Obama: In the Irony-Free Zone

The following pieces are adapted from comments made at “What Happens Now: The 2008 Election,” a symposium at the New York Public Library on November 10, 2008, presented by The New York Review and sponsored by the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and Live from the NYPL. A recording of the event is available on our podcasts page.

Joan Didion

Early in the primary season a certain number of Americans began to feel an almost inexpressible uneasiness about the direction events were taking. What made this uneasiness so hard to express was that it seemed to belie everything we officially claim—through election cycle after election cycle—that we want.

We were getting what we said we wanted.

For the first time in the memory of most of us a major political party was moving in the direction of nominating a demonstrably superior candidate—a genuinely literate man in a culture that does not prize literacy, an actually cosmopolitan man in an arena that deems tolerance of the world suspect by definition. A civil man. A politically adroit man. Enthusiasm was high. Participation was up.

Yet something troubled.

What troubled had nothing to do with the candidate himself.

It had to do instead with the reaction he evoked.

Close to the heart of the problem was the way in which only the very young were decreed capable of truly appreciating the candidate. Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments made on the candidate’s behalf by their children. Again and again we were told that this was a generational thing, we couldn’t understand. In a flash, we were back in high school, and we couldn’t sit with the popular kids, we didn’t get it. The Style section of The New York Times, on the Sunday after the election, mentioned the Obama T-shirt that “makes irony look old.”

Irony was now out.

Naiveté, translated into “hope,” was now in.

Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.

Partisanship could now be appropriately expressed by consumerism.

I couldn’t count the number of snapshots I got e-mailed showing people’s babies dressed in Obama gear.

I couldn’t count the number of times I heard the words “transformational” or “inspirational,” or heard the 1960s evoked by people with no apparent memory that what drove the social revolution of the 1960s was not babies in cute T-shirts but the kind of resistance to that decade’s war that in the case of our current wars, unmotivated by a draft, we have yet to see. It became increasingly clear that we were gearing up for another close encounter with militant idealism—by which I mean the convenient but dangerous redefinition of political or pragmatic questions as moral questions—“convenient” because such redefinition makes those questions seem easier to answer, “dangerous” because this was a time when the nation was least prepared to afford easy answers.

Some who were troubled by this redefinition referred to those who remained untroubled by a code phrase. This…


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