However, I’m not good at recognizing paradox, but I do find myself running into it more than I used to. For most of my life, paradox has been a friend who lived too far away to see very often, so when I did, it took a recalibrating effort to recognize it. Irony, on the other hand, lives next door and hails me over the backyard fence. I was introduced to paradox in college. I was charmed by its sly composition in which two ideas— seemingly contradictory—hook up to yield an insight as delightful as the downfall of a hypocritical Republican. I remember Hamlet’s decision to tell his mother about her murderous husband. I must be cruel to be kind, Hamlet said—in other words, tough love cloaked in the silks of paradox. My favorite paradox comes from Oscar Wilde. I have quoted it often over the years, usually with a donut in hand. “I can resist anything except temptation.”
The temptation of easy money is irresistible witness to America’s spendthrift days when home prices were soaring and stock markets were exuberant. In 2005, the personal savings rate bottomed out at zero, prompting fed chairman Alan Greenspan to worry aloud about the shortage of money available to banks for loaning. Our comeuppance was the mother of all recessions.
Americans retrenched, and the savings rate rebounded to 5 percent. You would think the increase would have been a welcome development. And it would have been in normal times. In a recession, however, the Paradox of Thrift holds sway: Saving instead of spending causes demand for goods and services to decline. The economy then constricts, lay-offs increase, tax revenue falls and fewer dollars are available to save.
Another economic paradox exposes one outcome of Utah’s underfunded schools. Simpson’s Paradox describes how the apparent achievement of a large group-—in this case all of Utah’s fourth and eighth graders-—is nullified when the performance of such subgroups as ethnic minorities is considered separately. Here’s the way it works: Over the years, Utah has rationalized barebones funding of the public schools by pointing to above-average standardized-test results. Using the paradox to deconstruct the scores, you find that, because white kids generally score higher on these tests, Utah’s aggregate scores are skewed by the higher-than-average percentage of whites in the population. When you compare whites to whites, Latinos to Latinos and so on, Utah’s math and reading scores are actually below the national average.
I also have noticed paradox making cameo appearances in newspapers recently. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about Obama’s speech in Oslo and the paradox “that war is both folly and necessary.”
A film critic spied paradox lurking in the welter of criticism of Avatar, whose director, James Cameron, is famously dictatorial and abrasive: “Paradoxically, the pileup of arguments surrounding Avatar might have made a sympathetic figure out of the outspoken Mr. Cameron, who now finds himself in the underdog position of having to account for every possible message in his ostensibly popcorn film.”
Two of my favorite subjects cropped up in a headline in Policy Review. “Is Food the New Sex?” The answer, according to editor Mary Eberstadt, is a paradox. Never in history have food and sex been more available. Until these latter days, sex was regulated by normative moral codes, but nobody paid much attention to what was in the pantry. Nowadays, eating is moralistic and sex is not. Ask any vegan!
A headline in the Huffington Post also caught my eye. “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” cites data to prove men grow happier as the years go by, but women do not. Women’s progressive unhappiness is attributed to the many choices they confront in maintaining families, careers and youthful good looks. Paradoxically, having choices is a source of happiness for women, but the choices tend to lead to unhappiness. Choosing to have kids is a data point on the unhappy end of the scale, surprisingly enough.
One source of unhappiness to me as a wordsmith is my lousy record in writing clever paradoxes. I am too easily satisfied with irony, in part because paradox is hard to craft.
I have come to believe that people use “paradox” in place of “irony” because it sounds fancier. Consider the example of Anthony Marshall. The son of Brooke Astor, the late heiress to the John Jacob Astor fortune—-who was recently convicted of bilking his mother out of millions of dollars. In sentencing him to prison, the judge said, “It is a paradox to me that such abundance has led to such incredible sadness.” It doesn’t seem paradoxical to me. But it is certainly ironical.
The same is true in the relations between Mormons and evangelical Christians. The two camps are closely allied in their core beliefs, values and conservative politics. They joined forces to support Prop. 8 in California in 2008. Is it irony or paradox, then, that the evangelicals are dismissive of their Mormon brethren as being non-Christian cultists? It’s debatable, I suppose, but what is not in doubt is the underlying issue of intolerance. That said, welcome to the circularity of an undisputed paradox: Should intolerance be tolerated if it eliminates the possibility of tolerance? Now that would be a useful keynote at the next LDS conference.