Last Saturday’s super-spreader event at the Rose Garden highlights problems epidemiologists continue to face in their struggle to finally eradicate irony.
Readers will recall that eradicating irony was one of several “Milleninium Development Goals” set by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, along with eradicating river blindness, smallpox and guinea worm.
But irony is different from these other scourges, something revealed by a brief survey of its history.
Although irony existed 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 Babur murdering cooks for inappropriately spicing pilaf and Timur Lenk 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 Vergnügungen 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. His ideas unleashed a pandemic on the world, 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 and content as well. This was the so-called Vergnügungen Wechselspiel (VGW) 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, something clearly absent in people who wear bell-bottom jeans and use words like groovy and 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 widespread outbreak like the one’s which accompanied the premiere of Mother Courage.
I ask philosopher Celeste de Sauvage about this. She emphatically stubs out her Gitane and answers, “Irony became an order of magnitude more deadly when it crossed-over from theatre to television. We all know that now: 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. That’s the second story to the VGW pandemic that’s not talked about as much as it should be, a story about intensification not just dispersion. With the so-called Wechselspiel mutation the vectors for irony dispersion increased along with every camera and microphone present in an infected area. When the cameras pointed at each other you could have greater than 95% infection rates!”
During the 1980s the number of cameras was limited and magnetic tape was the primary vector for dispersion so no pandemic ever occurred. A slow but steady increase in the r value of infection, which never went below 1 in NY, London, Berlin, Moscow, Kolkata and Montreal 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 voting against their own interests 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 was gone. But Craig was the first of dozens of irony break-outs which presaged the current pandemic.”
Professor Chad Turdshill answers, “Too often scientists hesitate to say ‘we don’t know’ when we don’t know. Ignorance is not a crime! Ignorance 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 Turdshill is fatuous, “What made the VGW irony strain so deadly was the internet. First email and then social media. We call it DDA: Density, Dispersion, Amplification. The VGW irony strain takes advantage of everything. Ubiquitous cameras give the irony virus density, overwhelming immune responses; the internet makes dispersion instantaneous and social media can amplify anything by several billion times. The only amazing thing about the Rose Garden event is that it happened in 2020 instead of 2010.”
Which brings us to the Rose Garden super-spreader event and the current irony pandemic. In order to fully understand the significance of last Saturday’s outbreak, its important to understand the pathology of the disease, specifically its r value, the k value.
As anyone who has tried to explain to their grandparents the irony of Senator Marco Rubio claiming to support religious freedom while attacking Sufis will know, the r value of irony is quite low. It is simply not that contagious. However, its k value – the variation in transmission levels – is relatively high: although few infected people transmit the disease, those who do tend to be super-spreaders for example Senator Craig, Bertold Brecht and our current President.
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 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 – a fact illustrated by those who take up arms against polite language. Others are taking the irony pandemic seriously in a more reality-sensitive way, for example by not visualizing themselves as Lauren Bacall when replying to your email about the bullet point you need to add to the company webpage.
Will the plague end soon? Thanks to positive news on the vaccine front, it may. But perhaps 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.
Epidemiologists excoriate such efforts. “It is undeniable that liberals have have a higher immunity to irony because of childhood exposure, but this immunity comes with a price”, notes cultural epidemiologist Dr. Delores 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 when compared with a conservative control group raised on Barney and Mr. Rogers. To be balanced, when conservatives become adults they have to be introduced to irony-infested environments (e.g. a Republican conference on climate change) very carefully, but if they are, their overall morbidity rate is significantly lower than liberals with irony anti-bodies. Assuming they moderate their consumption of fried oreos and pork rinds, of course.”
Will irony ever be eradicated? Dr. Chan shakes her head sadly, “As long as people point cameras at each other and post, I fear not.”
[Linguistic historians views Bush senior’s invasion differently than you might expect. Professor Turdshill explains, “One of the most brilliant pieces of cultural epidemiology – by my colleague Chad Combenutty – looks at the spread of irony during the first and second Bush wars. On the surface, the first war appears the most likely to be a super-spreader. It was so tightly managed it could have been staged. But it was the second Iraq war that was orders of magnitude deadlier, from the perspective of irony.”]
[but also om the memes created by the dozens of cameras filming the event and the social-media posts they linked to. influence define the event and sometimes become the content. Indeed, by the start of 2020 cultural epidemiologists estimated that the majority of infections involved the Vergnuegungen Wechselspiel mutation.]
[“In 2020 an irony pandemic was a generation overdue” opines Claude Cervantes, Thalia’s publicist. “The distance between audience and actor has not only not disappeared BUT flipped, for example in reality TV; many people now think Instagram is reality; and the internet can disperse an ironic meme to the entire planet in seconds. The irony pandemic was going to happen. The question was not if but when.” The professor grasps the collar of his corduroy turtle-neck sweater for emphasis.]