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The Ironic Sensibility

American Purpose’s Emma Cordover connected with AP contributing editor and illustrator R. Jay Magill, Jr., to learn more about his intellectual and artistic background.

R. Jay Magill, Jr., Emma Cordover

Emma Cordover: Your book Sincerity (2012) discusses “the deep impact it has had on the Western soul.” Do you think the emotional resonance of sincerity has changed in recent years?

R. Jay Magill, Jr.: Sincerity was written during the first Obama Administration. Obama seemed to care a lot about what he was saying, and yet he was able to project a persona detached from his private self. Sincerity is easily feigned, however, and one can be sincere and completely wrong.

For Trump, words do not reflect inward states; they are blunt-edged tools of coercion. Truth becomes irrelevant, since words no longer align with outward realities, either. With Biden, in my view, this has all returned to the standard model.

EC: Many pundits said that 9/11 would usher in the end of the age of irony and that a new era of patriotism and sincerity would emerge. Has the pandemic also tempered our sense of irony?

RJM: So much to unpack here! First, the pandemic has unfolded in a much different cultural environment than did 9/11. In Chic Ironic Bitterness (2007) I argued that although many conservative pundits were saying ironic culture was poisoning America’s sense of seriousness (see: “Seinfeld,” The Onion), the influence of irony only increased after 9/11. Witness the meteoric rise of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as trusted sources of cultural and social commentary.

Irony has been a sophisticated psychological stance for keeping religious and national fanatics at bay, from the Roman satirist Juvenal to comedian Jordan Klepper talking to QAnon supporters. Irony undercuts the violent passions of true believers; punctures hypocrisy, pretentiousness, and self-righteousness; and shields us from degradations of human dignity. Irony is actually a method of protecting earnestness and patriotism and democratic values such as tolerance and intellectual independence.

The curious development in recent years is that irony’s snarky insightfulness, once the purview of the critical Left, has been adopted by the fringe Right, who now deploy it as evidence of being in the know. This is an anti-Enlightenment movement. And therein lies the rub: Irony sheds its moral and intellectual power if it is not based in reality and logic.

EC: You have been a caricaturist and illustrator for many years, and have written satirical essays. How did that come about and how is it related to the points about irony puncturing pretension and hypocrisy?

RJM: Well played! The random luck of genetics gave me an ability to draw, which guided me through my childhood. I studied drawing, painting, and philosophy in college, and ended up shaping a career around these interests: writing, editing, drawing. I can’t imagine a world where I couldn’t do these things daily.

As you suggest, there’s a consistent sensibility that runs through thinking about irony, writing satire, and being a caricaturist. Perhaps it has something to do with a knee-jerk sense of egalitarianism and hatred of pretentiousness and of resting on one’s laurels. Also, just an innate sense of jokiness.

EC: You’ve been an American in Europe for a long time. How is the United States viewed from a European perspective? Do you feel patriotic?

RJM: Since 2006 my wife and I have lived in Germany while diligently nurturing our American connections. Our eleven-year-old son attends an American-German school, I work for an American-German organization, and we head to American family as much as we can.

Within European countries and among them, there are divisions on how the United States is viewed. For politically moderate Germans, the Second World War still looms large. Those in their late seventies and early eighties experienced firsthand a foreign power that arrived in their country to stop the horrors of the Nazi regime. That power then stuck around for the next half century to make sure things remained OK—and we are still here. Among this generation, there remains enormous gratitude, admiration, and respect. As an American whose grandfathers fought in Germany, it is meaningful to me.

This sense of gratitude did not consistently translate to the older generation’s children. Much has happened since the 1960s to sully the reputation of the United States. Nevertheless, I think Germans are so vigilantly critical of the United States because they care so much about its ability to lead for good. They have experienced what America can do, so they are more openly disappointed than other Europeans when it fails to live up to that potential. So, do I feel patriotic? Yes. Am I glad to live in Europe? Also, yes.

EC: What piece of advice would you give young writers (or creatives) today?

RJM: For those who truly want to make a living from reading, writing, or making things, all I can suggest is that you should not allow yourself an alternative. Do not consider an option B. And then: Discipline. Focus. Commit.

R. Jay Magill, Jr., a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a writer and illustrator whose work has appeared in an array of well known publications. A Philadelphia native, Magill now lives in Berlin, where he is editor of the Berlin Journal at the American Academy. His book Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion that We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull) was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a Wall Street Journal Top-Ten Nonfiction Book of 2012.

Emma Cordover is a rising junior at Cornell University and an administrative and research assistant at American Purpose.

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