Pete's Blog

The Man in the Irony Mask

The title comes from an article written by Natalia Ilyin, and it doesn't even really fit the subject here. But it's so good I just had to use it. I went to a Christmas show the other night, a benefit for the local food bank given by one of the younger musicians on the Island and several of her musical and non-musical friends. The word that came to mind was "collegiate," meant in a good way - silly, slaphappy, trashy, good-humoured. There was irony, plenty of it, in the winking celebration of things like the Andy Williams Christmas album and songs like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "White Christmas." I need to be careful here, because these were good people, doing a good thing. And I need to stress that what I'm about to say may, in fact, be dead wrong. It's just something to think about, not a fact, not even a surmise, just ... something. In the past year or so I have had to admit that there are more and subtler forms of racism in this society than I used to think there were. A kind of hysteria has greeted President Obama from seemingly ordinary people who doubt his citizenship and religion, whose reaction to any of his programs has been a strange sort of terror. It makes me think that we are not the color-blind society I once insisted we were. And I'm starting to think about the covert racism that might have replaced the overt brand the '60s made obsolete or at the very least unfashionable. What does this have to do with a "White Christmas" sing-along led by a young man with a ukulele? Before I answer that another tangent. When Napoleon invaded Russia some 200 years ago the Czar's army adopted a strategy akin to Muhammed Ali's notorious "rope-a-dope." They fell back before the invaders, even abandoning their capital, avoiding any large-scale engagement with the enemy and, most important of all, destroying the countryside behind them. This "scorched-earth" policy critically reduced the French army's ability to forage and, as their supply lines grew longer and winter closed in 80 to 90 per cent of the men who marched into the vast country never marched out again. Is the ironic celebration of the worst of American culture a kind of cultural scorched-earth policy? Unconscious, perhaps, but still having the effect to deny non-white newcomers a cultural patrimony? "Okay, we have to accept you into our culture. But we'll do everything we can to make that culture worthless, by elevating the worst of it, using irony as a shield." I accuse the kids who put on this particular show or others like it of nothing. They are at worst merely the unconscious inheritors of a dubious legacy. In fact, the whole thing may be unconscious. I don't think a renegade CIA operation or military/industrial star-chamber decided to start this trend in the weeks after the Civil Rights Act was signed. But just how corrosive is the ironic celebration of trash? How self-destructive? How pathological? I'm probably just in a really bad mood.

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