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On irony, or lack thereof.

By Alice Bradley

When I wrote this piece about breastfeeding, I thought I was laying on the irony a bit overly thick. I thought I was troweling it on to the point where my readers would be rolling their eyes and begging me to exercise some subtlety, in the name of Not Insulting Eveyone’s Intelligence. I mean, I called nursing women “killers.” I called breastfeeding advocates “perverts.” I did this on a parenting site. Who could possible take me seriously?
Answer: many people! Oh, my coffers, they overflowed with hate mail. The majority of comments on the site clearly got it, but the less-than-convinced sent their anger straight to the source, apparently wishing to berate me one-on-one. I wish I had kept these letters so I could share them with you all, but I just kept deleting and deleting because that kind of loopy, addled vitriol was not good for me to read more than once. Maybe it was contagious? So I chuckled and chucked them into the trash, and all I have now are my memories of the many emails, rife with misspellings, invariably employing ONLY CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE THE SHIFT KEY IS TOO HARD, calling me names.
The reason I am bringing this up today is that I read this essay by Garrison Keillor, and now I’m worried that I’m that person, the one who doesn’t get the joke, who writes to Mr. Keillor to demand WHY YOU GOT HATE TEH GAYS?
If you’re not going to go right now and just read the thing, if you’re just going to sit there and look at me like that, I’ll give you the piece in a nutshell: Mr. Keillor waxes rhapsodic (or as a friend of mine said yesterday, “rhapses waxodic”) about the good old days, when couples came in bi-gendered pairs and stayed together until death, and kids were white, and pizza didn’t exist.
Salon has received many letters regarding this piece, most of them indigant at his apparent bigotry and small-mindedness, but some of them sniffy and indignant at the small-mindedness of the Salon readers who just don’t get the joke.
The thing about this essay is, the voice is all over the place. It’s a remarkably sloppy piece of writing. If you’re going to adopt an ironic voice, you’ve got to stick with it. It’s like acting: you don’t drop out of character midway through a scene to compliment an audience member on her pants. (Actually, if you’re Garrison Keillor, maybe you do.) I sort of get here how Mr. Keillor is sort of going for irony; but then as soon as I think I’m on track with his message, he veers wildly in some other direction, a direction uncomfortably close to sincerity. When he talks about how parents should stay in the background and allow their kids to blossom, that seems like something this author would believe. But when he refers to his parents as “smiling, helpless mannequins” in the same sentence, well, now I think we’re being ironic. So which is it?
Now take a look at this paragraph: “The country has come to accept stereotypical gay men — sardonic fellows with fussy hair who live in over-decorated apartments with a striped sofa and a small weird dog and who worship campy performers and go in for flamboyance now and then themselves. If they want to be accepted as couples and daddies, however, the flamboyance may have to be brought under control. Parents are supposed to stand in back and not wear chartreuse pants and black polka-dot shirts. That’s for the kids. It’s their show.”
Oookay. This is the parapraph that has raised the hackles of the majority of Salon letter writers. To be fair, I don’t think he’s saying what everyone thinks he’s saying in that first sentence. I think he’s targeting the country for accepting the stereotype, not the actual living, breathing human beings walking among us. He’s not (at least not initially) saying that those stereotypes have any basis in reality. We like our gays Will-and-Grace style, in other words, and we’re the worse for it. But then what’s he up to, with admonishing our stereotypes to bring the “fambloyance…under control”? (I know I have a typo back there, but isn’t it great? I sort of hate to lose it. Fambloyance!) Those last two sentences seem like sincere Garrison. At least I think.
I could continue my sentence-by-sentence analysis, but I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say he takes these left turns throughout: in one sentence he’s clearly winking at his readers, and in the next he spouts rhetoric that seems not-crazy for him to believe. I don’t know. I don’t know what to think.
Help me, readers. Help me figure this out. Has Garrison Keillor lost his mind? Or have I lost my sense of humor?
I will confess that I was already mired in Seriously Humorless Emotional Territory, having spent the week fuming with indignation over (awkward segue alert!) the responses of our two front-running Democrat candidates to General Pace’s comments regarding homosexuality.
So, over to that. It was dispiriting, if not surprising, to hear the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff weighing in on the morality of homosexual behavior—especially when so many of those immoral gays he condemns are off fighting a morally questionable war under his command. It’s maddening, if not surprising, that no one in the administration has come forward to demand an apology from General Pace. (And I mean a real apology, not that “sorry I said out loud that thing that’s really true” apology that he handed out.)
But it was completely enraging to hear that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, when directly asked what they thought of homosexuality, ducked the question. Hillary commented, “That’s for others to conclude.” Barack’s response to the same question?” ‘I think traditionally the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has restricted his public comments to military matters. That’s probably a good tradition to follow.”
I will translate this for you: Hi. We’re cowards. We can’t take a stand on anything until it’s vetted by our advisory staff. Also, we poop a lot, from our butts, which are poopy.
(My son added that last part.)
(Okay, okay. I use my son as an excuse to use the word “poopy.” I can’t help myself.)
Both Clinton and Obama are courting the gay and lesbian population. Both believe that gays should be allowed to openly serve in the military. Both had their spokespeople confirm, after the fact, that the candidates did in fact oppose Pace’s comment. So why couldn’t they say that in the first place?
Why is it still okay, in this day and age, to hem and haw when directly asked if certain types of human beings are inferior to other human beings? You’d think that these two candidates especially (Minority! Woman! Do I have to point this out!) would welcome an opportunity to take a stand on equal rights.
The Newsday article linked to above cited anonymous “Clinton and Obama supporters” who posited that “both might have been trying to avoid offending socially conservative Democrats, particularly churchgoing African-Americans, who share Pace’s views.”
Uh… yeah. What? See above, re: Obama and Clinton’s stance on gays in the military. Weren’t they going to offend these socially conservative Democrats eventually? Were they hoping they could just skirt that one question and the churchgoing black folks would be on their side? That those same people won’t find out what the two candidates said (via their spokespeople) later on? Are they trying to offend the black population and the gay population, all at once? It boggles the mind. Or maybe just my mind. I’ve been boggled twice today! I think it’s a record.
Elsewhere, there is news…
Save those heart attacks for Monday!: More Heart Attack Deaths On Weekends
No girls going wild, and that’s an order: House Overrides HPV Order
Porn in the news—LITERALLY!: Hard-Core Porn Interrupts News Show
So completely, obscenely horrible I can’t make a joke about it: Dying woman loses marijuana appeal

