Friday, September 2, 2011

Meet My Dear Friend, Sarcasm

…and its uptown cousin, irony.

I introduce you to these two concepts now because I will be using them liberally in the future.  And why not?  All of Western civilization has bequeathed to me this rich heritage.  Who am I to deny the power of an expertly placed snide remark?

Of course real irony takes a touch perhaps more delicate than mine.  So mostly I will be using sarcasm.

I think that irony and sarcasm, especially as tools of social critique, are the privilege of…well, of the privileged.  Social critique requires being able to take a larger view, to place oneself outside of one’s circumstances, at least long enough to craft that particularly barbed sarcastic phrase.  For the most part, the desperately poor are too busy surviving to achieve that distance.  I think this is why sarcasm and irony have been so prevalent in Western society for the past two hundred years at least, and why it’s hardly the predominant form of humor in the majority of third-world countries.

Furthermore, practitioners of sarcasm and irony are usually fairly well-educated.  I don’t know if this is because the current Western intellectual tradition emphasizes skepticism, a sort of ivory-tower second-cousin to irony and sarcasm, or if it’s because a broad view of the world encourages cynicism.  It’s a sad fact that the broadening of the mind frequently leads to the crushing of innocent ideals, just as surely as the broadening of the American freeway leads to the crushing of innocent woodland creatures.  And when those ideals are crushed, the young and educated turn to irony, if they are talented, or sarcasm, if they are not so talented, and go on their way.  (And for some, it's possible that irony and sarcasm descend on them in that moment when they receive their diplomas and realize that, underneath the cap and gown, they are now just one more tally-mark in that statistic that tracks jobless youth living in their parents' basements.  But that's just another ideal being crushed, the ideal that a four-year-degree guarantees a completely fulfilling, productive, and economically secure life thereafter.)

I’m not sure if my generation has really taken irony to its apogee.  After all, in that field, we’ve mostly just produced a bunch of hipsters.  We haven’t produced a Charles Dickens, or an Oscar Wilde, or an F. Scott Fitzgerald.  At least not yet.  However, I’m pretty sure America has never been so full of the reasonably well-off, well-educated, wielding sarcasm which is sharper than the proverbial two-edged sword.

And I’m not ashamed to join their ranks.  Some might say that sarcasm is ingratitude, or laziness, or evidence of a bad attitude.  But I don’t think so.  I think it’s just our way of taking a step back and poking fun at ourselves.  We’re the world’s most affluent culture and hence a little ridiculous.  Why refuse to exploit this goldmine of potential hilarity simply because our mining implements are also used by every wise-mouth middle-schooler trying to circumvent a history paper?

Spending the night with irony’s non-elitist cousin,