Donald Trump And The Sensual Penguin Of Irony

So what’s going on with American irony right now? Seriously, I’m asking.

1. I’d Worry About the Death of Fact, but I’m Too Busy Being Good-Looking

A funny thing about the world we live in is that quite often the ideas that seem most simple and obvious to us are the ones that our predecessors — that is, dead people — had the hardest time figuring out. Take the most laughably basic concept, one that even a tiny child would mock you for not knowing, and you can bet that somewhere behind this derisive and superior infant are hundreds of sleepless philosophers, wiping the sweat of intense cogitation from their brows while gazing up at the moon and thinking, My parents were right, I should have gone into ceramics.

You could even go further and say that the more simple and obvious an idea seems, the more likely it is to have totally blown the roof off the brains of the people who first encountered it. This is because the biggest ideas tend to reorder the experience of people who learn about them. You see the world one way, then the idea hits you, then bam, you see it a different way — unless you happen to have been born after your society adopted the idea, in which case the idea shapes your understanding of the universe at such a fundamental level that you take it for granted. You never need to have that bam moment, because you never imagine a world that the idea didn't shape. It seems crystal clear to you, unlike to your great-great-etc.-grandparents, who spent whole weekends running around the streets of their ancient city-states exclaiming, “Holy hair-snakes, we have democracy and triangles!”

You might have heard it said that one idea or another is "historically constructed." What that means, basically, is that at some point in the past, this idea made a bam moment happen. The idea isn't something humans are born knowing; it was thought up by people, in a place, for a reason, with all the complications and vulnerabilities that implies. The conditions of life in that particular moment contributed to the nature of that particular idea, which in turn created new possibilities for future ideas, etc. "Historically constructed" means that as hard as this might be, it's possible to imagine a world before everyone understood that the sky was made of blue cake icing, and it's possible to imagine a world after everyone rejected that understanding, and in the meantime, it's worth asking whether the scientist who first postulated the blue-cake-icing theorem was sponsored by the Kindley-Lerner Food Dye MegaCorp ("cakes so blue you'll wonder where the clouds are!"™).


Why am I thinking about all this? It's because I keep reading, here on the threshold of the Donald Trump presidency, that we're about to enter a "post-fact" era. Or maybe we're there already? I'm not sure. My first response, when I started seeing this phrase pop up in, say, book reviews ("the perfect biography of Rutherford B. Hayes for our new post-fact era"), was irritation. How can there be a post-fact era? Facts are permanent! Spiders have eight legs; what, because the president lies on Twitter they're going to have nine? What's a fact? I thought. A unit of truth! You can't be post–the truth. I closed a few newspapers grumpily (actually I put down my phone, but let's stick with the newspaper for the Victorian quality of the visual) and took an angry puff from my pipe (i.e., picked up my phone again) while staring with an air of moody intensity into the fire (the fire was also my phone).

Then it hit me. If I couldn't imagine a post-fact era because the category of fact was so fundamental to my understanding of the universe, maybe that in itself was evidence that the idea of a fact was constructed, thought-up, vulnerable to change. Historically, of course, the idea of a fact — a truth that can be verified by reliable criteria — is much newer than the idea of truth itself. The notion of a worldview based on fact was not at all obvious to people for many, many thousands of years, and to get there took an incredible amount of sustained labor from men and women who did things like wear togas really intelligently while pointing one finger up at the sky or venture heroically into the jungle to make watercolor paintings of caterpillars.

So if the idea of fact is historically constructed, and it's possible to imagine a time before fact reordered human understanding, then … maybe we really could be entering a post-fact era? The president really, really lies on Twitter, like, super a lot, and fake news is everywhere, and it seems harder and harder to make a case for why the thing I believe is correct and the thing you believe is incorrect, at least in a way that will have any power to convince you. The question is whether this is a problem on the level of "the internet is stupid" or a problem on the level of "something has changed in the depths of human character."

In other words, the question is: Has fact been replaced by something else? Have we passed through a bam moment without noticing it?

2. “What Does This Have to Do with Irony?” He Asked Sarcastically

Let's say you want to make a point. Doesn't matter what point. Maybe you're standing on a street corner with some friends when who should happen to waddle past but a penguin.

Maybe it's not just any penguin. Maybe it's the most gorgeous, most perfect, most sensually thrilling penguin you have ever had the good fortune to encounter in all your life. You're standing there gape-mouthed, 100 percent penguin-struck. So the point you want to make is: Friends, that is one arresting penguin.

