irony, etc.

Michael Yates mikey+ at
Wed Nov 17 09:58:30 MST 1999

The issue of ironic writing and discussion has come up on various
lists.  We had an interesting discussion of this and related topics last
night in my prison class.  The subject was the drug trade, a subject
about which my students knew a great deal.  The assigned article for
discussion was "The Political Economy of Junk," written by novelist Sol
Yurick and published many years ago (1970, Dec. issue) in Monthly
Review.  Yurick wrote the article in an ironic style, essentially saying
that the powers that be say for public consumption that heroin is a
scourge, but they really act in ways that encourage addiction because
addiction and the entire drug trade are good for business and act to
pacify the poor, especially the black poor.

The article is very sharp and biting, and to those trained to see the
stylistic "tricks" obviously a sharp attack on the hypocrisy of those
who control the system.  After writing about how the media portray the
drug scene:  the tragedy of the junkie, the kid pusher, bombed-out
houses, the plea- faced entourage of the junk-starved, the heroic social
worker-he says, "But tragedy submitted to economics becomes comedy for
anyone with a strategic and long-range outlook."  Then he writes about
the great advantages of the heroin trade and heroin addiction to those
with this "strategic and long-run outlook."  In periods of social
crisis, he says, "How,then, to prevent the fabric of society from
becoming completely unraveled, does one achieve a reintegration of
confidence, a restoration of the faith to fight off internal threats to
economic and ideological world goals?"  Later he says, "Are there
drawbacks to the growth of an addicted population?  What about the
deaths?  To view the deaths of a few thousand children as alarming is to
take the short-term view.  The deaths are merely a function of the chaos
of the market which is growing faster than it can be rationalized....A
sort of industrial accident if you will....The deaths have to be written
off as one of the social overhead of the New Economic Policy."

Of course, Yurick is speaking as if he were a member of the ruling class
when he uses the word, "one."  And the statement about the deaths is
meant ironically.  The trouble was that not all of the students saw it
this way.  One student said he couldn't be sure where the author stood
and thought maybe he was a racist.  Another said that he had shown it to
two friends in the prison and they both thought the author was saying
that drugs were good and so was the drug trade. ("Where else can the
unskilled make quick killings?" Yurick says).  Another said that people
would have grasped the irony better in the early 1970s when it was
written but a lot of younger inmates might not see that now.

Now I was there to explain the style to those who did not understand it
and to explain that MR was a radical magazine and that Yurick was
appalled by the drug business.  But the writer does not know who will
read what he or she has written or in what context or with what level of
schooling and sophistication.  So does the radical writer, one who
desires a transformation of the social order, have any special
obligation to write in manner which would make it difficult to be
misunderstood, especially about a subject critical to those actually
living in the ghettoes?  Some students said yes and some no. What do you

michael yates

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