The Death of Irony: Reports are Exaggerated

(written October 2001)

They say September 11 was the day irony died. Yet I believe irony lives.

Plenty of it can be found in the way things are so different, depending on which part of the earth’s surface you happened to have been set down on.

In one place, dogs eat vitamin-enriched kibble, wear clothes, and have their nails clipped by professionals. In another place, rabid dogs eat human corpses.

In some countries, people pay for the pleasures of sado-masochism. In others, it’s not difficult to wind up in the hands of those who wield whips and cattle prods for free. In our country, the mass murderers store severed body parts in the refrigerator, out of public view. Elsewhere, the pieces are strewn all over the place as a warning.

In some places, a man who makes an unwelcome sexual advance can be taken to court. Elsewhere, the total subjugation of women is an unquestioned fact of life, every kind of abuse their daily expectation. The women of Afghanistan, for instance, are ruled by lunatics, the kind of men who will rape a woman and then execute her on a prostitution charge. Just one of these guys would keep Freud busy for years. Here, such a man would rate the attention of an entire team of FBI profilers. Over there, he gets to call himself holy and run everything.

In one place, a sports arena is where the soccer moms and dads bring their kids for healthful family fun. Elsewhere, a sports arena is where crowds gather to watch executions. In the US, an amputated hand brings out half a dozen emergency vehicles and the limb is packed in ice. The victim goes in for fourteen hours of surgery, perhaps transported by a med-evac helicopter. Elsewhere, hands are cut off on purpose, watched by throngs of people, none of whom can do anything to help, and any civilian taken up in a helicopter is likely to be pushed out of it.

A block from where I live, one household got a head start on Halloween. In a low window there’s a lifesize color picture of a grinning skull. In any of several places throughout the world, if a sideways glance toward a neighbor’s house revealed a partly decomposed human head, chances are that partly decomposed human head would be real.

To Americans the grinning skull is a party decoration. To someone in another place, it’s their parent or child. Like the grinning skull I saw on the website of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. These RAWA women specialize in concealing cameras beneath their burqas, the voluminous tentlike coverings they are forced to wear. Their pictures of beatings, executions, freshly severed limbs, the desiccated remains of massacre victims, and other horrors lit by bright sun against a backdrop of blue sky, are smuggled out to the free world. Many hundreds of women risk their lives to make atrocity photos Afghanistan’s number one export. The obscuring veil, the very symbol and instrument of oppression, becomes a weapon turned against the Taliban. The irony of this is nothing short of delicious.

Before proceeding I have to say, clearly and loudly, America is the best country in the world. Unfortunately, that’s a lot like being the wellest patient in the hospital. It’s still a long way from being healthy.

Our government has a habit of interfering with the internal affairs of other countries at the wrong times, for the wrong reasons, but standing back, if not actually turning away, at other times and for reasons equally as wrong. America comforts itself with the rationalization, “They just hate us because we are rich and powerful.” America is like a vainglorious movie star who thinks the critics are only jealous of his wealth and fame. If someone came right out and told him, “No, we hate you because you can’t act, you’re a jerk, and your breath reeks,” he still wouldn’t believe it. Jonathan Kwitney’s book Endless Enemies is a good place to start understanding the anger felt toward us. As Susan Sontag puts it, “a few shreds of historical awareness” show another side of September 11 and place it in perspective as “a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.”

Some commentators call the NY/Washington attacks an “unprovoked blow.” But hadn’t the US military destroyed a pharmaceuticals factory which turned out to be only a pharmaceuticals factory? Something like that could be construed as provocation. Yeah, but they did something else first, to provoke us…Tracing this stuff back is like listening to your kids squabble in the back seat. “He pinched me first.” “Did not. He started it when he kicked me.” Pretty soon they’re fighting about who did what on a different car trip, last year. You don’t want to hear this, you just want them to put a sock in it. One of those kids will have to be the first to grow up and figure out some different way of doing things.

