Back in November 2012, Princeton professor Christy Wampole published a widely discussed essay in the New York Times’s philosophy blog, The Stone, lamenting that irony had become “the ethos of our age.” While acknowledging the benefits of irony throughout history — namely, “providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions” — Wampole expressed concern that American culture had been engulfed by “rampant sarcasm” and an “unapologetic cultivation of silliness.” She admitted having “ironic tendencies” herself, which she considered a defense mechanism against the emotional risks of sincerity. Recognizing these tendencies, Wampole wrote, had forced her to “think deeply about how potentially toxic ironic posturing could be.”
Four years later, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s stunning election victory, she has published a follow-up essay arguing that Trump’s win effectively brought the Age of Irony to a close. Wampole is without question a woman of the left, and a harsh critic of Trump, which makes her essay all the more interesting. Here’s an excerpt:
Our brief Age of Irony was not only unsatisfying; it was politically destructive. I, too, indulged — and sometimes still do — in those reflexes to critique, mock or dismiss everything that rubbed me the wrong way, but it never felt good, even when my self-righteousness was justified. These were mere defensive measures to protect myself from a few uncomfortable realities: Reason cannot solve every problem; my experience of the world is not the only legitimate experience of it; politics is less about rationality and more about emotional and aesthetic preference; and people on my side sometimes do really awful things.
Most people know these things intuitively but sublimate them. Ironic posturing — the pervasive, apolitical kind — allowed many of us to feel superior to it all without making the commitment to repair anything.
Back when I wrote the original essay, it seemed to resonate with people from a wide range of backgrounds. The most common positive response came from young people who felt alienated among their peers, unsatisfied by the hopeless swirl of pop culture references and cleverly sarcastic chatter that surrounded them. There were also quite a few hard-core leftists who wrote in support, lamenting the lack of serious engagement in political life in contemporary America. They understood that forwarding a jeering meme to people who agreed with you did not constitute political action. The final major cohort consisted of moderate conservatives and what we might call “conservative hippies” — people interested in the preservation of the past, of traditions, of manners and of family, but who also advocate peace, equality, compassion, humility and environmental stewardship. The fact that my thesis seemed to have appeal across party lines reassured me that a new post-ironic age might be on the horizon.
I wrote back in 2012, “Fundamentalists are never ironists; dictators are never ironists; people who move things in the political landscape, regardless of the sides they choose, are never ironists.” Some readers, looking at only the first two clauses, took this to mean that being an ironist is a good thing; it means you will never be a fundamentalist or a dictator. However, the second half of the sentence gets to the core of the proposition: A certain kind of seriousness is the precondition for the ascent to power. It is hard to imagine someone who has taken on the veil of irony holding a powerful role in any government. While Salena Zito’s oft-quoted article “Take Trump Seriously, Not Literally” suggested that the Republican nominee should not be taken at his word, he is hardly an ironist. Preferable terms might be a reality-show actor, a salesman or simply a liar.
In our smugness and self-assuredness, many of us laughed off Trump and his supporters throughout the campaign, refusing to take them seriously. We lampooned their mobilization of what we saw as a hopeless, hate-filled movement. But the fact that we have just elected an American Berlusconi has wiped the smirks off our faces. What will we do with our newfound sobriety? At the very least, we are called to approach our circumstances with a renewed — and, I believe, ultimately beneficial — seriousness.