actually saying, and dare you to think carefully about what’s not being said, are bad people. That’s not fair. Things should be what they seem. And people should say what they mean. At one time we preferred Celine Dion over-emoting at full volume about how one’s heart must go on, as the Titanic sank, to Randy Newman singing about short people, and somehow making fun of us all, or so we suspected. Or maybe Newman just hated short people, and was proud of it, just like some of us naturally hate blacks or gays or Asians or Mexicans, and we seem to be proud of it, as we too have our standards. Some folks actually saw it that way. Perhaps we’re just a literal people.

And you can work with that. The Republican Party has for nearly forty years, relying on our widespread national inability to process irony. Somehow Goldwater morphed into Reagan and we got used to the idea that the least possible government was the best government, next to there being no government at all. And that’s why we should elect these guys to run the government, because they wouldn’t run it – they’d cut programs and services, abolishing and dismantling as much as possible, agency by agency, and stop regulating everything, or anything, and stop collecting taxes because then you could keep your money and do what you wanted with it, and so on and so forth. They called it a return to freedom, and personal responsibility. But they wanted to run things, saying no one should run things. Yes, Grover Norquist was always lurking around in the corners, saying things like this – “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Lawyers call that a distinction without a difference. But they whole idea was that if you put this crowd in charge they’d do nothing much, and make sure nothing much could be done in the future, then fire themselves and go home.

But then they ran the place like anyone else would. Nothing much was dismantled and new things were added – Nixon added the environmental Protection Agency and the second Bush administration gave us Medicare Part D – the government would pay for the medication for the elderly and indigent, to the tune of eight hundred billion dollars and counting – so the government kept doing more and more. Government grew just as much or even more under Republican administrations. And Republicans generally, at least lately, get us into wars and Democrats get us out – and that’s not the government doing nothing. And it all had to be paid for – you either raise taxes or put it on the tab, selling treasury notes to the Chinese, which would have to be paid for later, usually by issuing more debt in that form, in an endless cycle until you’re broke. So the irony always hung heavy in the air. But we are a literal people. Maybe we just didn’t see it.

And of course when Bush ran against Gore – which seems so long ago – much was made of the younger Bush’s cornerstone idea – Compassionate Conservatism. It seems odd now that people took him seriously about that. That whole business seemed to be centered on Tough Love – you help people down on their luck, out of work, homeless, starving, sick and dying, by doing as little as possible for them, or nothing at all, as that will force them to take care of themselves and learn personal responsibility, and learn that actions have consequences and all that – and that’s far kinder than any handouts or a hand up. It makes them better people, and more like someone like George Bush, who made it on his own with no help from anyone, ever, or something. And if they need immediate aid there were the churches and stuff. The government ought to stay out of it all, or maybe take some public funds and throw those funds at selected government-approved churches, of the right sort. Yeah, there was a constitutional issue with that – that establishment clause about the government not officially approving this religion or that – but few dared bring that up.

Perhaps you remember how seriously people took Compassionate Conservatism at the time. As a rule the press is supposed to take presidential candidates seriously, and to treat whatever they say, no matter how absurd, as something deep and profound and worthy of consideration. So they did. Irony is forbidden. That would be taking sides. And that helps such ideas along, along with our distrust of irony, and along with that fact that most folks just don’t get it. People mean exactly what they say – no more, no less. So those in charge of big government, who expand it, are abolishing big government – or any government at all. And doing nothing for those in trouble is compassion. Say it, and it must be so. And short people have no reason to live.

And now, Steve Benen here says an odd thing:

The idea was always shallow and more about rhetoric than reality, but it looks like the notion of “compassionate conservatism” is officially dead.

And he bases this on this odd item from South Carolina:

South Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said Saturday he could have chosen his words more carefully when he compared people who take public assistance to stray animals Friday. …

Friday, Bauer said giving food to needy people means encouraging dependence. It also gives the recipients a license to have children who will also be dependent on public aid, he said.

“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals,” Bauer told a Greenville-area crowd. “You know why? Because they breed.”

That’s rather crude, but he seems to be serious:

“You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

The item also notes that in South Carolina, fifty-eight percent of students participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program. It seems they might breed. We can’t have that. And Bauer is one of the leading gubernatorial candidates in South Carolina this year. This man needs to work on his irony. It seems he took the whole compassionate conservative thing far too literally.

And there was some push-back:

“It amazes me how some Republican politicians claim a monopoly on Christianity and then go out and say and do some of the most un-Christian things imaginable,” said Charleston attorney Mullins McLeod (D), who participated in a candidates’ forum yesterday. He added, “Bauer’s comments are despicable and the total opposite of the Christian values Bauer espouses.”