Speaking of maturity, the President’s pronouncement that anyone who isn’t on our side is on the side of the terrorists, is exactly the type of thinking that’s created so much bloodshed and sorrow throughout history.

The national character of America is self-absorbed, uncomprehending, and oblivious to what passes for reality in other places. There are many things about which it can be said of Americans, “They just don’t get it.” The relative opulence of our society blinds us to so much. When we hear of other people being injured, we may hark back to medical experiences of our own, which may have been at least partly pleasant. Painkillers, flowers, candy, attention, being treated like someone special. It’s a whole different thing to be wounded or ill in a place where there are no antibiotics, clinics, or clean water, and nobody can be bothered with you because their own problems are even worse.

Whenever Americans are targeted, there’s a collective gasp of disbelief that might puzzle an eavesdropping visitor from outer space. This stranger might form the impression that an American life is worth five, ten, or a hundred times as much as any other kind of life. America is smug in its superiority. For instance, there’s an attitude about how everybody in the world should speak English, and why in hell should we bother to learn their stupid languages? The result: several governmental departments are wishing, right about now, that they had more Arabic speakers on staff.

Corporate America sells every weapon of destruction to every side in every war. How could we have expected to go on indefinitely, building our national wealth on armaments, with nary a repercussion? Military America equips the world with money, guns and advanced training, then it’s “Ta ta, run along now and kill each other.” How could we have thought all that evil karma would never rebound on us? The truly ironic part is, if World War III really gets up and rolling, nobody’s going to get rich off it. People who own yachts die from nuclear, biotoxic, or chemical warfare just like regular folks. We’ll all be equally dead. All our bank accounts will be set back to zero. All our credit cards will expire.

A military analyst named Joseph C Cyrulik wrote in an Army publication, “an enemy can inflict pain to the point that the people demand a change in the government’s policies.” For some Americans, the changes they demand are inimical to every principle of the Constitution. They want more restrictions, more face scanning, more wiretaps – more of every item on an outrageous shopping list that must have the founding fathers spinning in their graves.

But all the surveillance that’s already been imposed didn’t prevent those attacks. Isn’t it rather naive to think doubling or tripling the amount of techno-spying will prevent future catastrophes? What’s needed is not more of the same, but something entirely different.

By the way, how did suspects on the FBI’s watch list manage to board airplanes without the FAA hearing about it? Yeah I know, the sharing of information between federal agencies is a freedom-slayer, and no libertarian ought to be in favor of it. But we know that federal agencies do share a ton of information every day, to catch deadbeat dads, illegal immigrants, child molesters, and other undesirables. So as long as they’re going to do it anyhow, how come they didn’t do it when it really mattered?

There’s a lot to be said for the idea that terrorism only works if it causes people to change the way they live their lives. The Taliban mob have already succeeded in setting us on the road to totalitarianism. “If we allow these attacks to alter our basic freedoms, then the enemy will have won,” says the ACLU, and it’s right.

“……to the point that the people demand a change in the government’s policies.” What if, instead of begging for more useless “security” measures, there could be a whole different kind of change? What if the change America demanded of its government was for it to stop doing the things that cause so much of the world to justifiably hate us? Maybe we do need to change the way we live our lives. Some definitive thing is needed to convince America to change for the better. Sadly, terrorism isn’t it.

But hey, I’m very, very glad to be a citizen of the US for so many reasons. For instance, we’ve got the American Red Cross to offer advice on how to survive the stress of a terrorist attack.

“Avoid viewing repeated media coverage of the event.” Here, we can choose whether to do that or not. Elsewhere, TVs and VCRs and rounded up and burned, and the Internet is banned.

“Talk it out,” the Red Cross advises anxious Americans. Over here, that’s good advice. You join a support group and share your innermost feelings and the emotional turmoil subsides. Elsewhere, a wrong word in the wrong ear can get you taken away at 3 a.m. Imagine being a woman in Afghanistan, knowing the little son you cuddle today will likely grow up to be a Talib. In just a few short years he’s going to be your absolute master, with the power of life and death over you. Here, parents worry that their kids will blow them in to DARE for smoking pot.