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

...

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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amanda
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amanda

I love your writing Alice and have been a consistent fan for a while. I also love gay people and believe that homosexuals should have EVERY right that heterosexuals have. I just want to ask though if you don’t think that you might be criticizing Pace for doing what Obama and Clinton didn’t? He expressed what he thought and believed and you have asked that he apologize. Obama and Clinton DIDN’T express what they think and you take them to task for it.

Vikki
Guest

I am a lesbian mother with a good sense of humor and an appreciation for irony but Garrison’s column makes me uneasy. The tone doesn’t strike me as funny as much as truly nostalgic which is scary for families like mine. No matter what his intention, there are many people out there that use this exact type of argument to justify denying legal protections to GLBT families.
As for the democrats lacking courage, well, we should all be used to that by now. Sadly, the democrats will get most of the GLBT vote despite their actions because the
alternative is too horrible.

Matt
Guest
Matt

I haven’t listened to Prairie Home for a while, but my recollection is that this kind of thing has been going on in Keillor’s writing all along. Wasn’t that what made those Lake Woebegone monologues so intriguing? The mixture of implausibly exagerated personalities with common small town activites and relationships. Moving back and forth from the silly and ironic to the mundane and recognizable. Probably not the best approach to a subject like homosexuality, where there is such a hyper-sensitive community (who can blame them?), but probably not out of step with what he’s been doing all along. Just my… Read more »

Alice Bradley
Guest
alice

No, Amanda, because it wasn’t the General’s place to weigh in on the morality of others. Once he did, it obligated those who believe otherwise to take a stand against his statements. Barak and Cinton didn’t, and that’s what I’m taking them to task for.

Liza
Guest

I’m in love with you. I’ve read you a few times in the past, but immediately right now you are going in my RSS reader. First “Dear four and a half” and now this. That’s why. My wife — no, not legally — read me the “fussy hair” paragraph this morning, and I nearly cried, and composed a “GK, I’m so disappointed in you” post in my head on the way to work. When I arrived, I read the Salon essay myself, and thought, “Maybe he’s being ironic?” It doesn’t really work, and I can’t tell what he really thinks,… Read more »

Matt
Guest
Matt

Heh – I just reread the Keillor essay and I have to say Salon.com would be mutch better off paying you or Melissa or Her Bad Mother to make these kinds of arguments. At least the three of you understand “having a point”. That essay is so scattered, especially the part that starts with the “problem” paragraph and continues to the end, that you wonder just what the heck was the point.