In this moment, you have several options. You could play it straight, and say, "Wow! I am amazed by the sensual voluptuousness of that penguin!"

You could jump right to poetry and intone, "Flightless they call thee, yet I know no skies / More winsome than thy little beady eyes."

If understatement's more your thing, you could shrug and mutter, "Decent penguin."

Or you could praise the penguin by pretending to criticize the penguin. "Am I crazy," you could scoff, "or is that penguin hideous?"

Of all these choices, the last one is clearly the riskiest. To convey your meaning by saying the opposite of what you mean requires a high degree of confidence in your listeners' ability to ascertain your real intentions. You need to know going in that your listeners share your basic assumptions about what's true and false. "Am I crazy or is that penguin hideous" only means "I am amazed by the sensual voluptuousness of that penguin" if you and your friends have a unified sense of penguin aesthetics, such that you have every reason to suppose they're looking at the penguin in the same state of rapt wonder that's stolen over you.


And it doesn't have to be a penguin. You could be talking about a very delicious plate of sea bass, or an unusually stupid walrus ("check out the professor over here"), or even something that, broadly speaking, isn’t a form of marine life at all. What I'm trying to get across via the medium of sexy-penguin hypothetical is simply that:

1. Irony is hard.

2. Irony, compared to other forms of communication, requires everybody to be already more or less on the same page vis-à-vis reality.

3. If everybody isn't on the same page vis-à-vis reality, it's easy for irony to get confusing, or suggest the opposite of what it wants to mean (i.e., what it literally says), or to fall into a kind of no-man's land where it doesn't entirely convey one meaning or the other but rather both and neither and who knows what else at the same time.

What I'm driving at here is that to my mind, the way a culture uses irony is a pretty good guide to that culture's relationship to reality. Robust, fearless, pellucid ironies of the Jonathan Swift variety tend to emanate from times and places with a strong shared belief in the nature of the world and the ways knowledge can be verified. That shared belief doesn't have to be accurate — the Middle Ages produced some fairly wicked ironies on the subject of, like, whether angels lived inside snap peas. It just means there needs to be some common basis of understanding, enough that pretending to challenge what everybody knows can provoke a surprise/outrage/laughter cycle in readers and listeners and great-aunts.

I think it's fair to say that for the last little while — let's say 150 years, conservatively — the common basis of understanding in American life has been the idea of fact. That's not to say the idea of fact hasn't often been misused, sometimes horribly so. Just that the notion of being in accord with scientifically observable reality has held a privileged place in our arguments, and in our mutual sense of things. It's what our barometers are calibrated to detect. So it's reasonable to think that if something changed in our conception of the role fact played in our lives, our sense of irony might, well, go a little haywire.

3. I Heard There Was a Steep Fjord That Ragnar Scaled with His Dragon Sword, But You Don’t Really Care for Vikings, Do Ya?

So what's going on with American irony right now? Seriously, I'm asking. People keep saying that it's dead. But from where I sit, there seems to be more and more of it, and the more of it there seems to be, the less clear it is what it's all doing.

I don't think I'm alone in feeling that, a decade into the social-media experiment, something constitutive has changed, some dark force has shifted in the cultural substrate. A few years ago, for instance, I doubt you would have imagined that the category of "quasi-Nazi" would transfix a large proportion of the political media, but here we are.

For instance: It's possible, at the orange dawn of the Trump administration, to read articles about Milo Yiannopoulos's book deal that describe him as "semi-ironic." As an interpretive category, "semi-ironic" is a disaster. It seems to mean something like "Hello, friends who want to make canoes from the skins of their race-enemies, please enjoy these wholeheartedly sincere statements, and if that isn't you, hahahaha, we do get up to some hijinks 'round these parts (heil Hitler! whoops)." But "we mean it and don't mean it at the same time" is now the rhetorical stance of a great many Trump supporters — not just the alt-right — and to some extent the rhetorical stance of Trump himself.

In practice, "we mean it and don't mean it at the same time" is barely distinguishable from "we don't know whether we mean it or not." And it's not only on the right that this weird, willed ambiguity seems to be spreading, although the existence of a "comedy of mass murder" fringe does seem to be one of the contemporary right's more, uh, vivid features.