“Ask for help if you need it,” is the ARC’s advice to Americans. Here, some degree of help is available for most people in dire predicaments, even if a series of bureaucratic hurdles must be jumped in order to qualify. Elsewhere, there is no help. Ask for it all you want , need it desperately – it’s simply not there.

Even when we want to do the right thing, our efforts are often maladroit and counterproductive – like buying slaves to end slavery. All over the world people think, “Look at those greedy Americans, why don’t they help us?” And no matter how many dollars we give for humanitarian aid, chances are the food we send will never reach its intended recipients, but be captured by the bad guys and sold on the black market to buy more guns. In Afghanistan, the ration packets we “snowdrop” for the innocent sufferers are just as easily harvested up by the monsters. No matter how much we want to help the starving, we probably can’t, and that’s pretty damn ironic.

“Listen to other people,” the Red Cross says. A tough assignment, but once in a while Americans manage it. Listening to others is, after all, a key value of our culture, advocated by all the self-improvement books. It helps us make friends, connections, and sales. Elsewhere, listening to the wrong people can get you taken away at 3:30 a.m.

“Be especially kind to others.” Again, we have the luxury of choice in this matter. By and large, Americans will do a kind thing that doesn’t involve too much inconvenience. Elsewhere, there are whole countries ruled by grim monomaniacal ogres who never give a thought to kindness and who have never, ever wished anyone a nice day.

“Spend time with your family.” Around here, most people have the option of getting together with the relatives for Thanksgiving. Elsewhere, “spend time with your family” is a bitter joke because they’re all in a stinking mass grave.

“Return to your usual routine.” I wish the ARC hadn’t put it quite that way. Maybe the more productive course would be to not return to our normal ways, but to put more energy into politically educating ourselves, and/or praying. Elsewhere, though, the idea of getting back to the mundane is another of those unfunny jokes.

And they just get unfunnier. “Find a peaceful, quiet place to reflect and gain perspective.” Most Americans could probably make it to some chapel or nature spot for a spell of meditation. Elsewhere, there are no cars to jump into, no buses or trains in which to escape. Find a peaceful place! Hordes of people are trying to do that very thing. They’re called refugees, and there are millions of them.

In the wake of September 11, the program directors of a giant radio syndicate put together a list of songs they didn’t think should be played. (If Dylan’s “Neighborhood Bully” wasn’t on the list, it should have been.) As it turned out, two of these songs were performed by stars during a disaster benefit telethon for the victims. Is that not ironic? How about the fact that an American entertainment corporation responded to an attack by narrow-minded intolerant religious cranks who hate freedom, by issuing a list of songs its employees shouldn’t play? Not ironic yet?

Madonna and thousands of others wear stars and stripes as clothing, and are cheered for their patriotism. During the Vietnam war, people got arrested for dressing in facsimile flags. I don’t know whether that’s irony, but it’s something very near.

In the light of what we’re learning about ubiquitous government surveillance of online communications, it’s laughably ironic that just a short time ago the big issue was those darn cookies snuck onto our hard drives for the benefit of advertisers.

One of the worst things about enemies is how they make you forget about your own most cherished values. It’s an ugly irony that the very principles America was founded on are being held up to question. That hurts. Thinking about religious tolerance, for instance – one of the bedrock values – can make us awfully uncomfortable these days. How are we supposed to react to a bunch of Islamist fanatics? Profile the hell out of them, round them up and kick their ass right out of here. Then there’s racial tolerance. We’re against ethnic cleansing, and we punish other nations for engaging in it. But plenty of Americans would like to wipe out every last Arab on the planet. “That’s different.” Of course it is. Irony, anyone?

And then there’s a whole category of stuff that would be ironic if it were true, but none of these items could possibly be true. Even though they are reported in reputable, big-league media, who in their right mind could believe these things? For instance, it seems that our Chief Executive used to be in business with Osama bin Laden’s big brother. Okay, let that one go for now. Nobody wants to be held accountable for the actions of their family members. Lord knows I don’t.

