Dept. of WTF (your rant of the day)

Culture, US culture

I suppose someone has to write this kind of article about the new Obama age – all chatty and gossipy, and smug about it; even at a magazine like The New Republic. Or maybe especially there, because the deepest minds disappointingly often are also the most snobbish – or rub shoulders with them. And Michelle Cottle always knows just how to do the job – but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The New Yorker does this to me every time – I’ll read the issue’s feature articles and be left impressed by their depth and empathy, and then read the Talk of the Town section and just be left slack-jawed by the shallow, insular upper class brattiness in some of the items. Left thinking just, who are these people?

A telling moment in Cottle’s article comes when a parent at one of DC’s elite primary schools harrumphs:

It was remarkable how naked the status anxiety became at all the schools under consideration, recalls one dad [..]. Parents would just chatter away, he recalls, about “‘Oh my God, wouldn’t it be just amazing if’–their daughter, fill in the blank, Zoe or Chloe or whatever–‘wouldn’t it be amazing if they had a sleepover at the White House!’ Then they’d envision themselves having to pick up their child and telling people, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go over to the White House!'” He harrumphs, “People would actually say this stuff out loud. It was just embarrassing.”

Right. That’s exactly the reaction I have when I see otherwise smart and intelligent people being quoted saying stuff like this:

Washington old-timers and Obama insiders alike are predicting an urban renaissance of sorts. “There’s a glamour about Barack and Michelle that I think will infuse the capital in a way that we have not seen for some time,” says Holder. “They are both tall, good-looking, striking people with adorable little girls. I can’t help but think that’s going to have an impact.”

Yes, that’s Attorney General-to-be Eric Holder. I mean, WTF? What does that even mean? The Obamas are tall and good-looking and “I can’t help but think that’s going to have an impact”? What – how? 

And think about it – even if there is something there, hidden somewhere behind the nonsequitur, wouldn’t you be embarrassed to even admit it?

There’s superficiality of all kinds. I guess this is just a kind I don’t get, and which invariably gets up my nose. And yes, I hate celeb news too, with its humiliating Janus face of alternated licking and kicking. Its one-two of ingratiating prostration before those who are hot, and mean-spirited assults on those who can be torn down. It seems to me to reveal and condense the worst traits of humanity. And no, it’s probably not the most pressing issue in the Republic right now. But jeez.

Most grating is perhaps the fact that the kind of people being quoted saying embarassing shit like this actually think themselves the cool people who “get it” – you know, instead of feeling moved to temporarily hide underneath an ornamental garden rock. Rich people really are different.



  1. Jo  •  Dec 9, 2008 @3:40 pm

    The people at the NYer who write the significant articles are usually not the ‘talk of the town’ writers, though I’ve agreed with those on substance from time to time.
    I did catch myself reading about real estate in the Washington area now that Obama has been elected, though I’m not sure in which publication as it was with half an eyeball. Might have been in the Washington Post, which would make some sense re local interests. To your larger point, though, sure, people who have some depth to them can also be freakily shallow. Some of the present stuff may be related to giddiness after a kind of deprivation, some just plain shallow.

    As Bill Walsh may have said to the 49’ers football team about end zone celebratory display, “act as if you’ve been there before”.

  2. sozobe  •  Dec 10, 2008 @9:41 am

    When I read the Holder quote I was thinking that he was talking about what the impact would be in terms of race, role models, that sort of thing; what it means to have this particular exemplary African-American family in the spotlight, and implications thereof… maybe not though.

    By the way I smiled at this:

    The president-elect is a “SportsCenter” junkie who delights in talking–or, more precisely, arguing–about basketball in particular. (Warning: Like any good debater, he comes armed with stats to support his positions.)

  3. nimh  •  Dec 10, 2008 @12:26 pm

    Jo – for sure not all the ‘talk of the town’ items are like that; many are smart and/or enjoyable, as befits the publication.

    Every other issue or so, though (or at least that’s how it seems to me), there’s one that just leaves me blinking. Who are these people? Who thinks like that?

    The only other place I can think of that I sometimes come across this brash yet insular, I dunno … arrogance-slash-cluelessness? … of the elite is in the NY Times style, or lifestyle or whatever it’s called section.

    On a more philosophical level, I sometimes think that the instinct to assume that the beautiful / powerful / wealthy (take your pick, depending on the context and audience in question) must also be good does more to entrench inequality than any tax plan.

    It’s probably a universal, instinctive, and more often than not subconscious process, I guess; one which is blurted out in a moment of lacking self-awareness when someone praises the Obamas for being “both tall, good-looking, striking people”, and assumes that this by itself must have a favourable “impact”.

    (And Soz, I did not read the phrase as a reference to race; there’s nothing in the quote that suggests so, way I read it anyway, and the article goes into the race-specific impact in a different para. But even if it did I’m a bit nonplussed – would the Obamas be any less worthy black rolemodels if they were short and ordinary-looking? Was Martin Luther King tall?)

    I dunno. This post being a rant and all, I suppose I could riff on the infatuation with glamour… And somehow – though I haven’t thought through how, and the people involved are different – I think this must also be connected with the culture that idolizes business tycoons as role models. Wherein a broad swath of people instinctively defend them as good people, rather than just effective (and probably ruthless) wealth-rakers. And that one is I think something less universal, something where there is more of a difference between (Western) Europe and America.

    Sometimes I think that what is lacking in America – and has become increasingly undermined in Western Europe – is more of a thriving underdog culture. Americans love an underdog, individually, but seem to regard the less well off collectively as just, well, lacking, or failed. Europe traditionally has had more of a combative working class counterculture, in which the glamorous and wealthy are met with skepticism rather than fawning, and in which the working poor have, well, umm, not to get all Marxist, but more of a positive class consciousness. Pride. The kind of pride that miners, steel workers and railway workers were famous for.

    Of course that’s been sorely eroded through the last two or three decades of deindustrialisation; flex work and liberalisation of the employment market; and immigration. Depending on the country or region, it’s been almost whittled down to a rump.

    Nevertheless, in what Charles at Cogitamus calls “the war on the working class”, it can be a useful instinct to have in pushing back against the humiliations of a discourse that marks the wealthy and successful as inherently praiseworthy and the poor as useless. In preserving some self-respect. Which in turn makes it easier to organise, and to defend each other’s interest rather than those of the wealthier class you’d like to be part of some day.

    I mean, when you have Joe the non-Plumbers making $40,000 a year ardently defending the right of those earning over $250,000 not to be taxed an extra cent, you have some real misplaced identification going on. One, I think, that partly results from a culture of shame in which someone making $40,000 feels like he should really be making much more, if he were a real man.

    I think the only community in the US that has created a culture of resistance of sorts against this discourse of humiliation, and built something of a counterculture, are African-Americans. That obviously has its downsides too… but still, if regular people would spend less time yearning for the grace of approval by the powerful, beautiful and wealthy and more time being proud of themselves and their communities, it would do wonders for equality…

    OK, I admit I don’t have much of a clue anymore about how I came here from there, so I’ll stop digressing now.