Sunday, November 23, 2008

Joan Didion on the Cult of the Christ-child

Joan Didion discussing the hype and hoopla around Barack Obama:

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 it was the way in which only the very young were decreed of capable of truly appreciating the candidate. Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching of arguments made on the candidate's behalf by their children -- by quite small children. Again and again, we were told that this was a generational thing, we couldn't understand. In a flash we were sent back to high school, and we couldn't sit with the popular kids, we didn't get it. The "Style" section of The New York Times yesterday morning mentioned the Obama t-shirts that "makes irony look old."

Irony was now out.

Naivete 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 could not count the number of snapshots I got emailed showing people's babies in Obama gear.
Now I couldn't count the number of terms I heard the terms "transformational" or "inspirational." The whole of election night I kind of kept dozing on and off and the same people were on always on television and every time I woke up
to them they were saying "transformational."

I couldn't count the number of times I heard the sixties evoked by people with no apparent memory that what drove the social revolution of the sixties 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 redefinition of political or pragmatic questions as moral questions -- which makes those questions seem easier to answer at a time when the nation is least prepared to afford easy answers.

Some who were troubled in this way referred to those who remained untroubled by a code phrase. This phrase which referred back to a previous encounter with militant idealism the one that ended at the Jonestown encampment in Guyana in 1978 was "drinking the Kool-Aid."

No one ever suggested that the candidate himself was drinking the Kool-Aid. If there was any doubt about this, his initial appointments would lay them to rest.
In fact, it seemed increasingly clear that not only would he welcome healthy realism but that its absence had become for him a source of worry. "The exuberance of Tuesday night's victory," The New York Times reported on November 6th, "was tempered by concerns over the public's high expectations for a party in control of both Congress and the White House amid economic turmoil, two wars overseas and a yawning budget gap. " A headline in the same day's paper, "With Victory At Hand, Obama Aides Now Say Task Is To Temper Expectations."
Yet, the expectations got fueled, the spirit of a cargo cult was loose . I heard it said breathlessly on one channel that the United States on the basis of having carried off its presidential election now had "the congratulations of all the nations." "They want to be with us," another commentator said. Imagining in 2008 that all the world's people want to be with us may not be entirely different in kind from imagining in 2003 that we would be greeted with flowers when we invaded Iraq. But in the irony-free zone that the nation had chosen to become this was not the preferred way of looking at it.

Joan Didion was speaking on a panel which included Andrew Delbanco, Jeff Madrick, Darryl Pinckney, Robert Silvers, Michael Tomasky and Garry Wills at New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. The New York Review of Books has the podcast of the event (scroll down to November 17, 2008, What Happens Now? A Conversation on the 2008 Election)

The above remarks are approximately 10:40 into the podcast and last till 16:30 into the podcast.
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