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Isn't It Ironic?

Normally I stick with a Clash theme when explicating our national security problems, but this week's column takes a look at what Alanis Morrisette can teach us about nuclear proliferation.

UPDATE: Gotta have a teaser:

I used to be one of those people who got really annoyed at the widespread misuse of the word "ironic," as in the Alanis Morissette song -- or in this report from the Center for American Progress into the sorry state of American security that landed on my desk last Thursday morning. They write that "the Bush administration deserves an 'F' for its weak and contradictory efforts to control the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials. This is ironic in light of the administration's recognition that a terrorist armed with such a weapon poses the greatest threat to the American people."

Another thing that annoys me is when people don't use serial commas, and the first sentence there is a great example of why this is a bad idea. That's also not what irony is.

Nevertheless, I don't worry about that stuff much anymore because it seems like just about everyday I learn something new about how little the government is doing to stop terrorists from killing me with a nuclear bomb.

Now in a rational world the Bush non-proliferation record would be all she wrote as far as national security concerns.

September 14, 2004 | Permalink


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» War in Iraq does NOT make us safer from social tonic
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I just visited a photographic forum which descended into a factless political argument, mostly with links to RNC videos, talk of Bush's resoluteness, etc.
We are facing the real threat of nuclear terrorism in the next 10 years. On 9/12/2002 we had unprecedented support and unity to actually do something about it, but Bush has decided to ignore the real issue and instead use that issue for partisan politics, leading us to a situation where the nation is divided roughly in half, talking about inanities instead of the real issues that face us.
The opportunity that was frittered away on 9/12/2001 has to go down as one of the ibggest mistakes that a US President has ever made.

Posted by: theCoach | Sep 14, 2004 12:55:41 PM

The Clash on the American involvement in Iraq:

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double

Posted by: Petey | Sep 14, 2004 1:16:57 PM

Alanis Morrisette? What next, Jessica Simpson on Sudanese genocide?

Posted by: Steve Smith | Sep 14, 2004 1:22:21 PM

/me snorts out morning round of diet pepsi

Whew. With much love to my Pakistani brothers and sisters, I must say that bit about "the land of the pure" had me laughing out loud. It's funny because it's true.

I was totally dissappointed when I read the post, but having read the column, I must say, you put her work to good use. Glad that song was useful for something.

Posted by: Saheli | Sep 14, 2004 1:39:32 PM

Matt, I think this is the best thing you've written so far (at least that I've read). You should try to get this or something like it in The Times. or WaPo.

I wonder why Kerry isn't actually hammering Bush on this issue (if he is I've missed it, and it certainly isn't a major foucus of his critique, as well it should be if what you're writing is valid). Maybe a balsy 527 could put together an LBJ-style mushroom cloud ad. At least it might elevate the substance of debate. I for one would be interested in hearing from JFK on this one. It's the only issue that could tempt me over to the dark side. It's astonishing how little one hears the nuke proliferation issue discussed, given its overriding importance. Maybe it would even shut people like me up about typefaces and fonts.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Sep 14, 2004 2:05:55 PM

I'm currently shopping for a house in the DC area. I am surprised the real threat of nuclear terrorism hasn't affected the housing market. Prices just keep soaring. There's no way I'd tie myself to a nuclear terrorist target with a 30 year mortgage. I'm looking as far out as Frederick.

Forget the possibility of being incinerated for the moment - what do you think will happen to housing prices if a nuclear plot is discovered and foiled? I imagine values might drop by 80%. You could have a quarter-million dollar mortgage on a $60,000 house.

Now, multiply that by a few hundred thousand people (or a few million in the case of New York). That's how many people could essentially be bankrupted by a single, credible, nuclear threat. It is not stoic determination that prevents this situation from affecting home buyers and mortgage lenders, it is a logical disconnect. Nuclear terrorism is not real. It is only in the movies, like dragons and space ships. Unfortunately, that just isn't so.

