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Tuesday, October 01, 2013 

Better living through irony.

It used to be said, by our more patronising commentators, that Americans didn't "get" irony. They always have of course, it's just that different countries have different traditions of comedy. To get things off to an exceptionally meta start, it's highly ironic that some of us seem to have forgotten what irony is.

Like, for instance, referring to the Labour leader as "Red Ed" non-ironically.  As an insult or jibe, it just doesn't work on any level other than it rhyming.  The closest Ed or the party he leads come to being "red" in the old socialist style is that he answered in the affirmative recently when asked whether he would bring socialism back, when he clearly meant social democracy, the same principle part of the coalition continues to profess to adhere to, and that the party laughably continues to sing the "Red Flag" come the end of conference.  It signifies about as much as the way Putin's Russia continues to display the ever deteriorating rubberised corpse of Lenin.  Think of the way the Sun took to calling Heather Mills Lady Mucca, on the basis that she had once posed for some softcore snaps, highly similar to those appearing on the paper's third page every day.  It was and is phenomenally stupid, but seems to please the little minds in charge of the nation's gutter rags.

Then again, part of our media and political class don't seem to like having even an occasional joke, let alone descend into silliness for say, the reason of having fun.  I can't quite believe I'm defending Godfrey Bloom, but the whole "sluts" row at the UKIP conference was mindboggling in its inanity.  I don't care whether he was using "sluts" in either the sexually promiscuous or lazy sense of the word, everyone in attendance laughed.  It wasn't meant seriously, no one in the room was offended, and had it not been for the fact he then went out and smacked Michael Crick with the conference programme, it most likely would have been brushed off just as his "bongo bongo" jibe was, when he should have been held to account then.  That the UKIP programme declared that the "new face of politics" was entirely white, as befits a party that can be summed up as being consumed with first world problems, ought to have been enough rope to hang them in the first place.

Not that we can just point the finger at those who think politics and humour shouldn't mix outside of Yes, Minister, The Thick of It or sketch columns.  Last week also saw Alastair Campbell reaching new levels of sanctimony, touring television studios lecturing Tesco and Asda for the crime of selling Halloween costumes that apparently stigmatised or belittled those with mental health problems, reinforcing prejudices that we should instead be seeking to overcome.  Fine sentiments indeed, but coming from the man who did more than anyone other than bloggers to paint Gordon Brown as "psychologically flawed", to put it in the politest possible terms, and over fucking Halloween costumes that simply reproduced age-old tropes from horror films and would never have been taken seriously by anyone other than those looking to be offended, came uncomfortably close to beggaring belief.  I couldn't give a toss about Halloween, but if for one night a year people want to dress up as figures from history or in other potentially offensive ways in the spirit of enjoying themselves, perhaps the rest of us should, within reason, get over ourselves? Yes?  No. Of course not.

Then we come to the levels of hypocrisy as well as irony in the Daily Mail deciding to smear Red Ed's long deceased old man.  As someone born in the 80s, I don't remember the good old days when the Tory press used to savage the "loony left" time after time, and have only read about it.  When such overbearing Tory bias hits you straight in the face then, as it has since Miliband's speech last week, it's a bit of a shock.  Yes, the Sun was bad during Labour's last term when it declared the country was on the brink of anarchy, even as crime continued to fall, something it believes is happening now the natural party of government is back in charge, but this is something else.  We saw a bit of it after Nick Clegg's performances in the debates, and earlier in the year during the Eastleigh by-election as the Mail splashed on Lord Rennard repeatedly, but to really invoke the hammer and sickle?  If it wasn't so ridiculous and truly meant it would be comical.

The Mail describes Ed's piece in response to Geoffrey Levy's obviously Paul Dacre-approved hatchet job as "tetchy and menacing".  Anyone who reads it can see it is neither.  It is in fact a tender defence of his father, setting out exactly what he owed to this country and how he loved rather than hated it.  You would have thought that Dacre, notoriously sensitive about the bringing up of the Mail's support for the Blackshirts in the 30s, might have realised that questioning the dedication of a man who fought for Britain would lead to critics pointing to the treachery of those who the Mail applauded, but apparently not.  Levy and Dacre in their deliberately obtuse manner can't imagine why a 17-year-old Jewish refugee from the Nazis was suspicious of nationalisms of all varieties.  The only other evidence it has for his hatred for this country is that he attacked the establishment, the self same establishment that Dacre has repeatedly said he rejoices in "tweaking the nose of".

Giving up any semblance of reasonable critique, the paper's editorial in response to Miliband's demand for a right of reply indulges in classic red-baiting, as Martin Kettle writes.  Ralph Miliband was a life-long Marxist, ergo even if he didn't support the Soviet Union, he "validated this most pernicious doctrine", which presumably is the "evil legacy" the editorial is concerned with.  It then lets the cat out of the bag by going straight on to the paper's monomaniacal obsession with the proposed royal charter on press regulation, as though whatever emerges from that tortured process will be anything approximate to actual state control of the press.  Indeed, when press freedom is genuinely threatened, as it has been by the government's response to the Guardian's revelations of surveillance of the internet by GCHQ, the Mail has taken the side of... the government.

Irony, as a rather good band once had it, smothers us.  It infects our speech and actions whether we like it or not.  Some, however, like the Mail, ignore the way it nags and carry on regardless.  Like George Osborne promising to run a budget surplus if the Tories are re-elected when he couldn't even keep his promise to eliminate the deficit in this parliament, thanks to the plan he now lauds as having laid the foundations for the recovery, just the three years later than scheduled.  That level of chutzpah still doesn't come close though to that of the newspaper that pretends, as Miliband scathingly put it, to uphold "the best of British values of decency", even as it has repeatedly attacked and smeared those who can't answer for themselves.  As when the Sun attacked Gordon Brown for his handwriting, the Mail might well find that this time it's gone that one step beyond the pale.

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