Well, there too you have that problem with irony – the loving Jesus, the Prince of Peace, with that stuff about turning the other cheek and what you do to the least of people you also do unto Him and all the rest, has always been a problem, which makes use of US military rifle scopes featuring inscriptions with New Testament citations deeply ironic. As Benen notes here:

The scopes are obviously problematic, not only on church-state grounds, but for undermining the American position that our conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not about religion. Mike Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation said this week, “It allows the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, al Qaeda and the insurrectionists and jihadists to claim they’re being shot by Jesus rifles.” Gen. David Petraeus, Central Command’s top officer, called the practice “disturbing,” and said the scopes represent a “serious concern to me and the other commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Well, yes – the irony would not be lost over in those parts, but that’s okay, as the manufacturer reversed course:

A Michigan defense contractor will voluntarily stop stamping references to Bible verses on combat rifle sights made for the U.S. military, a major buyer of the company’s gear.

In a statement released Thursday, Trijicon of Wixom, Mich., says it is also providing to the armed forces free of charge modification kits to remove the Scripture citations from the telescoping sights already in use. Through multimillion dollar contracts, the Marine Corps and Army have more than 300,000 Trijicon sights.

And Marine Corps spokeswoman Captain Geraldine Carey said the service “is making every effort to remove these markings from all of our scopes and will ensure that all future procurement of these scopes will not have these types of markings.” And that may help things, but those who are into killing others for Jesus may be very, very upset. Without any grasp of irony that is bound to be the case.

But it all fits together. See Kim Phillips-Fein Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal now out in paperback. Susan G in her short review covers the basic premise:

From the outside, the alliance that emerged between the corporate world and the religious right, which fueled the Republican Party’s most recent resurgence, has seemed like one of the most blatant cases of strange bedfellows ever. But Phillips-Fein takes a closer look and finds that the two seemingly dissimilar groups actually share a basic, rock-bottom animosity toward government; the business leaders want to be free to operate in a non-regulated, non-restricted environment, and the religious right chafes at any restrictions on its ability to proselytize or enact its “Christian nation” agenda. Tracing the corporatists’ “invisible hands” at work in the 20th century is like following clues to a mystery, a task at which the author excels.

But it’s not that hard to trace the direct effects of a lock of irony – business wanting a big government to protect them for big government, and the religious right wanting the maximum religious freedom to allow them the get on with establishing that “Christian nation” we’re supposed to be, no matter what the constitution says. It’s all very odd.

But some things are inevitable, as Justin Elliott reports here:

A group of nearly 200 “extremely concerned citizens” in a small Montana county are demanding that local leaders fill out a “questionnaire” pledging to form a local militia, prohibit mandatory vaccinations, boot the EPA out of town, allow citizens to bear any type of gun, and require federal government employees to get written approval before approaching “any Citizen.”

Organized in part by a group called Celebrating Conservatism, which is lead by a woman who quit the state GOP after complaining of “fake” Republicans, the questionnaire was presented this week to the county commissioners and sheriff of Ravalli County, according to the local Republic newspaper.

They hate government so they’ll impose one, or else:

Celebrating Conservatism’s worldview appears to be rooted in the militia movement. Last year it hosted Jack McLamb, head of the Idaho-based “Police and Military against the New World Order,” which agitates against “world government rule.”

They want to rule, perhaps, and are demanding that all local officials pledge to form and command a county militia of all citizens eighteen or older (adding that “women must serve, but not in a combat capacity unless the men are in danger of being overrun.”)

And there’s more:

To absolutely prohibit all efforts, Federal, State or city, that infringe upon the right to keep and bear arms including the requirement to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon and restrictions on the kinds of weapons one may possess and carry – e.g., fully automatic, silenced, length of barrel, length of blade, opening mechanism of a knife, etc.

To require federal employees to obtain written permission from the sheriff before approaching local citizens

To prohibit mandatory vaccinations

To prohibit federal employees from collecting census information beyond the number of adults in each home

To block all Environmental Protection Agency employees from entering the country

To use the term “peace officer” in lieu of the current law enforcement officer

This no-government stuff calls for a lot of rules – not to be ironic or anything.

And Elliot adds this:

Robert Gairing of Stevensville, a town south of Missoula, told the Republic “we need to know definitively whether or not our public officials will defend their oath and our constitutional rights and be willing to take positive constitutional action on our behalf.”

Reached today … Gairing, who helped compose the questionnaire, said he decided to stop talking to media because “it is way too complicated to give justice to in an interview.” He added that no elected officials have filled out the questionnaire yet.

But something is in the air. The government is no good. Government itself is no good. Live without irony for decades and such stuff happens.

But that’s playing out in Washington too, as Jeff Weintraub explains:

To pretend that the Congressional Republicans have not been pursuing a monolithic strategy of rejection and obstruction, that they have been willing to bargain in good faith, and that the Democrats are the ones who haven’t been open to reasonable compromise – yes, there are people who have made, or implied, all these claims – is simply to lose contact with reality. I realize that a few readers will have sincere disagreements with me on this point, so I hope they will pardon me for being blunt.

