The State of Irony

The State of Irony

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Sept. 21 1999 9:00 PM

The State of Irony

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Jedediah,

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You seem to be taking all this (the celebrity, the razzing, the whole clown show of literary renown in a post-literate age) with remarkable grace. I, and I suspect others, had this impression of you as something of a wilting lily (do not expose to direct media glare!), but this is clearly not the case. Will you go on Politically Incorrect?

I'd like to press you more on the central point of your book: that politics is now seen as hopelessly debased and that we need a renewal of the national moral ecology to bring back a sense of meaning and purpose to public (and by direct extension private) life. You place a huge premium on truth-telling as a prerequisite for a meaningful politics and trot out a series of galling counter-examples. I share your disgust with the Clintons and find myself flirting, in my head, at least, with both John McCain and Bill Bradley. But this raises another crucial problem: McCain and Bradley are as far apart politically as people can be in the consensus politics of the moment and yet I believe that they are entirely sincere (or as sincere as is feasibly workable for a major national politician) in what they believe. Is character enough? Jimmy Carter was a disastrous president, his progressive instincts yielding a most regressive combination of high interest rates and inflation. You come out in favor of "living wage" legislation for municipalities. Richard Nixon in the early '70s instituted wage and price controls, a quantum leap more far-reaching a progressive measure than you might even dream of today (it was, needless to say, a huge flop).

Today, we find ourselves in the quixotic position of having a cynical, mendacious, Janus-faced politics that has yielded some remarkably sane and reasonable policies. Interest and unemployment rates are at or near historic lows, and crime has dropped nationwide to the lowest level since the '60s: You may talk of living wages, but these facts alone are of more comfort and import to the vast majority of lower- and middle-class Americans than anything on the progressive agenda. And tens of millions of Americans are benefiting directly or through their 401(k) programs in the stock-market boom, leading in turn to a boom in homeownership (especially among young people). The international community (led fitfully by the Clinton administration) has moved with increasing forcefulness to intervene, at least partly on humanitarian grounds, in foreign trouble spots. And, perversely, thanks to the president 's feints to the center-right, a Democrat for the first time in 20 years has been able to stand up to a Republican tax-cut proposal (almost a trillion dollar one, at that) with the argument that some of that money should go to education and social programs. And I still hate the guy.

My point is not only that good intentions do not necessarily yield good results (that is literally a cliché) but that the American ambivalence toward capital-P politics is evidence that the voters are pretty much getting what they want out of the system and see no reason to change it. And though I believe either McCain or Bradley stands a reasonably good chance of winning their party's nomination based on an agenda of moral renewal, neither will become president. Promethean politics, as you term them in your book, are a largely spent force in America because we've seen them tried and seen them (usually, but not always) fail. Just ask Newt Gingrich.

Phat props,

Michael