The Dangers of Irony

Westbrook Pegler

Los Angeles Times/March 7, 1941

Any wise editor will tell you, probably on the basis of painful experience, that irony and dead-pan sarcasm are dangerous weapons, because persons of literal mind cannot detect subtlety.

In our business we learn this the hard way, as in my case the time I wrote that marriage was a casual relationship in this country and the marriage compact a frivolous agreement by comparison with the mortgage or the lease, because it was revocable almost at the will of either party and was repudiated in and by the courts in one case out of every six. Several religious publications construed this as an endorsement of a condition which it was intended to deplore.

Citation for Ickes

An important case in point occurred recently in New York where The Protestant Digest Associates hailed Harold L. Ickes before a large company and, in a spirit which surely must have been one of mockery, presented him with a citation for tolerance.

Of course, Ickes himself strove to dispel any public impression that the citation could have been sincerely meant when in response to this clever jest, he denounced Maj. Al Williams and Col. Charles Lindbergh as Quislings, who would “cravenly spike our guns and ground our planes in order that Hitlerism might more easily overcome us.”

Personal Impressions

By that time it must have been apparent to all present that the citation could have had no other purpose than to reveal the violent intolerance with which Ickes commonly reacts to any opinion conflicting with his own. But cold print, lacking tone of voice and the play of facial expression, could not convey to the greater number who were not there any other impression than that the hosts of the evening actually did honor Ickes as an uncommonly tolerant man.

I need not point out that if, in future, the same organization should wish to honor some genuinely tolerant citizen in all seriousness those who missed the point of the joke in the Ickes case might easily conclude that the recipient must be another furious bigot whom it was intended to pillory for intemperance of thought and speech.

I might cite cases in which persons, having established a certain character in writing, were sadly misunderstood when they pitched their change of pace. One was an effort of mine in which, on a sudden fancy, I eulogized Knute Rockne—an experience so startling to him that he notified our sports editor, Arch Ward, a Notre Dame alumnus, that the rewards of public life were not worth the pain of such cunning slurs, and that he was forthwith resigning his job as coach of the Irish.

Syrup From Vinegar

Ward then analyzed the tribute and persuaded him to reconsider, but could not convince him that a vinegar cruet ever gave syrup, nor could I.

Similarly, the late Bill McGeehan of the Herald Tribune, after years of impish lampooning of the grotesque dignity of William Muldoon as the Duke of Muldoon, on one of Muldoon’s last birthdays praised him lavishly as a wise and noble citizen, only to evoke from the duke a protest to the editor against such vicious sarcasm. Muldoon said he didn’t mind open criticism but would not submit to dirty innuendo from any man.

In another instance Gene Fowler was assigned to greet Charles Levine on the return from Europe of a man who had flown the Atlantic as passenger and then, without so much as a student pilot’s license and all alone, had taken off in his multi-motored plane from Paris and put it down safe in London.

Bravery Extolled

Levine had been ridiculed rather than praised for this amazing exploit, so Fowler, on a generous whim of his own, hailed him as a man of inspiring bravery to the extent of more than a column, only to be told by his city editor that his “veiled and nasty anti-Semitism” could not pass the desk while he was there.

So, although the Protestant Digest Associates have a right to their joke, I would point out that such humor often defeats itself and suggest that henceforth they make their fun more obvious.

(Source: The Daily Mirror,