Feb 16, 2011

Belief and irony

In 1951, the year I was born, Edward R. Murrow brought a new program to the radio airwaves. This I Believe aired weekly audio essays by prominent and respected people who talked frankly about their deepest and most cherished beliefs.

Years later, Bob Edwards began airing the original segments at the end of each Friday broadcast on his public radio program. For example, noted anthroplogist Margaret Mead's original talk aired July 17, 2009 on XMPR.

I started making a point of listening Fridays around 8:45. Then one week instead of a historic essay I heard a modern-day effort, not by a celebrity but by regular folks who submit their work. These are not always as long as the early ones, but then less is often more. They are all heartfelt, however, and often deeply moving.

The work continues under the guidance of distinguished public radio producer Dan Gediman. The website offers books for sale and a chance to support the project using PayPal.

There might have been a time when most everyone agreed on the value of cherished beliefs, but that time seems to have passed. Although satire dates from Mark Twain in the 1800s and Swift's Gulliver's Travels in the 1700s (if not back to ancient Greece), somewhere along the way it became fashionable to express rampant disbelief with ironic humor.

David Letterman could be the poster child for this attitude, even though I suspect his on-air persona is as much pose as personality. The Onion could be the "newspaper" for the ironic generation, who I would dub postmoderns. The Satire category in the Open Directory Project has collected dozens of links amounting to a fairly complete course in modern satire.

People strive to be cool to short-circuit rejection. I think we adopt an ironic pose from a similar fear of admitting to beliefs only to have them belittled. The most ironic person "wins" this game of one-upmanship, although society may well be the loser.

Have you seen TV ads for ethical behavior? You know, the ones showing people being kind or considerate, and how much it can mean to someone? I've seen billboards and bus stop signs asking us to stop the violence, and we've all heard talk about the need to return to civility in public discourse.

Choosing sincerity over irony seems like a step in that direction and it's something anyone can do. Sincerity can become a habit as surely as the sarcasm it should replace. Listening to This I Believe can prime the pump, and who knows, maybe you or I will write and record a This I Believe of our own.

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