Bruce Gottlieb

Bruce Gottlieb

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 10 1999 9:00 PM

Bruce Gottlieb

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Great joy in Mudville today! Classes were great, homework is more or less nonexistent, and the weekend is near. Also, the HLS air conditioning is back on line. (Yesterday the classrooms alternated between sauna and frigidairium.)

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But enough about school. Let's talk about why people like me are ruining America. (Hint: It has nothing to do with HLS.)

Today's New York Times carried a review of a book (For Common Things) written by a college classmate of mine named Jed Purdy, currently at Yale Law School. The book's point, if you trust the reviews, is that irony is ruining America. (Sincerity is dead, genuine feeling is gone, alas, alarum, etc.) Jed apparently reserves special condemnation for his college classmates, from whom he expected better. The book received vicious treatment in Harper's and the New York Observer and an ambivalent embrace from Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the NYT. The NYT Magazine also ran a four-page profile of Jed, portraying him as an odd but lovable duck. This media blitz has been the talk of my admittedly narrow social circle this week.

Now, I do not flatter myself to think that Jed had me in mind when he wrote the book. We didn't spend too much time together in college--one or two classes together and occasional lunches. And I was far from the worst--or is it best?--offender at a college where irony was the coin of the realm. (The finest ironist of my graduating class now works at Saturday Night Live; the other leading lights write sitcoms or screenplays; a few condescended to take well-paying but workaday jobs; one watches the Food Channel most of the time.)

But I've read the longish American Prospect articles on which the book is based and flatter myself to think that I could be a decent stunt double for what Jed thinks is the run-of-the-mill Ivy grad--sometimes cynical, sometimes surly, a known purchaser of Evelyn Waugh novels. Moreover, I'll admit to enjoying Seinfeld, which is apparently Jed's biggest bugbear.

Well, I'll spare you the rest. For one thing, there's no space to take Jed's thesis seriously in these pages. For another thing, I'm too cheap/poor to buy the book in hardcover. Finally, it's hard to earnestly defend cynicism (though it's equally strange to publicly castigate others for a lack of human charity, as Jed's more astute reviewers have noted.)

All I wish to report is that irony is a hot topic these days in Cambridge, Mass. Everyone at Harvard College and Harvard Law School is, by definition, privileged. And any honest person will admit that there is a considerable degree of luck behind admission to either institution. (This is not to say that lottery winners need to spend all day feeling guilty, however. What's the point of winning the lottery, after all?)

Moreover, while irony is not the 180 degree opposite of pomposity, it is perhaps the 140 degree near-opposite. That is, the comfort of irony is popular among people who are guilt-ridden about being over-privileged. (Take Evelyn Waugh, for example, or Oscar Wilde, who once said that over-education is the only way to justify over-privilege.) In short, if you don't take anything seriously, you can't be seriously charged with taking things too seriously.

Well, that's enough opining for one day. I spent the evening cooking dinner with a recently engaged friend and my roommate. Then a little bit of studying, and off to Bar Review, which is what Thursday-night drinking at a local bar with your classmates is called. One-Ls meet at a sweaty, sleazy second-floor bar called the Hong Kong; Two-Ls meet at a roomier watering hole called John Harvard's Brewhouse. I went to both tonight and am convinced that Two-Ls have it better than we do. Then I remembered that they're one year closer to the Real World, leading me to reconsider.