Way, way back in 1987, Steve Martin starred with Daryl Hannah in a fun little movie called Roxanne. The story, based on the play Cyrano de Bergerac, is a romance between a smart, clever, and spirited small-town fire chief in the Pacific Northwest and a beautiful visitor to the town. In an early scene, Daryl Hannah’s Roxanne locks herself out of her house, naked, and goes to the fire station to get help. Hiding in the bushes outside, she gets Martin’s attention, and when he asked if she wanted a coat, she replied “no, I really like to stand naked in this bush in the freezing cold.”

Martin took her at her word, and they headed back to her house. When she questioned why he didn’t get her a coat, he replied “you said you didn’t want a coat.” She retorted, “I was being ironic.” Martin’s response?

Oh! Ho ho, irony! Oh, no, we don’t get that here. See, people ski topless here while smoking dope, so irony is not really a high priority. We haven’t had any irony here since about, ’83, when I was the only practitioner of it, and I stopped because I was tired of being stared at.

As is, sadly, too often the case, what was once farce has now become reality. The art of executing or recognizing irony is fading into the dustbin of history, replaced by a a combination of motivated offense-taking (if a word, phrase, or action can be interpreted as offensive, no matter how convolutedly and with zero regard for intent, it is taken so, and prompts demands for apologia), almost incomprehensible denseness, and an astounding lack of self-awareness.

Two recent chestnuts serve to illustrate.

First, the brouhaha over the holiday classic song Baby It’s Cold Outside, which as columnist John Podhoretz ably discussed, is sung by a man and a woman engaged in the banter of courtship, where both wanted the same thing and knew it. Today’s synthetically aggrieved scolds either don’t or refuse to understand the song and scene, and instead decide (for everyone else) that there’s an element of date-rape at play, because the man is plying the woman with alcohol. In a time when women are supposedly more empowered than ever, the infantilization that such an attitude imposes on the woman, and indeed on all women, is tremendously ironic.

Second, we have Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr’s discussion of the incredible lack of self-awareness of Elizabeth Warren’s attempt to “fix” her Native American heritage problem. While a fair reading of history supports the assertion that she didn’t get her Harvard gig because of her assertion of Native American heritage, Carr’s conclusion that she’d have remained in obscurity without it is convincing. Extreme lack of self-awareness, either born of or cultivated by years inside the sterile echo chamber of liberal intelligentsia, caused both Warren and those in her corner to miss the stupendous irony of a “whiter than Casper the Friendly Ghost dipped in a vat of Elmer’s Glue” liberal elite leveraging identity politics for self benefit.

Also in Carr’s column is mention of lawn signs in those hallowed liberal lands that read “Hate Has No Home Here.” How many of those self-proclaimed non-haters see blood-red and boiling dark clouds at the mention of Trump’s name? How many would grant their Republican friends (assuming they have any) the same opportunity of opinion as they routinely grant their like-minded cohorts? Is there such a thing as a “safe space” for a non-leftist idea to be voiced in those “hate has no home here” places? Could a libertarian walk into one and speak against identity/grievance politics, or voice market-based reforms rather than single-payer as the solution to health care in America?

Irony is dead in the public forum. Irony is more subtle than rage or hate, and therefore gets overshadowed or ignored in favor of the latter. It joins provocative comedy and nuance, both of which have been killed off for similar reasons. This is a tragedy for society, because all of these are predicated upon intelligence and critical thinking, while their replacements are based on emotional reactions (and juvenile ones at that). The death of irony proves that society is getting dumber, even in the high echelons of over-education and top-tier earnings. Sure, there are plenty of smart people out there, people who understand irony, sarcasm, and subtlety, and who can process an opinion that involves more than a slogan, yard sign, or Orwellian-sheep mantra, but it has been made clear to these people that they are better off keeping low profiles and avoiding the scrutiny of the scolding class. To wit: the organizers of the Academy Awards are scrambling to find a replacement host for this year’s show, after comedian Kevin Hart withdrew following scolding about some provocative jokes he had told many years earlier. No one wants to host the Oscars, because it’s a near-certainty they’ll step on some land mine or, alternately, be so bland and banal as a result of avoiding the slightest whiff of offensiveness that their career suffers for it.

We no longer have reasoned discourse across aisles. We no longer have a robust marketplace of ideas, despite the enormous boon to exchange that the Internet has been. People prefer to sell their own to their own, and expunge contrary voices rather than give them shelf-space, even as they proclaim that theirs is the “better” side because it is more tolerant. If you can’t recognize the irony of raging against diversity of opinion even as you champion diversity of everything else, you are part of the problem.

Steve Martin joked about the disappearance of irony 31 years ago. The lament, set as it was in the Pacific Northwest, presaged the rise of intolerant progressivism that actually killed off irony and its cousins.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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