This leads me to the conclusion that we will do essentially nothing to prevent nuclear terrorism until it happens. It is nonsensical to take action against a threat that does not exist. The logical consequences of acknowledging nuclear terrorism as real are profound. It is not merely a matter of more security at our borders. It is a recognition that the property values around DC and NY are dramatically overvalued - they do no incorporate the real nuclear risk. The net losses to homeowners, lenders and businesses would be in the hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars. What it boils down to is this - to genuinely acknowledge the threat, we must pay a fee of as much as a trillion dollars. We'd rather keep the trillion and live in blissful ignorance.

Posted by: Njorl | Sep 14, 2004 3:21:21 PM

Matt, I applaud your efforts to make the #1 MOST IMPORTANT SECURITY THREAT EVER accessible to generation X-ers whose eyes glaze over at the latest from Graham Allison and the CEIP.

I will note, however, that you neglected to mention two alarming facts that Allison cites in his latest Atlantic Monthly article: that Pakistan has 6,000 nuclear scientists (two of whom met with bin Laden in 2001) and that portions of Pakistan that are not under full control of the government contain nuclear installations.

Posted by: praktike | Sep 14, 2004 3:32:01 PM

Of course Pakistan did place him under house arrest, which is kind of a bummer. Ironically, marijuana dealers get harsher punishment than that.

That's a misuse of the word "ironic." But I assume you knew that and were just being ironic.

Posted by: EH | Sep 14, 2004 5:26:20 PM

I think the relevant Clash text on nuclear proliferation is "Armagideon Time."

Posted by: Rob Salkowitz | Sep 14, 2004 6:37:44 PM

One of the examples of irony in the Moriisette song clearly IS ironic: "It's like rain on your wedding day." Rain on one's wedding day is traditionally regarded as a good omen, which is ironic, because rain on one's wedding day would SEEM to be undesirable.

Irony is a concept that is not exactly simple to pin down, and it can take various forms, or be an attribute of various other things. Sarcasm, for example, is not in itself irony, but it is ironic speech. Since Socrates, attempts to define irony have continued to expand and transform the concept.

Serial commas, however, are clarifying, useful, and precise.

Posted by: trevor | Sep 14, 2004 6:39:03 PM

Serial commas, however, are clarifying, useful, and precise.

Isn't that ironic? Don't you think?

Posted by: Dan the Man | Sep 14, 2004 6:51:25 PM

Yes, EH, that was an intentional misuse.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Sep 14, 2004 8:25:50 PM

While I'm a fan of precise language, I'm not sure that a narrow definition of irony is the correct one. If we're talking Socratic irony, then we mean a form of rhetoric that involves the pretense of ignorance maintained throughout a line of questioning that is actually intended to reveal the other's false conceptions. This is pretty specific.

But modern usage of irony allows for a broader definition that includes incongruity between the expected result of a sequence of events and the actual result. This is more expansive, and I think it allows for some usages that our gracious host would reject.

In this broader sense, for example, the Bush "F" is indeed ironic. Sequence of events = (1) Bush recognizes that nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists are a grave threat. (2) Bush vows to reduce threat by firm action. Expected result = Bush takes firm action to reduce threat. Actual result = Bush takes firm action to reduce threat that unwittingly expands the threat further.

I can see how that's ironic. Now what's NOT ironic? A result that is merely improbable or coincidental. For example, Bush takes action for some completely innocuous other reason - say, to help Haliburton execs upgrade their yachts - and the result is that the grave threat gathers. Oops! Now that's unintended, it's improbable, it's unpleasant, but it's not irony.

Then again, I could be wrong.

Posted by: Jonathan Dworkin | Sep 14, 2004 8:29:16 PM


That's in interesting comment. Now, of course, we all know that Matthew lives in DC - certainly AT LEAST the #2 target for nuclear terrorism in the country (and his dad lives in New York City - the #1 target). If Matthew really thought that the likelihood of nuclear terrorism has materially increased, why does he still live there? OTOH, if he DOESN'T think such likelihood has materially increased, why's he ragging on the Bush administration?

Posted by: Al | Sep 14, 2004 8:57:55 PM

For that matter, if Democrats argue that Bush has increased the risk of nuclear terrorism, and New York is the #1 target for nuclear terrorism, why do so many democrats live in New York?

We all must be hypocrites, obviously! It's not that backbone could have anything to do with it.

