An Eye For Irony

The other day, a news item that struck me as especially absurd reminded me of one my favorite Bob Newhart “man on the telephone” routines. It’s set in the early 1600’s. One of King James’ staff is receiving a phone call from Sir Walter Raleigh, calling from America.  

It went something like this: “Hello, Walter. How’s your exploration going?”… “It’s going great? That’s good to hear.” … “Have you found any gold, yet?”… “You haven’t….but you’ve found something that going to be big — worth a fortune”.… “What’s that Walter?… It’s called tobacco? What’s tobacco?”… “It’s a leaf? — Ahh, Walter, we have leaves in England.”… “But this is a special leaf? — What makes it special?”… “You roll it up and put it in your mouth?”… “And then what do you do?”… “Your set it on fire!”… “Walter, I don’t think that’s going to be big…” 

Newhart’s routine pointed out how ridiculous the smoking habit really is. (I can speak to this with authority, having been a smoker for 25 of my younger years.) You put a paper tube filled with dried leaves in your mouth, set fire to it and breath in the smoke. …Seriously!?  

And yet this completely counterintuitive, self-destructive activity has made billions of dollars for tobacco corporations like Altria (Marlboro). And now as profits from cigarettes in the western world have fallen they are pursuing new avenues to profits. Altria’s Juul vaping devices are being marketed to deliver nicotine to nicotine addicts in a “healthier way” while helping them break their unhealthy cigarette habit. Of course Altria’s Philip Morris Co. will continue marketing cigarettes to smokers around the world while Juul users are being saved from the worst evils of nicotine addiction. — Talk about a “win win” situation! — It’s a scenario that could have been written by Joseph Heller or Jonathan Swift. 

And here’s what disturbs me the most. This surreal balancing act is being presented in Juul advertising, in serious business articles and in the mainstream news without a hint of the irony it represents. — At least I haven’t seen any comments on it. 

Why isn’t such irony being recognized? Perhaps in these convulsive times the American public has simply become inured to language and behavior that contradicts itself.  

In some states we have public safety spokespersons recommending that the solution for reducing gun violence is a greater distribution of guns. We have our nation’s Environmental Protection Agency stopping California from enacting stricter clean air standards. We have a Secretary of Education, responsible for our public education system, vocal in her support for private education systems. And yesterday, President Trump nominated a man to lead U.S. human rights policy who was a proponent for torture under George W. Bush. 

Early in its operation, Trump’s White House introduced the practice of presenting “alternative facts,” repeatedly leaning on that concept. Since then, with the endless barrage of tweeted lies coming from our President, I’m starting to wonder if such Orwellian “double speak,” combined with a complete indifference to the appearance of ironic behavior, is becoming accepted by the pubic as normal. 

We know that critical thinking is no longer emphasized in many school curriculums. And when it is absent, recognizing irony is much less likely. Having that ability, as we critique the language and behavior of political figures, has always been a valuable tool for voters. — And by they way, such scrutiny should include the Democratic presidential candidates we are now in the process of choosing for 2020. 

When irony is presented on the stage of Second City, it can be great entertainment. But when you spot it on the political stage (or in the business world), you should weigh what you see very seriously.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973