Back in July of this year, 2006, a lot of people made a fuss when a live microphone captured a private exchange between George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The fuss came about largely because the President, though already established as something of a pottymouth, added a new entry to the catalog of his documented obscenities. Here's the key line:
"The irony is, what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over."
As you may remember, the release of this audio prompted a range of commentaries. News outlets had to decide how their obscenity policies worked when the President dropped an s-bomb while talking politics. A number of commentators noted that Bush uttered the line with his mouth full, chomping through his words as though the chefs of the G8 summit had served him gristly cud. More serious commentary addressed the content of the remark, weighing the accuracy of Bush's characterization of the Syrian role in the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah. I propose that all of these angles missed the most important point to be made about Bush's comment:
George W. Bush does not understand the meaning of the word "irony."
Let's assume that Bush was correct that "what they [the U.N.?] really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over." There's nothing ironic about that sentiment. On the contrary, it displays Bush's characteristically blunt cause-and-effect logic of diplomacy; in this case, one body pushes another, which pushes a third, and the desired reaction comes about. No irony, right?
Now consider this statement, made a couple of weeks ago as part of Bush's pre-election offensive against Democrats:
"You do not create terrorism by fighting terrorism."
Of course not! That would be ironic! When you have no understanding of irony, the word or the concept, it makes no sense that fighting terrorism (badly) can create terrorism, that a show of strength can create weakness, that the rhetoric of certainty can mask anxiety, that the public faces of moral self-congratulation can be overwhelmed by corruption.
Bush and his party have thrived on convincing voters that the biggest hammer is the best tool for any nail on any wall. The upcoming elections may be a referendum on Bush, but they will also be a referendum on irony, as many politicians of both parties now run on positions that assume the ironic consequences of Bush's policies and look for ways to escape them.
It may be that the failure of Bush's policies, by creating such wrenching tragedies that voters can no longer ignore the ironies beneath the President's unflagging certitude, will teach a generation of young people the notoriously tricky concept of irony. If so, the students will understand by example what the teacher himself does not grasp. How ironic.