But how about this one? A New Yorker article quoted an FBI man who admitted “a scenario like the one that wrecked downtown Manhattan and part of the Pentagon had not been conceived of.” The Department of Defense has a $300 billion annual budget. In theory, some portion of the amount is allotted to paying people to think. All that money and military brainpower brought to bear on issues of national defense and security, and nobody thought of this possibility? Yet the Director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare says his agency has known for years that Iran trained people to fly commercial aircraft into civilian targets. Hey, there were kamikaze pilots back in WWII. And nobody thought of it?

The New Yorker also interviewed an architect who worked in the WTC and is a great fan of its structural integrity. She says the towers were built to withstand the accidental impact of a jet (or at least the kind they had 30 years ago) but “nobody thought about the fuel.” A twelve-year-old developing his first computer game could have thought of it. All these high-priced smart talented experts, the people who run the world, who get the big bucks for making decisions and acting on our behalf – they didn’t think of it. Granted, there probably would still have been no way to prevent the tragedy. That they were unable to do anything about it is understandable. Not having thought of it is unforgivable.

Here’s another wild tale: Just 4 months before the attacks on NY and Washington, our government gave the bad Afghans $43 million. For not growing poppies. Isn’t that the silliest thing you ever heard? I could refer the govt. to someone who would agree not to grow poppies for a mere $1 million. Astute businessman that he is, our President wouldn’t pass up such an opportunity to save the taxpayers $42 million, would he? And my candidate wouldn’t have spent the money on fake passports or aviation school tuition.

There’s a really far out story about why the US got to be such good buddies with the Taliban in the first place. These supposedly reputable news sources would have us believe there’s an American business called Unocal that wanted to run a gigantic pipeline through Afghanistan to bring oil from central Asia to Pakistan and the sea. And the Taliban promised to fix it so they could. (Why is it that when some kind of really dirty dealing goes on in the international scene, so often what lurks behind it is the lust for oil? Oil has far surpassed gold in its power to corrupt and maim nations.) Anyhow, this would mean we cozied up to a coalition of murderous lunatics for the sake of fuel to run our jet skis and leaf blowers. Isn’t that the most absurd thing you ever heard?

Especially in the light of what the hemp proponents have been telling us all these years: with hemp biomass, we could produce enough fuel to be an energy-independent nation. If the US government weren’t addicted to anti-drug hysteria, it could tell the sheiks to get lost, and at the same time save the American farm with guaranteed full employment. Wouldn’t it be ironic if America remains in thrall to the Arab countries just because of its stubborn, paranoid refusal to acknowledge that industrial hemp is no more a drug than alfalfa is? If willful stupidity about one species of vegetation is the only reason the oil producing countries have us in a chokehold – wouldn’t it be ironic?

One more crazy story: the US created the Taliban. A while back, the American military sent out the call for every Islamist nutcase in the hemisphere to gather in Afghanistan. American power and influence patched together this monster and pointed it at the Russians. Osama bin Laden, good anti-Russian that he was, got from us $3 billion and top-notch training for his guerillas. (Some say he has gone to ground in a high-tech hidey hole constructed by our very own CIA. Irony may not be the most accurate word to describe this situation, but it is the kindest one.)

So what if his minions were behind the bombings of a couple embassies and of the World Trade Center in ’93?. We knew the guy was a pit bull, but he was our pit bull, and we thought we had him on a leash. Just like with Iraq, Panama, Somalia, and Haiti, we supplied the weapons, technology and know-how to another military dictatorship that would turn around and bite its benefactor.

So came the day when Russia finally had to give up trying to subdue Afghanistan. In what one foreign policy expert characterizes as a typical example of “US intrusion followed by neglect,” America pretty much lost interest too. This year, we only gave the Taliban $125 million in foreign aid, and basically blew off Afghanistan. But the Taliban was still there. The oil boys and the anti-drug warriors energized and fed the monster, and set it loose on the villagers. Pretty soon the monster tired of such easy pickings and decided to go after Dr. Frankenstein.

