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The "death of irony" may be exaggerated too. Many critics read Letterman's emotional return as the sudden maturing of a wiseacre who had never manifested any real beliefs. As any Letterman fan knows, this is reductive hogwash. "Irony"--as popularly misused to mean a mishmash of easy sarcasm, cynicism and detachment--is ludicrous at a time of mourning, as is Letterman's meaningful irony (which is really a principled response to phoniness). But real irony--the basis of satire--is possible and valuable in addressing war. (Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, for instance, are darkly ironic yet serious works.) When theonion.com returns this week, says editor Robert Siegel, it will address the events carefully, aiming for a poignant, "cathartic" humor. Stewart also laced his aching monologue with touchingly self-deprecating jokes. "I'm sorry to do this to you," he said on his return. "It's another entertainment show beginning with the overwrought speech of a shaken host."
And as tempting as analogies to World War II are, we are not who we were in 1941. We're not likely, for instance, to see the equivalent of the racist caricatures of the Japanese as screeching simians. Whatever bigotry rises among the public, tolerance seems cemented in the culture of official and corporate America. Even before the attacks, Paramount changed a terrorist group in an adaptation of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears from Arabs to neo-Nazis, says chairman Sherry Lansing, and she doubts she would green-light a movie with an Arab baddie today. "You [hear about] these Afghan or Arab children in high schools who are getting picked on," she says. "You don't want this to be a country where we do this to innocent people."
Ultimately, the kind of war culture we get will probably depend on the kind of war we get: whether it's a rousing success or a quagmire, whether terrorists strike again or people begin to feel safe, whether we're deluged with battle video or it unfolds in secret. We may be entering a recession too, which produces a different culture from the optimistic boom times that gave us snarky dotcom ads, boy bands and upscale sitcoms. The last recession saw the rise of downscale TV families on Roseanne and The Simpsons and downscale grunge rock. Might a downturn--and the sight of heroic fire fighters giving their lives in Manhattan--mean a return of the working-class hero?
Certainly there is the potential for fundamental change. Most recent entertainment trends have assumed an ever more fragmented audience. The Internet gave us personally targeted news. TV viewers scattered like the citizenry of Babel among hundreds of channels. Top 40 radio gave way to niche music. Movies were aimed at ever thinner demographic slices. Now, suddenly, the country is united as it hasn't been in years. And hipness--the defining value of pop culture as we know it--is at odds with unity, because it depends on establishing one's self as different from one's countrymen.