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Militant Irony

Arjun Mahey

Edited by John Strachan Consultant Editor Steven E. Jones Volume Editors  Nicholas Mason, David Walker, Benjamin Colbert, John Strachan and Jane Moore
Pickering and Chatto, London, 2003, £450.00


As with a moral View design’d To cure the Vices of Mankind: His vein, ironically grave, Expos’d the Fool, and lash’d the Knave.   Yet, Malice never was his Aim; He lash’d the Vice but spar’d the Name. No Individual could resent, Where Thousands equally were meant. His Satyr points at no Defect, But what all Mortals may correct.-- Jonathan Swift Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift   On the 12th of September, 2001, the front page of the subversive newspaper, the Onion—published weekly from New York City—displayed the image of a tall building on fire, surrounded by an oversized headline that announced: American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie. At the face of it the piece  —clearly a reference to the collapsed World Trade Center buildings of the day before— seemed to be in questionable taste. On the day after the world was stunned out of its routine dailiness by the sudden attack on New York City, it seemed to mock at the dead and sneer at the misery of destroyed lives. But did it? And was it as morally vulgar as it seemed? Below the surface lay another possibility: that the newspaper was duplicating what most of the television-watching world felt when it stared at the aircrafts plunging repeatedly into the buildings: This is just like a film; this is just like a disaster film. What the Onion was mocking, then, was not the memory of the innocent dead, but the reactions of the negligent living, who compared the harsh horror of the actual to the staged vacuity of the artificial. And not just a film, continued the headline, but a bad film by disaster maestro Jerry “Black Hawk Down” Brukheimer; as if to point to the stifled impression we all shared: that life’s murderous cruelties were simply not cinematic enough. In our immediate responses to 9/11 it became clear that our sensibilities had become so coarsened that we had made a shabby comparison between life and entertainment, a comparison that deserved the full force of moral contempt. The Onion provided it; the ancient craft of satire, even in this most horrific of moments, was alive and well and scornful as ever1.   Despite its antiquity, ubiquity and canonicity, satire is a slippery mode of expression. At once familiar and indefinable, intimate and detached, its one strength seems to lie in its ...

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