Thursday, January 24, 2008

Is it Irony? Amy Winehouse goes to rehab.

Check out this story at Hollywood today . Singer Amy Winehouse, best known for her song rehab, in which she sings, "They try to make me good to rehab, I'm saying No, No, No", is going to rehab. It's a sad story, but not unexpected. Too many young artists get caught in the never ending downward spiral of drugs and alcohol. Everybody thinks they are the exception, they can abuse substances and not be like those who died from it. I can't imagine the stress of performing in front of large audiences every night, the pressure by the record label and fans to put out more hits.

Is it Irony? No, it's just sad, a lack of willpower.
Is breaking a New Years resolution ironic? No, it's Bound to Happen.

The anti-rehab hit “Rehab” is itself up for top Song and Record honors and would be what she performs for a worldwide audience – creating both an irony and an embarrassment. While the Recording Academy supports free expression it also avidly battles drug addiction through its highly regarded, and donation supported, Musicares program. It’s like the Firemen giving a Citizenship award to an arsonist.

This metaphor is completely wrong. I would say it's more like the Firemen giving an award to a man for singlehandedly protecting his town from fire, and while he was at the award ceremony, his town burning down. Or, it's like the Firemen giving an award to a man who failed to stop a fire. Amy Winehouse isn't the enemy in the war against drug addiction, she is a fallen soldier.

Verdict: Not ironic.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ironic Nazi Environmentalists

While listening to the NPR Science Friday podcast today about The Zookeeper's Wife , Diane Ackerman author of the book by that name, used ironic. It was a heart warming story of Polish Catholics using their position at the Warsaw zoo (which the Nazi's liked) to help rescue Jewish people during WWII. When talking about animals and the environment, Ackerman said, "It's ironic, the Nazi's were actually environmentalists". It only took me a few seconds to realize exactly why she used the term irony here, in what I am going to call "shades of gray" irony.

When people look at the Nazis, it is difficult to imagine how an entire race of people could commit such awful acts. Even today, 60 years later, we shudder at the evil. It is easy to imagine there being absolute goods and evils. It's easy to look at the Nazis and say there were pure evil, and the Americans were pure good. It's hard to realize that Nazis loved their mothers, their wives, and their children. Nazis treated their pets well, enjoyed art and music (by Germans), made scientific advances, and in the end, were not too different from any one else. We all like to think that if we were Germans at that time, we would have fought the Nazis, attempted to assassinate Hitler, and not gone along with it. But the truth of the matter is that we can't say what we would have done. There were only a courageous few who stood up to the Nazis, and even that in secret, like Arthur Schindler. T

So the Nazis weren't inhuman monsters, and the allied forces weren't paragons of virtue. The bombing of Dresden is one example, Hiroshima is another. We justify these things as necessary to save lives and win the war, and I think rightly so. But had Hitler one, Germans would have similarly justified their actions. To be able to sleep at night, it is necessary to dehumanize your enemies. It is comforting to think, "They are purely evil inhuman monsters, and I am a good virtuous person, and there is a solid line between us that can never be crossed". However, this just isn't the case. Nothing in this world is black and white, everything is a shade of Gray.

So when you hear what is generally a good thing about a Nazi (like being environmentalists), you say, "how ironic", instead of actually thinking through the consequences of that statement.

Verdict: Not Ironic

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Types of Irony: That's not ironic, it's coincidental

In the Futurama episode "The Devils Hands are Idle Playthings" , Fry makes a deal with the Robot Devil to exchange his hands with that of a random robot. A massive wheel is spun to decide on the unlucky robot. In the end, it comes lands on the Robot Devil, who says "Oh what an appallingly ironic outcome." Bender replies, "That's not ironic, it's coincidental." Indeed, it isn't ironic, it is just a cruel coincidence. The Robot Devil is happy to screw over any other robot, but ends up screwing himself over. My friend SmickD considers this the "car dealer who sells cars with bad breaks getting run over by one of these cars" kind of irony, which I call "Comeuppance".

Most people have an inherent concept of karma. The feeling that bad people should get what is coming to them. The previous post about the astrology magazine has a good bit of this. The Robot Devil is an evil character who gets screwed over by random chance, and this makes people think all is right with the world. Anyone could have died when the car's breaks stopped working, but it happened to kill the dirty car salesman, meaning that bad things do happen to bad people, and all is right with the world. Of course, if you said, "that's great, I enjoy vengeance", it would sound bad, so you say, "how ironic".

This is what I call Karmatic irony. Tomorrow we'll examine the slightly different type of irony which I call "Coincidental", or attempting to apply sense to random events.

Monday, January 21, 2008

An Astrology Magazine's "unforeseen circumstances"

A co-worker rushed to me to ask, "Is it ironic when an astrology magazine goes out of business due to 'unforeseen circumstances'", to which I immediately answered "No, it's just funny". But the more I thought about it, I realized there is irony all over the situation. Astrology, as we all know, is clearly bunk. A magazine devoted to astrology that claims to tell the future is using the term "astrology" to mean "foretelling", rather than "money making scheme to sucker poor schmuck's out of their hard earned cash". Since they seem to be talking about stars and planets, but are actually talking about a con job, the whole magazine is ironic. At least, it's ironic for me and those who know the truth, which almost certainly includes the authors. Now, when they actually fail to predict their own demise, the fact that we all knew it was full of crap to begin with means that it is no longer ironic, the words "money making scam with no predictive power" accurately describe the situation. Of course, the fact that they ran out of money (or at least won't be making any more) adds irony to the ending.

Now, if you are one of the every 15 minute types who believes in astrology, the death of the magazine is in fact ironic, since they used "future predicting" powers, and that turned out to not do what they claimed. As you can see from this relatively simple example, even the most casual usage of the word "irony" is difficult to analyze, made all the more difficult by the fact that it requires us to determine the actually intention of the person, as well as the literal intention of the word.

To summarize, the main reason we use the term "Ironic" is because we're too polite to call them liars.

Verdict: Not Ironic

Is it Irony?

This blog is an attempt to explore what is meant by the term irony, how it is used by the public, what it was supposed to mean, and how we can reclaim this word from nothingness. I tend towards being a strict ironist , but I think my definition may have to expand after examining all of the different cases.

Why am I creating a blog about what irony means? Every day someone will come up to me and ask if something is ironic, and 90% of the time, it isn't. Initial posts will deal with irony in the news, since proper word use seems something that should be understood by professional writers. We will also discuss various kinds of irony, Socratic irony, O. Henry style irony, etc.

I'll also be reviewing Steven Pinker (The Stuff of Thought) and using his thesis to explain how we can use irony to peer into the human soul and explore how the way we use language sheds light on the human condition.

If you come across a news article, tv show, movie, song, book, anything that uses the term irony, and you want to know if it is accurate, let me know, and I'll post about it.