When you simply and without a trace of irony do not believe in government you believe in doing nothing:

On this planet, despite some propaganda, political spin, and gullible punditry to the contrary, the obvious fact is that the Congressional Republicans, who have achieved a level of party discipline usually restricted to parliamentary parties, have pursued a systematic strategy of monolithic rejectionism and all-out obstructionism to defeat the Democratic effort to pass a health care reform bill, without proposing any serious alternative of their own or being willing to bargain in good faith for constructive compromises. …

It looks possible that this uncompromising rule-or-ruin approach may turn out to have been tactically successful in derailing health care reform (as it was in 1993), though that remains uncertain. Whether or not that would be substantively good for the country is another matter.

I do recognize that some people may find this Republican strategy entirely justifiable, on the grounds that the Democrats’ proposal – as it took shape over the course of 2009 in the context of the usual legislative sausage-making combined with unrelenting legislative trench warfare – is so radically defective and potentially disastrous that it had to be killed at all costs, so that doing nothing really is a superior alternative. I believe that such a position is dramatically wrong, and that its success would be very harmful to the country, but at least this is logically coherent position that faces up to the political realities.

But that’s not the position of those who live without irony. For them doing nothing, about much of anything, is doing something.

And see George Packer on The Lonesome Death of Post-Partisanship:

The other day, I was lighting a fire with a copy of the Times from June 27, 2009 when my eye fell on an article about Republican objections to the health-care reform bill. Back then, the public option troubled Susan Collins, who also “said she would like to see the legislation ‘put more emphasis on health promotion, disease prevention, end of life care’, as well as tax credits for small businesses and self-employed Americans to ease their access to health insurance.” Her fellow Mainer Olympia Snowe “said she was striving to produce a plan ‘that does not undo the current system in terms of employer-based coverage or the quality of our health-care system’.”

It occurred to me that these might be grounds for negotiation if Democrats end up needing to pick up a few Republican votes (a need that came to pass yesterday). And then, as the paper went up in flames, it occurred to me that pretty much every one of these objections and conditions was met in the bill that passed the Senate last month, without the benefit of Ms. Collins’, Ms. Snowe’s, or any other Republican’s support.

And there’s the doubtful Republican columnist David Frum:

As is, we’re betting heavily that a bad economy will collapse Democratic support without us having to lift a finger. Maybe that will happen. But existing party strategy has to be reckoned a terrible failure. Most Republicans will shrug off that news. If polls are right, rank-and-file Republicans feel little regard for the Washington party, and don’t expect much from it. But it’s the rank-and-file who are the problem here! Republican leaders do not dare try deals for fear of being branded sell-outs by a party base that wants war to the knife. So we got war. And we’re losing. Even if we gain seats in 2010, the actions of this congressional session will not be reversed. Shrink Medicare after it has expanded? Hey – we said we’d never do that.

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of “principle.” But what’s the principle that obliges us to be stupid?

Now there’s a good question. And there’s Jon Rauch, a libertarian, who looks at the Senate insurance bill and argues that “the reform contains a pathway to sanity. No one can say that about the status quo.”

And that comes down to this:

The expansion of insurance coverage to tens of millions more Americans and the abolition of the “pre-existing conditions” insurance exclusion are changes for the better. A friend of mine made a full recovery from prostate cancer, only to find that he could not get health insurance at any price. Stories like his are common – too common to be politically sustainable, let alone morally acceptable.

On paper, Congress might have found better ways of making insurance available to high-risk individuals than by requiring insurers to cover them and by creating government-regulated markets (“exchanges”) where these individuals can buy insurance; the alternatives, however, are complicated, lack political support, and in the end might make government even bigger. (Indeed, one striking feature of the reform bill, given its all-Democratic provenance, is the extent to which it leaves the existing infrastructure of private health insurance intact. In a few years, the public might be less willing to do that.)

Second, the bill is probably as close to paying for itself as the political system is likely to manage. It would be great if Congress made up-front reductions in other programs, rather than counting on, for example, Medicare savings that may or may not materialize. But, given the political unacceptability of horror stories like my friend’s, the real-world alternative to plausible-maybe-almost-sort-of fiscal neutrality is something more like the Republicans’ 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill, which made no attempt at all to pay for itself.

Although long-term budget projections are squishy, the Congressional Budget Office’s are the best we have to go on. Notably, CBO scored the Senate bill as deficit-neutral (actually, it would slightly reduce the deficit) over the reform’s second decade after enactment, which is well beyond the window of cost-shifting and timing gimmicks. We could do worse, and possibly will do worse next time around.

