Where were you when the age of irony crumbled to the ground? I was sitting in my kitchen innocently reading Time, when I was suddenly struck by the headline: “The Age of Irony Comes to an End.” Below was an essay by veteran sermonizer Roger Rosenblatt, who managed to find a silver lining in the deadly terrorist attacks on New York and Washington: America, he wrote, might enter “a new and chastened time” in which people would no longer believe that “detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life.”
Of course, if anything on this planet deserves to be treated ironically, it‘s the sententiousness of Rosenblatt, a onetime Harvard prof who now plays the Troubled Conscience of America for both Time and PBS. Yet in the days that followed, I kept reading about people who agreed with him, everyone from Vanity Fair’s sleek editor Graydon Carter to conservative columnist James Pinkerton in the L.A. Times, who was abluster with grim satisfaction: “Seinfeld won‘t disappear, of course; it’ll be rerun, somewhere, forever. But everyone now knows that there‘s more to life than nothing, that some things really matter.”
Thanks for clearing that up.
At first, America did seem chastened, especially our national leaders: David Letterman donned a new sobriety, an obviously shaken Conan O’Brien urged kids not to be cynical. Even brainy Jon Stewart had an emotional meltdown worthy of Network‘s Howard Beale. You couldn’t blame them. Faced with death and destruction, they felt that hosting TV shows was trivial and making their usual jokes was obscene. They were just being decent.
It‘s part of the ongoing rhythm of media culture that we artificially break time into symbolic decades about which we draw easy moral lessons: The ’60s were too free, the Reagan era too greedy. Even before the attacks, we were constantly lectured about the Clinton era‘s dot-com foolishness (tortoise vs. hare, etc.). Now we’re hearing from pundits who use the events of September 11 to bash the ‘90s, grousing about our obsession with scandal (O.J., Monica, Gary Condit) and fondness for Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Despite the vaguely Falwellian tone of the moralists, such petty decadence hardly called down the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; it merely helped Fox News’ ratings. Anyway, it‘s not as if we were given a fateful choice — “Would you rather watch Survivor or stop international terrorism?” — and couldn’t tear ourselves away from the next immunity challenge. Say what you want against Seinfeld, it‘s no more trivial than the radio escapades of Fibber McGee and Molly that folks listened to during World War II. The problem is not our pop culture’s frivolity but the cynicism of our bought-and-sold political elite (including highly paid media luminaries) whose activity leaves ordinary people with very little to do but be ironic about their powerlessness.
In fact, American life would soon be dismal if people were to buy into the puritanical cliches of those who hate the lightheartedness — the saving flip side of our national sense of rectitude. Our artists and entertainers shouldn‘t start censoring themselves because of the new Wartime Political Correctness. I don’t want The Onion to be shy about mocking the president; it will sadden me if thick-necked NFL color men start feeling guilty when they talk about “warriors” or throwing “the bomb.” America may be Rising, as CBS tirelessly insists, but that doesn‘t mean David Letterman should talk seriously about terrorism: I’d rather hear his “10 Best Reasons Not To Send Your Kid to Camp al-Qaeda.” As the British demonstrated during the blitz, you can fight the enemy and be ironic at the very same time; in fact, irony helped keep things bearable when the bombs were whizzing overhead.
A few weeks ago on Charlie Rose, Stewart remarked that The Daily Show‘s brand of irreverent social commentary was easy because things were going well. Ironically, the disaster may well give him the chance to make his show even better. Stewart’s not a snotty jerk like Craig Kilborne or a faux regular guy like Bill Maher; his show‘s target was precisely the sort of hypocrisy and cant that, in the coming months, will be flying from the mouths of our leaders. The Republicans will predictably exploit American war fever to make the rich richer — on ABC’s This Week, George Will lectured us on the patriotic need for corporate tax cuts — and the gutless Democrats will sign off on everything for fear of losing their seats. The Daily Show may never again be quite so blithe, but Stewart can make its silliness smarter and more pointed than ever. Only dullards think you have to be earnest to be serious.
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After last Friday‘s glumly sequestered telethon in which the celebs had to be fed the lines to “God Bless America” (you heard an offscreen voice desperately muttering “Crown thy good!”), I watched a speedy MTV special on the terrorist attacks. Naturally, much of the show was celebrity interviews; David and Patricia Arquette turned up to re-assert their family’s status as Hollywood‘s dimmest bulbs. But there was also a sharp summary of why America is so hated in the Middle East, an analysis that included our desire for oil and support for repressive regimes. These five minutes were more straightforwardly truthful than anything I’ve seen on the supposedly serious NBC news, the most flag-waving of the major networks, whose anchorman Tom Brokaw has been flogging his book for so long that he now actually seems to believe he belongs to the Greatest Generation.
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Twelve years ago almost to the day, I went to the packed Royal Albert Hall in London to hear a famed Muslim cleric address the topic “Should Rushdie Be Killed?” (He said no.) As one of the few non-Muslims in a crowd of 5,000, I stared at the program notes (its cover featured a picture of Salman Rushdie with devil‘s horns) and listened to young English-accented South Asians talking about how the novelist deserved the fatwa he’d received as a valentine from the Ayatollah. Everyone treated me with great courtesy — they liked that I was keeping an open mind on the question — but I suddenly grasped how terrifying it must be to have so many people believe that God wants you murdered.
That‘s why I’m disgusted at the glee with which the literary press has turned on Rushdie. Ever since the fatwa was lifted two years ago, people have laid into him as if he were a sacred cow that it was now permissible to butcher. His new novel, Fury, has been ripped by reviewers gleaming with schadenfreude at the book‘s overwrought laziness; he’s been mocked for moving to New York, romancing model Padma Lakshmi and being a self-centered creep insufficiently grateful to Britain for protecting him (though no one thought the government was protecting him because he was a nice guy). As Slate‘s Inigo Thomas quite sensibly asked, why do the media pillory Rushdie even as they lionize G.E.’s Jack Welch, a notoriously ruthless boss whose taste for firing people ruined countless lives?
What has been lost in all the abusive press is that Rushdie‘s a world-class writer in a world that doesn’t have many. His 1980 novel, Midnight‘s Children, did more to change British culture than any novel since World War II, and he followed it up three years later with an even better one, Shame, a surreal portrait of modern Pakistan in all its grandeur and horror. His books opened the door for the likes of Hanif Kureishi, Ben Okri, Arundhati Roy and current fave Zadie Smith. Although his work since The Satanic Verses has been erratic, this unevenness probably says less about Rushdie’s artistic failings than it does about the psychic cost of spending a decade under constant surveillance, unable to freely experience daily life, the very lifeblood of his fiction. He‘s been living in a world where he was more likely to meet Bono or Renee Zellwegger than the uncelebrated people who inspired his finest characters.
At the moment, he resembles New York’s other recent celebrity arrival: Bill Clinton. Both are lavishly gifted men in their 50s who must come to terms with having passed the peak of their glory: Just as Clinton can never again be the world‘s most powerful man, Rushdie, who had the misfortune of being the world’s most famous writer, will never again enjoy the fabulous success of his younger years. There‘s something poignant in his situation and his desperate desire to escape it. He clearly moved to America to re-define himself and reinvigorate his writing, and though Fury is a mess, this doesn’t mean that his next novel won‘t tell us things about our country that only he could.
Talk about the age of irony! Rushdie came to this country just in time to be, like the rest of us, a target of fundamentalist terror. Now that New York’s literary world has seen firsthand exactly what this means, perhaps it will appreciate what he went through and give the guy a break.