Angela
Guest

Your essay about Breastfeeding was clearly satorical and very funny. I think when intelligent people have to really try to see the satire in something it is probably not very funny and she best be left unwritten. I actually grew up listening to Garrison Keillor. My dad constantly played his tapes in the car when we went on road trips so I am used to his dry sense of humor, but this just doesn’t seem to fit it. I just wish people wouldn’t make such a big deal out of homosexuality and let people live their lives in peace. I… Read more »

Lin
Guest

There really should be a specific font used for irony. I listen to him regularly (I’m that old)and if there’s one thing he can deliver with that deadpan face that’s made for radio, it’s irony. Maybe it’s Minneapolis/St. Paul irony, but it’s irony.
Could I use the word irony any more in a brief paragraph?

Brandi
Guest
Brandi

Hmmm. I read the GK piece and have to agree with you and others that it seems a bit too earnest in spots to be sarcasm and a bit to sarcastic in spots to be earnest. Perhaps he is trying for a highly subtle anti-gay message that supports those who are anti-gay without stating outright and seriously, his feelings. I say this because I know a few otherwise intelligent people who just don’t get sarcastic humor. No matter how blatant or ridiculous the statement, they take it at face value. Therefore, GK’s piece would seem like a straightforward editorial which… Read more »

Lizneust
Guest
Lizneust

Yeah, the Keillor article in Salon threw me for a loop, too. Is he serious? Ironic? Wistful? Wrong? Whatever he was trying for, he just left me confused. If ever a piece needed a strong editor, this was it! (“So, what exactly are you trying to say, Garrison? Couldn’t you just, you know, say it?”) As for Pace, I wish I could say I was surprised. But I’m tired of the faux-apology that’s become so common lately. I don’t agree with the man, never will. But I find it more beleivable that he regrets saying it out loud than that… Read more »

jo
Guest

So let me get this right. Garrison Keillor can’t write about gays the way they are currently portrayed on T.V. Ugly Betty anyone? Will and Grace?

Alice Bradley
Guest
alice

Right, Jo, but what’s his point? For that matter, what’s yours?

Mrs. Kennedy
Guest

The mixture of implausibly exagerated personalities with common small town activites and relationships. Moving back and forth from the silly and ironic to the mundane and recognizable.
That’s a really good point about Keillor’s style. Too bad for both him and Salon that not everyone who read his essay were pre-forgiving of his weird, meandering, fambloyent whimsy.
Great post, Alice.

Country Mouse
Guest

On a straight reading of Keillor’s piece, I agree with your assessment of it. When I read it again, mentally assigning Keillor’s voice and style from his radio programme to the essay, it made perfect sense, and I could hear how the same essay would have been amusing as a monologue. (The irony is aimed mostly at the helicopter parents crowd, I think — the idea that the whole world is supposed to revolve around the children.) That said, I do think that kind of stylistic error is a continuing flaw in Keillor’s writing for the page; occasionally his writing… Read more »

Erica
Guest

That Keillor column is irritating. Sloppy doesn’t even begin to describe it. Nevertheless, I think perhaps the batteries for the flashlight (to use to search under the bed for the irony-bunnies) are found in that last bit about speaking to the class of second graders. In the previous portions of the column, GK extols the virtues of the stereotypical 1950s-era American archetypal family (“mannequins,” indeed); then, he places that diorama (my metaphors are muddy, sorry) next to the real-life beauty of the giggling, undulating face of who America is going to be(“Somali, Ethiopian, Hmong, Hispanic …. Croatian”) and is in… Read more »

Vikki
Guest

I was reluctant to post another comment on this one for fear that I would end up being seen as representing The Lesbian Perspective. But I just couldn’t help myself.
The truth is people can (and do) write whatever they want about GLBT people. I believe that we also have a responsibility to question, challenge and discuss that which is written. Diamonds, schmiamonds. Critical thinking skills are a girls best friend.

