I read a column the other day where the writer was racking his brain trying to come up with a thumbnail descriptor of the present era. And, of course, it had to be called "The Era of ..." or, better yet, "The Age of ...". Now, as you may be aware, up until recently -- i.e. up until the total annihilation of everyone's attention span -- "eras" or "ages" were, well, kind of substantial. I.e., they represented a good chunk of time. The Era of Good Feelings was good for eight years, for example. And the Middle Ages -- well, depending on who you ask, but it was good for 1000 years or so. Now that's an "age"! Compared to which, our "Gilded Age" is a mere passing fancy, and the "eras" defined by the 4-year terms of presidents (no matter how incompetent) are even more ephemeral. (The "Kennedy Era" was all of 34 months long.)
But with all of that in mind, I venture to nominate -- since there has to be an "age", no matter what -- the term "The Age of Irony" for our time. Now, as we all know – or should know -- “irony” has nothing to do with the things that account for most of the current uses of the term. Those are better described as “camp” or “put-ons”. To give an example: Wearing your mom's 1960's-era prom dress to a “rave” is not ironic. But choking to death on a vitamin pill -- that's ironic. See the difference? Irony is what happens when the very thing you want the least happens anyway, and as a direct result of all your efforts to keep it from happening. Mimes, for example, are masters of (non-verbal) irony. And this is why it's such an important concept in ancient Greek plays -- to, let's say, put your own agenda – your plans and ambitions – up against fate is just asking for trouble, and the way that trouble usually manifests itself is through self-defeating behavior. Now do you see why this term might apply to our time? Everything we try to do, or achieve – and this is represented primarily by laws and government “programs” -- turns out contrary to what we said, or thought, we wanted. It's more than “unintended consequences”, which can, in theory, be merely coincidental or the result of not taking all factors into account. No, this is where all attempts to achieve “A” lead directly, and inexorably, to “not A”. And of course, this provides all sorts of lessons about hubris, and humility, and so on – all of which are ignored by leaders and populace alike.
So, can you name one single, solitary government program that has not, in the long run, had an effect exactly the opposite of what was intended (according to the advertised intent, that is)? Or one law that doesn't backfire on a regular basis? Or one intractable problem that can't be traced directly to government meddling? It's getting to the point where, the minute a new “program” is unveiled, one can bet hard money on its not only failing, but having the opposite effect to the intended one. Minimum wage laws don't raise average wages, but do increase unemployment. Education “programs” turn out more ignoramuses with every passing day. "Fair labor laws" lead to union tyranny. Agricultural "price supports" help drive small farmers out of business. The jails are full of graduates from inner-city "youth programs". Banking regulations lead to bank failures. “Peace initiatives” lead to war. “Free elections” lead to tyranny. Vaccinations lead to an entire galaxy of incurable side effects. And so on. We are seeing, in many areas, not only diminishing returns on technology but actually negative returns – two steps back for every one forward. And it would be tempting to say there's some unwritten law behind all this... some form of what the ancients called “fate”. I don't know, quite frankly. All I know is that for every disease that's “eradicated”, two or three new ones come along to take its place... and for every improvement in “public health” we find out about a dozen or so more things that cause cancer. And on the political side, well... the more our leaders babble on about “freedom”, the less we have.
So overall, it seems that we have reached a kind of balance point in our time, where all the straining and exertion towards Utopia is being overmatched by... what? “Reality”, or “nature”, or “Mother Earth”, or what? How about “human nature”, and that old stand-by of the Church, “concupiscence”? Those are alive and well, although vehemently denied by all the “agents of change”. And is it really the intended destiny of the human race to build heaven on earth, and thus to deny the need and desire for the real thing? We are, according to the Church, all pilgrims and wanderers on this plain of tears... and while we are expected to make the best of it, and exercise good stewardship over the Creation, we are also expected to set limits on our ambitions, with all humility.
And now, after all that buildup, I present the tidbit that inspired it all... and I won't blame you for being a bit disappointed. But this really is too rich. OK... now, remember the American Indian Movement? Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge, Russell Means, Marlon Brando, and so on? That was back when American Indians... “Amerindians”... Native Americans... thievin' redskins (oh no, wait, that is totally wrong!)... were standing up and asserting themselves. Some of them even had the intestinal fortitude to say that the reservation system was a complete farce -- besides being revoltingly condescending and paternalistic. And of course they were right about that; “Indian reservations” have about as much validity in our time as the Jewish ghettos did prior to World War II. But, human nature being what it is, the folks with gumption got the hell off the reservations and the fat and lazy ones stuck around -- and yes, I know that's an oversimplificaton, but compare it to the situation in our "inner cities" and it's not that much different.
But guess what – somewhere along the line, all the steam got let out of Native American assertiveness, and they became pacified again. What happened? One word: casinos. This is the greatest weapon against the “red man” since smallpox-infested blankets and cheap whiskey. And it's amazing how the “Indian casinos” have actually caused a dramatic increase in the Native American population. People who didn't even know they were Indians, or hadn't thought about it for generations, have all of a sudden become born-again Native Americans, formed corporations, applied for status as a “tribe” with “tribal lands” (usually just enough for a casino and a parking lot – preferably not far from a large urban center), and become filthy rich. In other words, the Indians were bribed, co-opted, and bought off – and thus endeth the militancy and concern for “rights” and (dreaded word) "reparations". I mean, who needs “rights” when you own a tax-free casino full of suckers (mostly of the non-Indian type)? It's probably the best minority-placating scam in all of human history.
But wait! Here come da irony. The states – always on the lookout for a fast buck – took a gander at this Indian casino scam and said to themselves (except for Nevada and New Jersey, who had already gone down the road to perdition) “Gol-ee garsh, lookit' all the money them Injuns are making! We gotta get in on that action.” The result? Suddenly, states that had prohibited gambling for decades, due to their - ahem - high moral standards and concern for the public welfare, are all of a sudden – shazam! -- legalizing gambling, as long as it's the states that own the casinos... or, as long as the tax rate on the casino take is higher than the highest bracket in Sweden (over 100% at one point). But wait! Where does this leave the noble red man? Pretty P.O.'d, I would say. Here they had been (implicitly) promised a monopoly on gambling in perpetuity... and for a while there they enjoyed one... but now the states are moving in on their action. And what recourse do they have? The state giveth and the state taketh away. The Indian casinos were a brainstorm at the federal level... but the feds can't, or won't, prohibit state-by-state gambling, at least not at this point. So now the Indian casinos have to – gasp! -- compete for the gambling dollar, against the states, who can build casinos anywhere they want (not just on “tribal lands”). And guess who makes up the rules having to do with licensing casinos – the states! The amazing thing to me is that it took so long for the state governments to wake up on this one. But – all I can say is, look out for “blowback”. You take away a monopoly, you're going to make some people very angry... and I see, well, more Wounded Knees in the future if the government doesn't come up with another scam, and fast!