Posted by: Jonathan Dworkin | Sep 14, 2004 9:28:01 PM

Regarding the serial comma problem, one of those bits of seeming ephemera that sometimes get inexplicably lodged in my brain was a review of '80s hair band Skid Row's Slave to the Grind album, quoting the title track:

Well I puke, I stink bitch give me a drink´Cause I´m payin´ for the room

which led the reviewer to wonder whether Mr. Sebastian puked and stank, or whether he was a "stink bitch" who gave himself a beer.

Posted by: godoggo | Sep 14, 2004 11:38:47 PM

Ok, we have here the opportunity to discuss one of the more, um, substantive issues of the time, namely something that could get any of us killed, and fuck the survivors up with a really nasty economy and the end of anything resembling a free country.

But what does everybody want to discuss? Pop lyrics, the shades of meaning of the word "irony", and the finer points of comma use. Hmmmmmm.....

I'm really starting to feel like "George" from Six Feet Under.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Sep 14, 2004 11:49:55 PM

Or perhaps the dance band on the Titanic.

Posted by: godoggo | Sep 15, 2004 12:11:52 AM

Well, to be fair, I think Matt temporarily suspended comments to deal with hyperactive trolling. He probably made an exception in this case for seemingly innocuous topics like irony and music. Then I went and spoiled it for everybody.

BTW, I'm not saying that nobody should live in NY or DC. I'm saying that the threat should be a factor in pricing. I don't think it is. We make risk assessments all the time. A long daily commute is a risk, but houses are cheaper in the suburbs. Living downtown exposes us to more crime, but it is more interesting. Those risks are in the conciousness of buyers, sellers and lenders. Nuclear terrorism is not.

Posted by: Njorl | Sep 15, 2004 8:47:20 AM

PB Almeida: George from Six Feet Under is an unmedicated paranoid delusional, if not a schizophrenic. He needs medication. There's got to be a way for us to internalize the horrific nature of the nuclear threat without clocking out of the world and going mad. As someone else mentions above, therein lies the genius of Matt's column, he's made the topic accessible to those of us who'd like to be informed about fundamental security concerns without going insane.

Njorl: I agree with lots of what you're saying about the lack of public conciousness of the nuclear threat. Was it always this way? Am I wrong to remember that during the height of the Cold War public consciouness of the nuclear threat, rightly or wrongly, was pretty high. Perhaps this didn't impact real estate prices, but I'm thinking about made for tv movies like The Day After. Not sure how to reinject awareness of this threat back into the population at large. Perhaps we need to give everyone free copies of the second season of 24.

Posted by: fnook | Sep 15, 2004 10:52:53 AM

P.B. Almeida, first off let me say that I have started to seriously think about leaving New York for some nice state where radiation proof bunkers aren't too expensive. I also think fnook is being too hard on George. He's neurotic and he's letting his fixations get in the way of living a happy life. But most people have behavior patterns that interfere with a happy life. Some people try to fix them through therapy or medication. Some people don't. I think "schizophrenic" is a vast overstatement. I actually really don't enjoy the way the male/female engagement with the political sphere/blithe ignorance dynamic shakes out in that relationship (even if the engagement is neurotic). That out of the way, my real reason for commenting:

Okay, I already went through all of this on this blog years ago on a thread that was actually about Alanis, but one thing in life that drives me crazy is incorrections, so I'm going to do it again. The CAP report is using "ironically" correctly, and so is Alanis in several instances, though perhaps not most. Even if you would not use the word "ironically" thus, if you are going to correct someone, not just in a casual conversation but in a published column (which was damn funny by the way), the bar should be set very high, and their usage should be not just questionable, but indefensible. In fact, it is eminently defensible.

Here is the relevant dictionary.com definition of ironic:

Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs: “Hyde noted the irony of Ireland's copying the nation she most hated” (Richard Kain).
An occurrence, result, or circumstance notable for such incongruity. See Usage Note at ironic.

