Back to irony

For un-ironic activities and subversive earnestness

Wanted: For un-ironic activities

What a bizarre article in the New York Times about an alleged crisis of irony, to be blamed in large part on Obama.

As you may recall from my previous thoughts on irony, I’ve never been tempted to consider irony thriving in American life to begin with. But now to mourn its decline because of an outbreak of naive and gushing earnestness about the prospects of imminent world-saving by the new savior?

I briefly suspected that the article was being retro-ironic when it proposed to prove the irony crisis by counting the appearances of the word irony in newspapers, before, several laborious paragraphs later, conceding that this was just plain silly.

Now I suspect that it comes back to that widespread American confusion over what irony is (not). Towards the end of the article, somebody finally attempts to define irony as “the incongruity between what’s expected and what occurs” which “makes us smile at the distance.” How could that be in decline?

Last time, I defined irony as “the non-aggressive savoring of contradictions in life and people (others and yourself) and of turns of phrase that are slightly and adroitly off-key and thus meaningfully surprising. Irony is not merely saying the opposite of what you mean.”

So irony is worlds apart from:

  • Sarcasm: This really is simply saying the opposite of what you mean. Hence: the lowest form of humor.
  • Wit: quick, sharp and probably biting associations between dissimilar things.
  • Humor: an ability find things funny.
  • Satire: the art of ridiculing somebody in power (possibly using irony, sarcasm, wit or humor as weapons).

My hunch: Irony is alive and well, inherently in situations and naturally in Britons. The rest of us can keep practicing. 😉

Should Obama choose Hillary?

So everybody is wondering whether Obama will choose Hillary to be his Secretary of State.

I’ve been thinking that he might do that ever since I heard Obama speak, during the primaries, about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln shrewdly, wisely, disarmingly followed the advice to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. He brought his harshest political rivals into his cabinet, where he could watch them and where their interests were aligned with his. “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”, he once said.

Naturally, Obama’s way of thinking immediately resonates with mine in at least one way: He instinctively looks to history for lessons and guidance in the here and now. I instinctively do the same. It is the premise of my book.

Taizu, the first emperor of the Song dynasty

Taizu, the first emperor of the Song dynasty

So here is another story from history that Obama might like. The first emperor of China’s Song dynasty was fighting against a rival, King Liu, to consolidate his rule. Song won and brought Liu to his court, where he offered him a glass of wine. Liu assumed that Song was about to kill him, with poisoned wine, and begged for mercy. Instead, Song laughed, took the glass and drank it himself. Then he made Liu a high-ranking adviser at his court. Liu would be one of the most loyal servants in Song’s retinue.

A while later, Song defeated another king. Song’s ministers lobbied to have this king killed or locked up, presenting reams of documentary proof that he was plotting to kill the Song emperor. The emperor had him brought before him. Then he promoted the man, appointed him to high rank, and sent him home with a package to be opened later. When the man did open it, he found all the documents proving his plot to have the emperor killed. He also became one of the emperor’s most loyal servants.

The benefits of this sort of thing are clear: If your enemies are at large (as Hillary would be in the Senate), they can cause mischief and plot revenge. Their success is your failure, your success their failure. But by bringing them close and aligning their success and failure with yours, you disarm them. Bonus: Because everybody knows that they are former enemies, they must forever work harder than the others to earn their trust.

Wild cards: None of Lincoln’s or the Song emperor’s enemies had a spouse such as Bill. And Bill would still be at large. Oh boy.


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Obama

My three-year old has been yelling “Obama” all day at kindergarten.

So it’s finally over. Enough with the blogging about it now, for a while (and back to my book). But, because it is a historic moment, this last post to mark it.

From us at The Economist, two pieces:

1) Congratulations to the winner, with a warning about the burden of high expectations. And perspective:

This week America can claim more credibly that any other western country to have at last become politically colour-blind…. America will now have a president with half-brothers in Kenya, old schoolmates in Indonesia and a view of the world that seems to be based on respect rather than confrontation.

2) Condolences to the loser, who used to be, and may be again, a man to like and respect, but who became tragic:


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Obama: “Well, it is The Economist.”

So, as I said, we at The Economist and our readers have endorsed. Now Barack Obama has responded. Thanks to Celina Dunlop for pointing me to this exchange between him and Katie Couric (WordPress doesn’t let me embed the video, so click through):

Couric: The Economist, while endorsing you, has also said there are some legitimate criticisms of you that John McCain should be focused on. They say that you are one of the least business-friendly Democratic candidates in a generation, that you have no experience in the business world aside from year as a consultant, and that you’re too close to unions and trial lawyers.

Obama: Well, it is The Economist. And the fact that they endorsed me, how about reading all the good stuff they said about me? (laughter)

Couric: Well, that’s in another issue. (laughter) That’s later.


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More on parents and success

Thanks to Freda Zietlow for pointing me to this piece in the Wall Street Journal on the dysfunctional families of future presidents.

As you guys already know, in one chapter of my book I’m looking into the subtle and unsubtle ways that parents influence the future success and failure of their children. Hamilcar played a huge role in the life of his son Hannibal (my main character), and not just while Hamilcar was alive.

Now, the Journal‘s Sue Shellenbarger has this to say about US presidents and their parents:

The families that have produced U.S. presidents … show a striking tendency to be deeply flawed. The childhoods of past presidents have been marked to an unusual degree by absent fathers, mothers so overinvolved that they could easily have been the original helicopter parents, and in some cases outright dysfunction…

Childhood events that would destroy most children seem somehow to spark greatness in leaders-to-be, says Doug Wead, author of two books on presidents’ families. As two candidates with highly unusual family backgrounds vie for the presidency, Mr. Wead even sees Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama — to different degrees and in starkly different ways — fitting a pattern he describes as “Mama’s boys with absent fathers who were perceived by the sons as high achievers,” he says….

Some presidents’ families have been famously dysfunctional. Thomas Lincoln abandoned 9-year-old Abraham and his sister, 12, for several months in their frontier cabin right after the death of their mother, while he went to find a new wife, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author most recently of “Team of Rivals,” a book about Lincoln. When Thomas finally returned with their new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston, the couple found them “wild — ragged and dirty,” seeming barely human, the stepmother later wrote…

In another notably troubled family, Bill Clinton’s father died before Bill was born; his stepfather was a womanizer and an alcoholic who beat his mother, Virginia, according to biographer David Maraniss. Although Virginia, a warm, nurturing woman, made her son the adored centerpiece of the family, President Clinton said later that he often pined for his birth father…

Even the McCain family, with its tradition of distinguished military service, fits the pattern of an absent father and an overinvolved mother who fills the gap, Mr. Wead says. Sen. McCain’s father was a respected four-star Navy admiral and commander of Pacific forces in the Vietnam war, but he was mostly absent from home during Sen. McCain’s childhood. Sen. McCain reflects pride in his father and was taught to regard his long absences “not as a deprivation, but as an honor.”…


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If the whole world were the electoral college….

I rarely digress from the two threads of this blog (the writing of my book, and book-publishing and book-writing in general), but this is just too fun.

We at The Economist are running a global election for US president. You vote as part of your country. Each country has a specific number of votes in the world’s electoral college, according to the same formula that America uses in its own electoral college.

So go check it out, and vote.


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