As Andrew Sullivan comments:

The notion that this is some government take-over – while 60 percent of healthcare in this country is already paid for by the government – is pure ideology and hysteria. This is a centrist, practical, worthwhile start on a very difficult public policy problem. The Democrats would be insane to drop it; and the president really must fight for it.

But now that Republicans have forty-one seats in the senate, everything will be filibustered, which Matthew Yglesias discusses here:

I remember during the Bush years when Nathan Newman and I were saying that liberal infatuation with the filibuster was short-sighted and it would be smart to take advantage of the right’s momentary frustration with it to return the Senate to something approaching a workable set of procedures.

Nowadays it’s the right that’s discovered the alleged principled virtues of governmental paralysis. And really it all might be fine if stasis were actually a viable option. It’s pretty clear that the Democratic response to unprecedented Republican obstructionism is going to be an even higher level of obstructionism once the tables are turned.

And we’ll be locked forever in nothing getting done. And the New York Times’ Bob Herbert suggests that’s just wrong:

Job losses, stagnant or reduced wages over the past decade, and the loss of home equity when the housing bubble burst have combined to take a horrendous toll on families who thought they had done all the right things and were living the dream. A great deal of that bleeding is in the suburbs. The study, compiled by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, said, “Suburbs gained more than 2.5 million poor individuals, accounting for almost half of the total increase in the nation’s poor population since 2000.”

Democrats in search of clues as to why voters are unhappy may want to take a look at the report. In 2008, a startling 91.6 million people – more than 30 percent of the entire U.S. population – fell below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is a meager $21,834 for a family of four.

The question for Democrats is whether there is anything that will wake them up to their obligation to extend a powerful hand to ordinary Americans and help them take the government, including the Supreme Court, back from the big banks, the giant corporations and the myriad other predatory interests that put the value of a dollar high above the value of human beings.

But that’s the problem. Without a sense of irony many people, perhaps a majority, think there is no obligation to extend a powerful hand to ordinary Americans – help is oppression and takes away our freedoms and all that, so help is not help, really. And a lack of any sense of irony can kill you.

And there’s this odd interview at Bill Moyers Journal site:

BILL MOYERS: Is it the problem that we lay too much on any President? It’s only been a year this week that he was inaugurated. And yet, one year after he took the oath of office, he’s being repudiated. Repudiated for what?

ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, it’s the narrative of the media go from one form of hysteria to another. And what you need if you want to be an effective President is a theory of change. How do you move the system? I thought Barack Obama had a brilliant theory of change as a candidate. He said we’re all friends here. We’re all Americans. We’re all basically interested in the same thing. Let’s stop fighting with each other the way the Bush Administration wants us to do. And this nasty Dick Cheney fellow is always trying to get us riled up. Let’s find what we agree on and move forward.

And then I thought that once he became President he could say, okay, I tried. I tried it the nice way with these people. But they just won’t cooperate. Now it’s time to slap them around a little and get something done. He hasn’t taken that step. He’s giving the impression that he can be pushed around. And I think he needs to push some people around, even at a short term political cost, just to show that there’s something to fear with this President.

There may be no way out of this:

ERIC ALTERMAN: But in this case, he’s playing tennis and there’s nobody hitting the ball back. The Republicans are not playing. They’re saying… they’re waiting on the sidelines, criticizing his performance and he keeps pretending that he’s in a tennis game with two sides. And the question is what can you accomplish under those circumstances? Well, you can accomplish a health care bill that is okay with Joe Lieberman and Senator Nelson. That’s all you can accomplish. But it turns out you can’t even do that. Because of this vagary that took place in Massachusetts. So, what’s the plan now? In other words, the Democrats are so committed to being reasonable, to doing all the things that you just described, as if there were another party that were behaving responsibly. But the Republicans are not interested in behaving responsibly.

BILL MOYERS: What has he gotten for his bipartisanship? …

ERIC ALTERMAN: This is the failure of the ability of the President and his party to tell their story. It’s a Republican story being told. What is the Republican health care alternative? There is none. What is the Republican alternative to the country almost going bankrupt before the stimulus plan? There is none. They have no serious governance strategy right now. They have slogans and they have anger. And the media are allowing the part where “Okay, what’s behind the curtain?” to go untold.

Ah, but to tell that story you have to point out the irony, or the multiple ironies. And Americans don’t do irony. And yes, that may kill us all.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Conservative Thought, Party of No, Political Irony, Republicans Reject Cooperation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Life Without Irony

  1. Barbara Carlson says:

    I am a lapsed American for this very important reason. I live in Canada now — with full Health Care and funny Canadians we export to you guys.

    Come join us here and be done with the Nihilist, Creationist, Christianist mess the GOP, toxic Sarah Palin and their tea-bagging ilk have foisted on America, grinding rational discourse to a halt.

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