amanda
Guest
amanda

thanks for your comment alice. i do take your point about clinton and obama and the need for them to speak up. but i also can’t help but think that we are the ones who have created the problem we have. we live in a culture where ever value judgment that is spoken publicly is going to offend someone, and apologies or resignations or worse asked for. i understand then the reluctance to speak out. not that i agree with it, of course. if someone believes something then i would hope that they would be willing to express that belief… Read more »

rachel
Guest
rachel

This is neither here nor there, but when did it become The Thing on the internets to type “the” as “teh” when referring to some discreet category or otherwise recongizeable thing (cf “teh gays”) (and I guess my own question should be reformulated so I am asking when it became “Teh Thing”)? Like, everyone is doing this, but doing it without any sort of nod to why or how it became teh thing to do. It’s the sort of thing that makes me feel like I am missing a joke. Is there an etymology on this?

jo
Guest

I too read that article hearing Garrison’s voice in my head and I guess knowing many two dad homes and many more families that have the 12 home holiday split between umpteen million laws, in-laws, exes and currents I heard the irony in his voice. I just took his intro as a ‘back in the day – way back when – uphill both ways in the snow’ comment and not as a gay marriage and parenting is wrong or flamboyant stereotyping is right, but just more of his continuing tales to laugh at ourselves and our traditions. Pot luck Lutheran… Read more »

Amy
Guest

What a perfect post. I, too, was boggled by both of these things this week. I read Keillor’s column in the Chicago Tribune, and I was extremely confused. Usually I like his writing and agree with his views, but I truly had no idea what he was trying to say. After visiting Salon, I realized I wasn’t the only one. As for Obama and Clinton, for shame! When I read about Clinton’s response to the question of whether she believes homosexuality is immoral, I actually said “What the f—?” out loud. Um, isn’t the answer “no” a GIVEN if you’re… Read more »

joe
Guest
joe

okay! I think I get it! I went over to the site and heard the essay in my head with my best GK voice. I grew up with him in the background on Saturday nights and I neither love nor hate him. therefore i am not trying to ‘defend’ him; rather i just want to express what i came away with, and welcome your comments. I read the essay, but I didn’t feel very confused. please feel free to tell me what you think, because it scares me when I disagree with the people I think are brilliant. Here’s what… Read more »

Alice Bradley
Guest
alice

Wow, Joe! Thank you for all that.
I… I don’t know. I see what you’re saying, and I think I agree, but I think Mr. Keillor is inconsistent in his message and in his voice, and that’s what’s riled up so many people. I don’t think he figured out his message well at all. Or maybe he’s got some prejudices he’s not even fully conscious of. I’m not sure this essay merits the thoughtful reading you gave it, frankly. Which is not to say that I didn’t appreciate it, no no no.

Mauigirl52
Guest

Joe, I think you hit the nail on the head. I love Garrison, and often listen to his program, and I think your interpretation is probably how he meant it. As someone else posted, you have to imagine it as one of his rambling monologues where he jumps all over the place in his usual ironic tones. As for Obama and Clinton, they are in a tough place – need to get elected so need support and are wary of saying something that the far right will jump all over…”Clinton supports The Gay Agenda.” But just once I wish the… Read more »

karen
Guest

I was subjected to 12 years of conjugal Garrison Keillorism (much of which I enjoyed), and I would agree that there’s precious little irony in his Salon piece. In fact, I am getting anger from it more than anything else. Can that be possible? He always seemed so affable.
And Obama? No excuse. Clinton? I don’t trust her anyway, but what are the alternatives? Pussies, all of them.

Melanie
Guest

Ugh, I can’t STAND Garrison Keiler. His voice and those nasal inhales just kill me. I can’t even go read the article because I would have to imagine him reading it and I’d have to go hit my head on the doorjamb to make it go away.
I’m not going to go there with the HPV & the marijuana, because it’ll turn into me getting all angry and I’ve had some beers (while my son is home, call the police!!) and I’d like to enjoy my general loopiness tonight.