I'm thinking, for example, of the cold open of the Saturday Night Live episode that aired after the election and the death of Leonard Cohen. Sitting at a piano, Kate McKinnon performed Cohen's "Hallelujah" in character, or at least in costume, as Hillary Clinton. This was ironic, in a way, because the idea that Clinton would mourn her loss by singing a piano ballad was obviously ridiculous. But it was staged with maximum sentimentality and apparently with the unironic aim of expressing the grief and determination of the left. The irony, in some way, licensed the sentimentality. But the need to reach for sentimentality at all implied that ironic comedy — SNL's ostensible reason for being — was compromised, insufficient for the moment. The two registers, extreme sincerity and extreme facetiousness, warped awkwardly into each other, so that it was impossible to say where one ended and the other began.

If I had to venture a guess as to what's happened, I'd say that we've spent the last several years relying on irony to paper over the cracks in our shared sense of reality. We got our news through jokes. We treated news events as occasions for more jokes. We looked to satire to express our collective conscience. Irony became a default worldview, one that looked edgy but actually felt quite safe. Irony was comforting, because irony enforces a sense of community. But when Trump blew into town, full of hairspray and cynicism, and exposed the estrangement from fact that we were busy ironizing ourselves against, the whole system spun off its axis. On the pro-Trump side, the importation of fascist imagery into the ironic worldview created an insane, self-consuming amalgam, incapable of saying anything (but capable of getting retweets).

In the meantime, those of us on the opposition side were left trying to respond from within our default ironic worldview, but it suddenly felt impotent and detached. It was as if Trump had said "there's no landscape" and we responded not by opening the curtains but by weeping and trying to draw a map.

4. Zombies for Jesus, or How to Keep Driving After the Car Explodes

You can probably fill in for yourself the big keywords I'm going to blame for the fact/irony problem. You've been around the block, think piece–wise. Massive inequality fuels extreme polarization, extreme polarization drives self-selective sorting into echo chambers, echo chambers produce hypersensitivity to dissent, hypersensitivity to dissent creates the need to be right all the time, the need to be right all the time weakens the ability to assess evidence, the inability to assess evidence leads to a collapse of judgment, and a collapse of judgment leads to your Uncle Carl slamming his door pretty hard at Thanksgiving!

Here's where you say, “But isn't that a bit simplistic?” And sure, of course it is. Are there thousands upon thousands of instances of conventional irony drifting past on our home screens every day? Yes. Are there people, on the left and the right, who continue to insist on the primacy of fact? There are, and thank goodness.

But has a new tone edged into the conversation? Are more people closed off even to the possibility of contrary factual evidence? Does the danger of epistemic crisis inform, or reduce, or confuse the precision with which irony can be deployed? Did you even go to Thanksgiving?

One thing that seems clear is that resisting Trump through comedy is going to demand some new technique. Satire so far has been worse than useless. We keep hitting him with what feel to us like devastating haymakers, and they keep kloodging right off him, because jokes that are grounded in reality can't move an audience that doesn't believe in it and can't hurt a target who thinks he controls it. Irony implies a contrast between what appears to be true and what's really true; if it's a contrast between two appearances, irony loses its force.


Another thing that seems clear is that — scarily, tantalizingly — we haven't passed through any sort of bam moment. The idea of fact has been leached of some of its character, but it hasn't been replaced by anything else. This isn't the post-fact age, or the post-truth age, or the post-irony age so much as it's the "WTF is going on and why is my altimeter spinning like a pinwheel" age.

We still want arguments to take the shape of exchanges of fact. It's just that, if newsblorf.biz puts a siren GIF on its report that the leopard-throated salamander is now extinct thanks to clean-fuel production in Idaho, half of us would view that as a searing gotcha against the environmental movement, then pointedly unfriend anyone from the other half who chimes in to comment that the leopard-throated salamander doesn't live in Idaho, because it doesn't exist.

We still want irony to work in the same way, too. It's just that it's gotten harder and harder not to notice that situations like "person on Twitter EVISCERATES 'John Oliver EVISCERATES' tweet" create an infinite-regress scenario from which there's no easy way out.

So here we are, clawing our way forward into this bad new world using the same depleted thought forms that got us here in the first place. We're like a corpse that's still moving because it has yet to realize it's dead. Irony, but with zombies!

Is there a solution here?

I'd love to say that there is. I'd love to say that through decency, clarity, care for one another, and good intentions, we could stop the glacial drift of polarization, renew our commitment to fact, and salvage the conceptual bases of good jokes (and also civilization).

I'd love to say that. But you might wonder whether I really meant it, and who knows? You might be right.