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Books: Everything is a joke

Books | A young, homeschooled intellectual worries about the current culture of irony

Issue: "Forbes," Nov. 20, 1999

Irony in popular culture is corrosive, according to Jedediah Purdy's For Common Things; it kills interest in politics and the other "common things" that make a society cohere. "An endless joke runs through the culture of irony," writes the 24-year-old Yale law student, "not exactly at anyone's expense, but rather at the idea that anyone might take the whole affair seriously." Mr. Purdy defines irony as "a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech--especially earnest speech." Certainly Mr. Purdy is nothing if not earnest. The New York Times noted that at age 8 he wrote a letter to Santa Claus in which he asked for no gifts, only wished the Claus family well and closed, "I have tried to be good. Judge me as you will." Part of the novelty attraction of Mr. Purdy (at least among New York intelligentsia) is that he was homeschooled until age 13 on a farm in West Virginia. He read voraciously and tramped around the mountains. "Homeschooling enables you to trust your intuition of being excited about something just because it seems good or just because it engages you," he told WORLD. The transition to a local public high school, with its subtle set of hierarchies and taboos, was "jarring," he says. "People weren't exactly cruel," he says, "but it wasn't at all clear where I fit." After completing his senior year at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he enrolled in Harvard University. At both schools he was struck by what he now calls "the ironic manner." Fellow students believed politics "didn't get anything done and that the people involved with it were either naïve or self-serving," he says. Today, he argues in the book, politics is considered vaguely ridiculous, alternatively theatrical and therapeutic. Like Clintonesque rhetoric, political speech is "based not on reality or promised action but [is] spoken to invoke sentimentality from the populace." Further, the culture teaches that "nothing is real, true, or ours. Irony makes us wary and abashed in our belief." The result: We keep to ourselves rather than become involved in our culture where we might do some good. Conservatives will appreciate Mr. Purdy's message--get involved for the common good--but look askance at some of his prescriptions. He calls for a carbon tax to prevent the strip-mining of his beloved West Virginia hillsides. He sees government as a social solidarity of citizens rather than an entity separate from the people, and he is skeptical of free markets. For Common Things is, fortunately, short on advice. Mr. Purdy says that his goal was primarily to define the problem rather than tell how to fix it. He never mentions God in the book and doesn't claim to be a Christian but told WORLD that sin is "a kind of anthropological fact about human beings." Politics won't save the world, he believes, nor are individuals self-sufficient, despite the smugness of the David Letterman crowd. He says he wouldn't presume to tell Christians what to do, but society needs them "very, very badly. It is a kind of disservice for Christians to turn away from it."

-Stephen McGarvey is a World Journalism Institute student

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