Here is the usage note:

Usage Note: The words ironic, irony, and ironically are sometimes used of events and circumstances that might better be described as simply “coincidental” or “improbable,” in that they suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly. Thus 78 percent of the Usage Panel rejects the use of ironically in the sentence "In 1969 Susie moved from Ithaca to California where she met her husband-to-be, who, ironically, also came from upstate New York." Some Panelists noted that this particular usage might be acceptable if Susie had in fact moved to California in order to find a husband, in which case the story could be taken as exemplifying the folly of supposing that we can know what fate has in store for us. By contrast, 73 percent accepted the sentence "Ironically, even as the government was fulminating against American policy, American jeans and videocassettes were the hottest items in the stalls of the market, where the incongruity can be seen as an example of human inconsistency."

I would argue that there are other elements besides illumination of vanity or folly that, when added to incongruity, make irony, but in any case, the CAP usage fits these criteria as stated. There is incongruity between what might be expected and what occurs (i.e. that a president who acknowledges publically that his first responsibility is security and that nukes are the greatest threat does not do anything to control nuclear proliferation) AND the instance illuminates something about human folly (i.e. that stated intentions without an ability to critically assess the world around you are useless; Bush believes he's combatting the threat, but he's blind to the real threat. It's sort of like Greed tragedy. Which was often ironic.)

Soemthing can suck AND be ironic. They're not mutually exclusive.

A traffic jam when you're already late is not ironic. It would be, however, is if the reason you left late was to skip the morning rush hour traffic.

Okay, I'm done.

Posted by: Katie | Sep 15, 2004 2:12:54 PM

I read material from folks like Matthew Yglesias because I like to make decisions when both viewpoints are observed - example: If I visit the NRO website, I'll also search for the same thing at MoveOn.org, but Matt, come on. You're reaching here with the "Why Does George W. Bush Loves Terrorists? " article. People are almost always consumed by their own self interest, particularly Politicians, but Gary Farber's assertion that somehow the Bush Administration wants to parade Khalid Shaikh Mohammed through the streets of Baltimore for a handful of votes is nothing less than insane. The hypocrisy here is that you can use 9/11 against Bush by saying that the Administration loves terrorists and in the same breath accuse Bush of using 9/11 for political gains.

I see that Matthew has conveniently left out the costs of the oil-for-food train wreck in his article "War in Iraq does NOT make us safer". Consider this hypothetical: If we didn't go into Iraq, and in 4 or 5 years when Uday or Qusay decided that they wanted to assume power - you actually think that Iraq would have been somehow a more favorable neighbor in the middle east? Those guys were monsters, and the fact that they are dead should get your approval.

If Saddam tried to put a hit on George H. W. Bush, why do you assume that he was not a threat to civilians in the US if the opportunity surfaced? Just because Iraq didn't have the ballistic weapons capable of reaching U.S. soil, they would have found other ways had the opportunity presented itself. Example: Canadian ballistics expert Gerald Bull helped Saddam's Iraq to develop an artillery piece that could have launched projectiles well into the stratosphere which would have easily put Israel into the range of such a gun - and came very close to actually launch a projectile into space from an artillery piece. Bull was shot and killed before his work could be completed, which was shortly before the 1st Gulf war.

Why would any of you assume that Al Qaeda was not in Iraq? It's because of the first gulf war that Al Qaeda was spawned under the premise that foreign forces on Arab soil has threatened sovereignty of Arab nations and somehow "tainted" the Holy lands. Al Qaeda are everywhere - even in the US, but somehow not in Iraq? I can just hear you people now, "But Drew, the ideals between Al Qaeda and Saddam's Iraq are totally different, LOL". Listen folks, there are areas in Iraq where there was virtually no direct governmental control. Al Qaeda was and still is in Iraq. What's the matter with you people? Talking to you "Bush-haters" like trying to spank a cat - it just doesn't work.

The steadfast denial of you people on Iraq is unbearable. Ok, we get it - you hate George W. Bush.

One more thing - if I catch any of you jerks snagging one more Bush/Cheney sign from my front yard, I'm going to pinch your head off with my butt cheeks and flush it down the commode.

Posted by: Drew - Dallas, TX | Sep 15, 2004 5:12:03 PM

I just realized that I didn't see last weeks 6 feet under. There might have been something I missed.

Posted by: Katie | Sep 15, 2004 6:52:29 PM

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