I had been hanging around the tiny Buddhist temple in my hometown when Melissa showed up. Seeing life and death play out in front of her on the operating table must have cut through any impulse to crack wise or play at being jaded, because she was without guile. She launched herself into religious practice with an earnestness I had avoided, and next to her bright sincerity, I felt shown up. My irony and cynicism were no mark of worldly sophistication, but only a cover for a child too self-centered and full of fear to risk conviction.
We live in an age of irony. We love to watch famous people fall from grace and ordinary people debase themselves on television: They confirm our suspicion that there’s no virtue that doesn’t mask a selfish motive. Who can fault our suspicions? The last period of idealism in America, the ’60s, became a mockery of itself through the hypocrisy of its devotees – how many baby boomers spoke “love and peace” while their actions screamed “indiscriminate sex and heavy sedation”?
The moral failures of that generation helped set the stage for the cruelest joke yet: the Ironic Presidency. The Bush Administration fights a “War on Terror” whose primary effect has been a precipitous increase in American fear, and it created the single greatest haven for terrorism on Earth by invading Iraq to prevent terror. The president himself was the subject of a multimillion-dollar PR campaign intended to make an Ivy League scion of privilege out to be the exact sort of sincere, straight-shooting regular Joe who would never spend millions of dollars on a PR campaign. It would all be a masterful piece of political satire if it weren’t an Orwellian nightmare. Maybe Bush’s main legacy will be the addition of a fourth equation to Orwell’s triumvirate: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, Hypocrisy is Sincerity.
Even our great buildings have become ironic: The skyscraper set to replace the World Trade Center sits a crystalline tower atop a featureless two-hundred-foot tall concrete base. Built to prevent truck bombings, this blank block supporting an armored pinnacle serves better as a symbol of the cynical view Americans have of our own country – hardened against outsiders and inaccessible to anyone not already at the top. The name of the project: “Freedom Tower.” I suppose “the Empire State” was already taken.
The greatest enemy of freedom is not terrorist-sympathizing liberals, nor even neo-imperialist conservatives, but rather the prematurely jaded Gen-X or Millenial whose cynical disaffection with government precludes any political involvement whatsoever. The United States and its democracy are, above all, ideals, and ideals die when no-one believes in them. The liberals and conservatives may be deluded or outright wrong, but at least they can be bothered to care.
Nowhere is it worse than at the Ironic University: Sarcastic mockery masquerades as sophisticated intellectual critique, strong belief is distrusted as a prelude to sanctimony, and there’s no self-indulgence that can’t be passed off as a self-aware parody of self-indulgence. Students are not the main culprits: “Reason” is undermined by postmodernist professors eager to supplant it with Theory, and “tolerance” is politically correct code for the tribute owed my own political-cultural identity by all others. University speech codes encourage irony: If we can claim everything we say was intended as a joke, we can back out of anything that offends hypersensitive classmates armed with punitive university policies.
While we may thereby evade the judgment of our peers, we will not escape the judgment of history. In this period of national and international crises, we would do better to remember that guileless sincerity that laid my own posturing bare at Temple, that simple force of truth before which the mighty tremble and cynicism curls in on itself like a worm in sunlight. That sincerity is our own voice, telling us that we shall not pass this way again, reminding us that every moment is a yesterday responsible to a memory of tomorrow.
Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.