Johnny Sapphire
Guest

OK, so I’m gay, and honestly while reading his essay, all I really thought was “Man, this is a really crappy essay.” I mean, I like GK on NPR because he has a folksy, rambling style, but good God does it suck in print.
I think it’s ridiculous to be offended as a gay man by something written by a guy whose nostalgia for fictional times past is part of his schtick.

ozma
Guest

I tried, vainly, to read the GK piece the way you did. I started out “But wait! That’s not what he means! He’s talking about a stereotype and then…um…But I guess you could read it this other way…um…OK, he’s an ass.” Now I’m trying to analyze why I don’t want Keilor to be an ass. It wasn’t that I was a big fan of his show. I also sorta kinda liked his little vignette story things he published, while also acknowledging they were often maudlin and sentimental. Oh, and that they were all about nostalgia for a nonexistent time/place where… Read more »

ShariMac
Guest

Hmm. I totally get your point, but I read the piece completely differently. In his radio show, GK regularly explores both the beauty and absurdity of “old time” and contemporary society: subtly making points about what didn’t/doesn’t work about various aspects of society, while also affording the society in question his affection and respect. That’s why it works, why he’s able to make his points: he’s criticizing, or rather critiquing (examining, challenging) a way of life that he also loves, or at least feels some affection for. That seems to be what he’s doing here, too, and in that sense,… Read more »

Kookaloomoo
Guest
Kookaloomoo

I am also a lesbian mother, and my gut tells me that Garrison Keilor’s essay is just bad writing. Maybe it’s just because I like him so much, and I don’t want to think he’s a bigot, but if I were the type to be easily offended, I would probably take issue with this piece. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any follow up, but I thought the essay itself was somewhat incoherent and not in keeping with Keilor’s usual style.

Meghan
Guest

I read his essay in the paper yesterday. My thoughts were as follows:
“Wha?”
“Hmm..”
“Uh-oh.”
“(*&@#$???”
in summary:
GK is going to have to explain one of two things. Why he wrote such a colossally shitty essay that no one will “get” (because if it was meant to be ironic, it was written too pretentiously to be read that way).
Or why he decided to finally come out of the bigot closet and how he fooled us all for so long.
I usually like the guy.. but that was wierd. Did he recently have an appendectomy? Because painmeds might explain a lot.

Alyce
Guest
Alyce

GK isn’t a bigot. This isn’t a well-written piece, but all of his other writing and performing bears out his true beliefs. From what I have heard of him from people I know who live in MN and work on APHC, he is an upstanding guy. As for Obama and Clinton, I think they – like most politicians – are afraid to be for or against anything. No one is strong enough to say what they believe or to comment on what someone else has said. It’s shameful that we allow this of our politicians. I was pissed when I… Read more »

geminimama
Guest
geminimama

Thanks Joe–I had come away from the essay feeling not that Keillor was insulting anyone, but was saying that the way things used to be was bland, and dull and not necessarily as rosy as it looked on the outside and now the world is colorful and interesting and complicated (I had to laugh at the serial monogomy sentence–I’m up to six mothers-in-law and counting). Reading all the other comments had me doubting my ability to detect non-sarcasm, but your comment helped clarify my own thoughts.

Tammy
Guest

I agree that this could be interepreted more than one way, but I’m actually surprised, given Keillor’s progressive bent, that everyone is assuming he meant it as a slam.
But not everyone knows Keillor is progressive. This is where his, and Salon’s, sloppiness and laziness are at fault.
Keillor’s essay is terribly written. Proof? I’ve read it quoted in two other blogs, where each blogger cited it as validation of the blogger’s own anti-gay marriage stance.

MeL
Guest

I read the piece, and I have to say… well, I only know GK from listening to PHC shows from time to time, but it strikes me that he has a tendency to push the boundaries on people and see who is in on the joke. Which is a totally convoluted way of getting to my point, which is this: I read it as him being ironic in his nostalgia, because we all know the nostalgic view of the past has nothing to do with how it was (all the white faces in school were because of segregation, aye?) and… Read more »

Esther
Guest
Esther

I don’t think GK has lost his mind (or that you’ve lost your sense of humor). I think he was being sincere but threw in ironic comments here and there to make us think otherwise. Maybe he was secretly afraid of the backlash he’s receiving now – but then again, it’s GK – does he really care what anyone else thinks?

sozzled
Guest

Alice, I wanted to comment earlier but didn’t know quite what to say. But I found his response to his readers at Salon and maybe it will help explain his sloppy essay. The readership gave me a good whack upside the head over last week’s column, hundreds of them in fact. The column was meant to be witty, but two sentences about gay people aroused some readers to a high pitch of indignation, and I now know the meaning of the word “scorched.” Oh well. You shouldn’t write a column if you’re afraid to be compared to weasels, sociopaths, Ann… Read more »

Liana
Guest
Liana

Here is James Lileks’ take on the matter (Lileks of Gallery of Regrettable Food fame).
http://www.lileks.com/bleats/archive/07/0307/032207.html
I like what he says.