The infamous COVID-19 super-spreader event at the White House Rose Garden highlights the many problems epidemiologists face in their struggle to eradicate irony.
Readers will recall that eradicating irony was one of several “Milleninium Development Goals” set forth by the World Health Organization (along with eradicating river blindness, smallpox and guinea worm).
Unfortunately irony is a different beast from these other scourges. Consider its history.
Although irony evolved in pre-modern times, it was far less deadly than rampaging hordes, parasites or even zealots. Professor Xerxes Callendar explains, “When you had leaders like Timur Lenk (Tamerlane) cementing thousands of skulls into the base of watchtowers for laughs, it was difficult for diseases with irony’s profile to find purchase. The world was too literal and too crude for a subtle plague like irony to thrive.”
The situation changed dramatically when 20th century playwright Bertold Brecht formulated his notion of “ironic distance”, which he used to describe the relationship between audiences and actors.
Notes one scholar, “If Brecht had come up with the notion of Verfremdungseffekt in ancient Greece it would have amounted to little. Perhaps Aeschylus would have been a bit edgier. But Brecht lived the age of mechanical reproduction. Apparently simple ideas, like using irony to distance the audience from actors, resulted in a pandemic; cultural theory’s equivalent of the Spanish Flu.”
Irony went largely dormant during the 1950s and didn’t begin to appear again until the 1960s. Even then the outbreaks, for example Robert McNamara defending the Republic of Vietnam as bastion of democracy, were easily contained: a cultural landscape dominated by The Flintstones and The Beverly Hillbillies created natural obstacles to the spread of the disease.
This benign situation took a turn for the worse during the 1970s and 1980s when improvements in video technology caused a deadly mutation. After years of dispute, most epidemiologists now agree that the mutation occurred when the Korean-American artist Nam Jun Paik pointed a camera at a television and suddenly that which mediated became mediated. Media were no longer just conduits for communication, they had became subjects (content) as well. This was the so-called Vergnügungen Wechselspiel strain, which first surfaced in Berlin in 1968 but quickly spread to the hipper parts of the world.
Significant damage didn’t happen immediately. Irony pandemics require a certain amount of self-reflection to thrive – something absent in people who wear bell-bottom jeans and use words like grok. The disease persisted – popping up in the darker corners of Saturday Night Live skits and disaster films – but by the time of Reagan’s second term there had not been a single widespread outbreak since the one which accompanied the premiere of Mother Courage in 1941.
AR Press asks philosopher Celeste de Sauvage about this. She emphatically stubs out her Gitane and answers, speaking in a British version of English, “Irony became an order of magnitude more deadly when it crossed-over from theatre to television. But of course!” She inhales with a shrug and continues, “Who hasn’t lost an aunt to Real Wives of Atlanta or an uncle to Duck Dynasty? Back then, we had no idea what was to come. And no immunity.”
Viral load. Infectiousness. R. That’s the second story to the Wechselspiel mutation that gets less press than it should. When cameras point at each other the probability of an irony infection is greater than 95%“, notes epidemiologist Ralph Sombly.
During the 1980s the number of cameras was limited and magnetic tape was the primary vector for dispersion, so none of the many outbreaks turned into a pandemic.
A slow but steady increase in the R value of the virus hinted at what was to come.
The warning signs of our current catastrophe were everywhere. Cultural epidemiologist Samantha Delorean explains, “The first outbreaks were associated with Republican homophobia – specifically closet homosexuals promoting homophobic laws in the name of religious freedom. This culminated in the first irony super-spreader event when Larry Craig, within hours of voting against gay rights legislation, was caught trolling for tail in the Union Station men’s room, in Washington D.C. Most of your readers have probably never heard of him. A few scolds and the story evaporated. But Craig was the first of dozens of irony break-outs which presaged the current pandemic.”
Professor Chad Tourd answers, “Too often scientists hesitate to say ‘we don’t know’ when we don’t know. Ignorance is not a crime! Ignorance when tied to curiosity is the engine of science!” He sighs. “But it can be dispiriting. Was the complete absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ironic? We may never know.”
Cultural epidemiologist Thalia Delorean thinks Tourd’s line of reasoning is fatuous, “What made the current irony strain so deadly was the internet. First email and then social media. [We call it DDA: Density, Dispersion, Amplification.] The Wechselspiel mutation, and its dozen descendants, takes advantage of so many vectors. Ubiquitous cameras give the irony virus density; the internet makes dispersion instantaneous; and social media can amplify anything by several orders of magnitude. The only amazing thing about the Rose Garden event is that it happened in 2020 instead of 2010.”
Who Should be Worried?
A second important consideration is the question who exactly is impacted by the spread of the disease? “Irony’s impacts are not uniform” notes Dr. Thomas de Glock, an expert in infectious humor. “Although irony is mostly spread by liberals it tends to disproportionately impact conservatives. This is a reflection of its pathology. Many liberals are immune to the worst effects of irony because they are exposed to it at an early age, often because family members work in cultural industries. Conservatives live in much more sterile – and therefore irony free – environments.”
With the irony pandemic sweeping through conservative communities fear has led to a wide range of responses. In some cases people are choosing to pretend the disease is not deadly. Others are responding to the irony pandemic in a more reality-sensitive way, for example by not visualizing themselves as Arnold Schwarzenegger when replying to your email about the company webpage.
Will the plague end soon? Perhaps, but doubtless later than we would like. There are reports from throughout the United States of conservative parents holding infection parties where they expose toddlers to Oscar Wilde – and in extreme cases comedians such as Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Francesca Fiorentini – in a misguided attempt to promote immunity to irony at an early age.
Epidemiologists excoriate such efforts. “It is undeniable that liberals have a higher immunity to irony because of childhood exposure, but this immunity comes with a price”, notes cultural epidemiologist Dr. Florence Blaise-Chan. “Research has shown time and again that people exposed to irony before puberty have significantly larger therapy bills over the course of their lives than those raised on Barney and Bible-Rock. “
Will irony ever be eradicated? Dr. Chan shakes her head sadly, “As long as people point cameras at each other, post and gossip, I fear not.”