A Handle on the News

You ought to be ironical the minute you get out of bed.


—Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

I THOUGHT OF THIS line from Hemingway one day recently when I found myself having to be ironical the minute I got out of bed. The news was making me feel that way—specifically, a report on National Public Radio that began with the question, Does an apple a day cause cancer? and went on to tell of Alar, a growth regulator widely used in arboriculture. More than likely, Alar is in the red apples you bought last week, and in the applesauce and apple juice, as well. It may soon be banned by the Environmental Protection Agency, because it has been found to cause virulent cancers in laboratory mice.

I was still reeling from that dose of irony when I picked up the morning paper. “KHMER REBELS SAY POL POT IS RETIRING,” a headline announced. According to the story underneath, the regime of “Mr. Pol Pot” in Cambodia “was marked by a reign of terror. . . that left as many as two million people dead. . . .” Since Cambodia had a population of only seven and a half million people when Pol Pot came to power, in 1975, his record makes him one of history’s most dedicated mass murderers. Now, like any businessman or ballplayer, he is retiring—hanging up the old butcher knife after a career of carnage. Forty years ago the headline might have been “NAZIS SAY HITLER IS RETIRING.”

By this point a smirk had stolen over my face. It bade fair to stay there permanently after my next brush with irony. This came when I noticed a picture of Tomás Borge under my coffee cup. Borge is Nicaragua’s minister of the interior, and according to everything one reads about him, he is the most sinister of the five Sandinista comandantes who rule the country. In the article beneath the picture I learned that “Mr. Borge” had recently told a conservative member of the National Assembly that “within half an hour after the first American paratroopers land in Nicaragua, all the opposition leaders will be rounded up and killed.” What, you might ask, is ironic about that? Nothing. The irony lay in the slogan Mr. Borge had caused to be painted on the wall of his ministry; “Sentinel of the People’s Happiness.” Orwell, I thought, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

—Jack Beatty