Jedediah Purdy's book FOR COMMON THINGS is not exactly late-breaking news -- it's been a tiny tornado whirling around the borders of book-review columns for about a month now -- but one circumstance or another has prevented me from discussing it here until now. The timing, as it happens, is fortuitous: In the latest issue of TIME magazine (October 4 cover date), Joel Stein weighed in with a brief, heavily sneering essay called "In Defense of Irony," which mocked the young Purdy and his opposition to American culture's dependence on irony, snideness, and basic yeah-whatever-ism. Stein's piece gave me just the ammo -- and the angle -- that I needed.
First, some data on Jedediah Purdy. He's 24, home-schooled, a Harvard grad, and a big believer in the theory that we've lost our way and are knee-deep in a morass of advertising/absurdizing, consumerism, and a general spiritual weariness that expresses itself through hipper-than-thou attitudes: "Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt." Irony, he says, is stunting us -- preventing us from realizing our potential as individuals and as a society, by reducing every ideal to a sound bite, every concept to a rehash. Now, before your mind rushes in with "Yeah, whatever," as a lot of book critics have already done, go out and grab the book and actually read it. It's a small book; you'll be in and out of there in a couple of days.
Actually reading the book is apparently more than Joel Stein did. To compare Purdy's carefully composed (if sometimes a tad windy) book with Stein's callow blow-off -- "Mostly I want to say that Jedediah Purdy is a funny name" is one of his devastating witticisms -- is to perceive the difference between those who can do and those who merely make fun of what others have done.
Now, here at the zine, we've poked as much fun as anybody. When something stupid moves into our sights, we take pleasure in riddling it with bullets of sarcasm. (You notice that in the previous paragraph, I answered Joel Stein's sarcasm with my own.) At the same time, we want nothing more than to be able to praise something, to commit ourselves to announcing "Hey, this is worthwhile." Ken Souza would much rather propose a toast to a smart DVD company for putting out a kick-ass, long-awaited disc than have to bemoan the latest stupidity of Disney or the shoddiness of the KUBRICK COLLECTION. Kevin Gawthrope would rather get enthusiastic about some intense new action-figure line than go ballistic on Playing Mantis for putting out shitty MYSTERY MEN figures.
For my part, this is true of my movie reviews as well as my columns. I may rip into a particularly idiotic overhyped film, but I'd be happier singing the praises of a film nobody's heard of -- or praising an overhyped film that turns out to be worth the hype. I wouldn't want to be a reviewer like Mr. Cranky, who is sometimes funny but has grown monotonous in his ceaseless panning of every film he looks at. With Mr. Cranky, you already know he thinks it sucks -- the only variation is how much it sucks.
Purdy makes some valuable points. It has become hip to avoid commitment: To care too much about any particular person, place, or thing invites ridicule. Purdy singles out Letterman and Seinfeld as the avatars of irony -- the kingpins of condescension, above it all -- but they're hardly alone. Craig Kilborn's tenure on THE DAILY SHOW was especially poisonous in terms of the obscure weirdos subjected to deadpan insults: Let's laugh at people who are different from us, who care about things we think are stupid, who live in East Asswater, who aren't as well-off as we are. Essentially, it's refined frat-boy cruelty humor. It's high school all over again: We in the audience are flattered by the idea that we are in the popular crowd -- that being the audience for Letterman or Seinfeld, hip by definition -- and we are freed to laugh at freaks and geeks. Even Michael Moore does this to some extent, and I've wondered if he'd be as much of a critics' darling if he were slapping his on-camera subjects with a right wing instead of a left.
Why has Purdy's book attracted such venom from reviewers as well as snark-mongers like Joel Stein? Perhaps partly because he presents his case without unnecessary humility -- he seems sure of himself, and anyone who seems sure of himself and is foolhardy enough to show it is automatically suspect. How dare Purdy believe in what he's saying? He's only 24, he was schooled at home, he comes from West Virginia, he has a funny name -- these are all apparently valid reasons to dismiss him. But even if you don't agree with everything he says, he presents a general challenge to the modern haze of irony and contempt. In interviews, Purdy will rhapsodize about a certain kind of bird he's always liked, and the easy way out is to poke fun at his passion for nature: I mean, jeez, kid, get a life -- it's a bird. Yeah, whatever. But that's too easy. Forty years of self-aware pop culture have taught us to pop the balloon of anyone who seems too full of himself; this leads to a lot of popped balloons and not much to show for it except our skill with a pin.
Irony is a symptom of compassion fatigue: If we can yeah-whatever everything, we don't have to care about anything (unless it directly affects us or our bottom line). I have to admit I'm a little tired of political incorrectness. It has become as tired and rote as political correctness. The novelty of being allowed to laugh at things you're not supposed to laugh at becomes stale after the thousandth "daring" joke at the expense of homeless people or cancer patients. To say "That really isn't funny, it's actually kind of cruel" is to risk being called a politically correct prude who wants to tell everyone what they can and can't laugh at. But the answer to PC tyranny ("We mustn't laugh at this") has become a politically incorrect tyranny: "Laugh at this or be laughed at." The Slash and Burn humor inaugurated by NATIONAL LAMPOON and institutionalized on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE has become pervasive to the point where gentle, victimless humor seems like a breath of fresh air. Toothless humor can be lame, and biting comedy can be invigorating, but after a while I get tired of being bitten.
Garry Trudeau, who has himself been accused of toothlessness when he doesn't have a Republican president to kick around (though he's been pretty hard on Clinton), gave a commencement address in 1981 in which he eloquently answered the Joel Steins and Craig Kilborns of the world and unwittingly predicted Purdy's argument 18 years later. The sort of frat-boy humor found on SNL and NATIONAL LAMPOON, he said, "adroitly mocks society's victims .... For all its innovations, this kind of satire tells society's nebbishes that they are right about themselves, that they are nobodies, that to be so un-hip as to be disadvantaged, to be ignorant, to be physically infirm, or black, or even female, is to invite contempt .... What worries me about Slash and Burn humor, and the larger society which has spawned it, is that it reflects a sort of callousness so prevalent in the survivalist ethic. If this is to become a society intolerant of failure and uncompassionate in the face of suffering, then we are lost."
Maybe once in a great while we need someone like Purdy to remind us that, hey, we're being assholes, we've gone too far, we've become conditioned to preserve the status quo by ridiculing anything that questions or threatens it. I used to have a knee-jerk gimme-a-break response to any group that protested a movie or TV show's depiction of that group, and I still think such protests defeat their own purpose -- by protesting, you give free publicity to the very thing you're mad at. But it might be instructive to listen to the protesters instead of merely sneering at them for daring to speak out at all, and it might be enlightening to listen to Jedediah Purdy instead of killing the messenger for delivering a message we don't like.