Irony is the principle by which the meaning of words is affected and often radically altered according to where, when, in what context, and by whom they are said. It’s pretty basic to all human discourse, but it is something that Americans, in particular, have never been particularly comfortable with. A few years ago, a young man named Jedediah Purdy, raised in the West Virginia woods by hippies, wrote a whole book, For Common Things, under the misapprehension that irony was something you could either take or leave alone. On the whole he was in favor of leaving it alone. But instead of being laughed at, he was lionized in the media—itself an irony of the first water. He subsequently became a lawyer and wrote more books with loopy first premises—such as, for example (in A Tolerable Anarchy), that both anarchy and utopia sounded like pretty good ideas to him.
Ironically, no one seems to have taken his lucubrations as harbingers of the irony-blind world that we, or at least those of us in the media, inhabit today. As always, if you’re looking for examples you can’t do better than the pages of The New York Times. “Deficits Matter Again” ran the headline to Paul Krugman’s column in Monday’s Times. Well, whaddya know? And just in time for the new administration too! Obviously, no one said to him, “Paul, that headline looks bad for you—makes you look like a partisan hack. Could that be because no New York Times editor has any more sense of self-irony than Professor Krugman himself? The whole point of the column was to take the Republicans to task for hypocrisy. Their former alarmism about budget deficits seems to have lasted only so long as there was a Democrat in the White House. “This sudden turnaround comes as a huge shock to absolutely nobody—at least nobody with any sense,” writes the Professor with typical rhetorical abandon.
All that posturing about the deficit was obvious flimflam, whose purpose was to hobble a Democratic president, and it was completely predictable that the pretense of being fiscally responsible would be dropped as soon as the G.O.P. regained the White House.
A fair point, one might argue. But then he goes on: “What wasn’t quite so predictable, however, was that Republicans would stop pretending to care about deficits at almost precisely the moment that deficits were starting to matter again.” Hey! Wait a minute, Prof. If that’s the case, aren’t you just the mirror image of the hypocritical Republicans, sounding the deficit alarm bells as soon as the other party is set to take over? Of course he has an explanation of why he believes now is different from then, but ought he not at least to acknowledge that the timing of his change of tune makes it rather awkward for him?
Presumably, he doesn’t think so because no one at the Times, and no one elsewhere who still bothers to read his columns, ever does find anything awkward about his consistently shrill partisanship. In the same column, he refers to the new broom sweeping Washington clean as “the Trump-Putin administration”—in full confidence that it will not occur to anyone he knows or cares about that his views on economics might be colored by extreme ill-will towards the Trump-Pence administration.
Such lack of self-irony is not limited to professors and journalists. The day before the Krugman column ran, the Times gave us one by Michael J. Morell, the former acting director of the CIA under President Obama, that began like this:
When I wrote in August 2016, in this newspaper, that Donald J. Trump’s character traits posed a national security threat, I didn’t imagine that the first manifestation of that dynamic could play out with the very organization where I spent the first 33 years of my career, the Central Intelligence Agency. President-elect Trump’s public rejection of the CIA, and by extension the rest of the country’s intelligence community, over the assessment that Russia interfered in our presidential election is not only an unprecedented political challenge for our national security establishment—it is a danger to the nation.
It never seems to occur to Mr. Morell that the two columns could have anything to do with one another, or that a CIA man’s going public with his assessment “that Donald J. Trump’s character traits posed a national security threat” might have any repercussions for the way in which Donald J. Trump, or anyone with a less-jaundiced opinion of Donald J. Trump than Mr. Morell’s, would be likely to treat CIA assessments of other matters. The politicization of our intelligence services long antedates Mr. Trump and is a phenomenon for which Mr. Morell himself bears some responsibility—because of his willingness to talk to the media about matters which, to retain their value as intelligence, must always remain confidential.
I would put the alleged Russian hacking of the DNC into this category, but even if you don’t, you’ve got to admit (haven’t you?) that characterizing it in the media, as Mr. Morell did, as “the political equivalent of 9/11” at the very least suggests partisan motives. There were many politically motivated leaks from Mr. Morell’s CIA during the Bush administration and someone there (at least one someone) was briefing the media against that administration’s security policy. The recklessness of Mr. Morell’s media presence since he retired from the agency in 2013—for example in calling former Vice President Dick Cheney a liar for his characterization of intelligence briefings he received about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—suggests that, if it wasn’t he, it was some person or persons very, very close to him and with a similar carelessness about involving himself in partisan politics. And now he criticizes Mr. Trump for politicizing the intelligence services. How ironic!