Who in their right mind could ever believe a scenario like that? It would be just beyond ironic. It would be insane.

This conflict is a mess for sure, and the only good thing to come out of it so far is an impassioned and immortal piece of writing by Tamim Ansary. “An Afghan-American Speaks” started as an e-mail to a small circle of friends and has now been published around the globe. Ansary reminds us that the people of Afghanistan have been the victims of a “cult of ignorant psychotics” for a long time. He makes the excellent point that it’s no use bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age because the Soviets already took care of that little chore. He points out that the Taliban are the only people with the means to escape or hide, leaving behind a nation of disabled orphans as targets.

I have to agree with Mr. Bush on one thing – it’s stupid to waste missiles to knock down tents and camels. It would be useful to have something like a neutron bomb (kills people, spares buildings) only different. What’s needed here is a totally new concept – a bomb that eliminates homicidal maniacs and spares regular people. Unfortunately no bomb is that smart. Even the most surgical of strikes will kill the innocent. It really sucks, but ten to one the only workable solution is to send ground troops that can at least see what they’re shooting at. To wantonly destroy the people of Afghanistan can only help the Taliban. With a smaller, more controllable population they can get that oil pipeline built or whatever else they may want to do.

The people of Afghanistan are like the families in an inner city housing project that’s been taken over by the Crips or the Bloods, and we all know what that’s like. Of what use is it to make them suffer to the point where even the Taliban starts to look good?

This conflict isn’t really between America and Afghanistan, or even between Christianity and Islam. It is, as always, between the psychopaths and the sane people; between the big guys who create and profit from war, and the ordinary people who just want to be left alone to live some kind of life.

The people in power over there do things against the will of the ordinary person, just like the people in power here often do things I don’t want them to do. But guess what? They don’t consult me. Never mind that nonsense about voting. I wasn’t asked to vote on giving bin Laden and his thugs all that money. Nobody gave the ordinary Afghan a chance to vote on destroying the World Trade Center, no more than my government gave me a chance to vote on whether to bomb a factory.

A long time ago I read in a science fiction anthology a story based on a memorable idea. Two countries had issues with each other, and instead of going to war they each chose one champion, the strongest, most fearsome soldier, to fight it out on everybody’s behalf. And I seem to remember a similar tale where the solution was even more refined – the two smartest chess players met up for a match to decide which side won. These stories were supposed to be futuristic, and the future is here. So how about it?

Yeah, it’s a crazy idea – but no crazier than what’s been showing up lately in the real news

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About Pat Hartman

Before publishing the two books "Call Someplace Paradise" and "Ghost Town: A Venice California Life", my main project was "Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics. " I wrote extensively for "Scene," a monthly arts and entertainment magazine with a circulation of 25,000. Also proofread, sold ads, put together the music calendar and, for a couple of years, served as editor. Presided over a couple issues of the local NORML newsletter, as well as being featured speaker at chapter meetings. Wrote a complete screenplay; collaborated on another one; worked on a couple of scripts (additional dialog and general brainstorming) with an indie film producer. Booked the talent for a large music festival. Wrote, designed, illustrated and produced various catalogs and brochures for small businesses. Spoke at a high school as a panelist on Women in the Professions; was a featured speaker at the 1991 Women in Libertarianism Conference; presented public programs on "Success in One Lesson" and "The Bloomsbury Group: What's It To Us?" Created the website VirtualVenice.info and wrote many politically-oriented pieces for Earthblog.net
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One Response to The Death of Irony: Reports are Exaggerated

  1. Marieke says:

    Hi. Great great post. I quoted you in one of mine, Happy Bombing (you can delete this, I don’t want to make surreptitious advertising;), but you maybe want to know in which context), and linked back to your post. Have a sunny day.

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