Irony and Sarcasm in the United States of ‘Murica
“USA! USA! USA!”
I’m in a throng of people. They are chanting, sweating, and drinking from red, white, and blue emblazoned cans of Budweiser as one. They love America. At least, I think. Everyone here is between 20 and 30, and suddenly I am terrified. There are sparklers and tank tops aplenty, and as the chants die out someone starts telling a story about how he witnessed a chicken fight at the pool earlier today and how everyone started chanting “George Bush!” to encourage the teenage combatants. This is well received by the group. Someone else lights up a cigarette, referring to it as a freedom stick. This is very funny. This is an Independence Day party in Washington, DC.
The girl I’m sitting next to looks like Lisa Loeb circa 1995, and in this I am well-pleased. She toasts me, “to Amurica,” she says. I shudder. I am not above this word, but today I am. I’ve sworn it off on a point of principle. A cursory glance at my twitter feed on my iPhone reveals that, of the healthy percentage of people who are issuing July 4th themed tweets, many and more end with the hashtag ‘#murica’ or ‘#merica.’ You know the word I’m talking about. It’s always funny to talk about the USA by referring to it as ‘Murica, though no one knows why. Sometimes it’s even funny just to shout ‘Murica! with little or no context. But tonight, the context is obvious and the low hanging fruit is ripe. Tonight, we’re wishing happy birthday to ‘Murica.
I guess it’s not that no one knows why this is funny. It’s pretty clearly mocking the supposedly unencumbered enthusiasm under-educated southerners have for their country of origin. But why is that funny? There is no doubt that it is, at least if you judge by the popularity of its usage and the reaction it gets. But why does this reference to patriotic hillbillies have any comic currency, especially when overused by upwardly mobile city slickers at an Independence Day party? Is it not because of ambivalence about the straight forward expressions of patriotism that are common on July 4th? Don’t give people too much credit, this ambivalence isn’t likely due to a deep-seated equivocation about the values that America represents, as if cheering for ‘Murica was shorthand for “yeah, I really appreciate the ideals represented by the First Amendment, but I think that the personal hypocrisy of many of the framers, best exemplified by the majority of the southern delegates status as slaveholders, renders the entire document morally dubious to such a degree that it plays havoc with the legitimacy of many of our domestic and foreign initiatives even to this day.” When someone says ‘Murica, they are really just saying something like “on this day it is fitting that patriotism be addressed in some form, but I’m not quite lame enough to talk about why I’m proud to be an American, although if you want I could quote that song to you but only in a completely ironic sense.” Or else they are just saying it because everyone else is.
I don’t love this word. But neither am I arguing that you have to love America. You could love it, hate, kinda like it, have a very nuanced view of it, or whatever. But we are in a straight jacket of sarcasm in this ‘Murican culture. If Stephen Colbert has shown us anything, it’s that irony is hilarious and it is effective. But it might be worrisome that the grip irony and sarcasm have on comedy has spread to other realms of life as well. This isn’t all bad. For instance, it’s probably OK that we are all a little uncomfortable when status updates and tweets take a turn for the intensely earnest 1. And I can’t imagine it is healthy to open up emotionally to just anyone about just anything at just any given time. But it does mean something that we are so uncomfortable with saying straight forward things.
After 9/11, there was some talk about the ‘death of the age of irony.’ Every anniversary, reporters bring that up almost wistfully, reminding us that for a while after the towers came down, a seriousness gripped the nation that some hoped would be more permanent. I’m not suggesting a state of permanent earnestness is possible or even desirable. But it is interesting, and maybe a little heartbreaking, that a culture of permanent irony isn’t just possible, it’s the only thing that exists.