Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Day Obama Won

"The Day John McCain Lost the Election"-- This was the headline of a recent Slate article. The body of the article revealed the position that after of the events of September 24, 2008, McCain was toast. That was the day that he "temporarily suspended" his campaign to attend to the economic crisis, only to emerge from Washington and resume campaigning with nothing accomplished and nothing to show.

While this certainly was a significant moment in campaign '08, I think it overlooks "The Day Barack Obama Won the Election," which was actually a little over seven years prior. September 11, 2001, to be exact.

Of course, this defies the conventional wisdom that 9-11 was politically advantageous to the Republicans. To be sure, the GOP got a lot of short term benefit and political capital as the party perceived to be better equipped to prevent a re-occurrence of this tragedy. But I believe that when assessing the impact of that day on not just American politics, but American culture as a whole, we can apply a corollary to "Amara's Law," which states that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

While 9/11 had immediate tangible effects on geopolitics worldwide, the lasting effect and legacy of that day might turn out to have less to do with foreign policy than with undermining a seemingly immobile cultural paradigm--which I will call, for lack of a better term, "The Age of Irony." I use this term to describe a general postmodern sensibility that anything and everything can be subverted through detachment and mockery, that such subversion is desirable, that the only real virtue is sophistication, which is defined as the absence of earnestness, or taking oneself too seriously, which is the only real sin. In other words, this was the the outlook on life that made Seinfeld the highest-rated TV show of the 1990s.

This paradigm was seemingly ensconced as dominant, the teleological culmination of all previous paradigms, precisely because it eschewed teleology as a legitimate phenomenon. Whereas worldviews were previously supplanted by other worldviews in the name of "progress," this particular worldview declared progress a dated concept, and declared itself outside of (and hence above) such considerations.

What was always evident but never acknowledged by purveyors of this philosophy was that progress can only be deemed deficient if a society has matured sufficiently enough to allow introspection. In other words, such a philosophy is only hatched after an incubation, and security is necessary for incubation. Thus, only areas of the world which achieved some degree of economic and political stability embraced The Age of Irony.

With this in mind, it becomes easy to see how irony is not a transcendence of progress, but a resistance to progress. Change can bring about positive or negative results, and if the status quo is acceptable, change might not be worth the risk. And change requires passion, so irony, the absence of passion, serves as a check on change.

But irony as a resistance mechanism is only workable insofar as people are secure. Once security, or even the perception of security, is altered, all bets are off. And all this is a very long-winded way of saying that the pundits were right in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: Irony was dead.

It may have taken a few years for the full effect of this truth to materialize, but it was fully evident on election night. Many people were quoted as saying they never thought they'd see a black president in their lifetime. However, I had a different reaction. I never thought I'd see people dancing in the streets after a presidential election in this country in my lifetime. That was something that happened in newly formed democracies, not in the "too cool" USA.

So while analysts debate whether Obama is a "post-racial" president, I perceive him more as a "post-ironic" president. He was elected because he was the candidate most compatible with the new epoch. I don't doubt that the fact that he looks different from all previous presidents played a part in this, but I also think his relative youth was a big factor. When a paradigm shift has occurred, the youngest are in best position to both understand and benefit from it. And of course, his oratorical and rhetorical skills were in complete harmony with the spirit of the age. "Yes We Can" would have been as open to mockery as "I feel your pain" was 16 years ago, or "A kinder, gentler, nation" was 20 years ago. But in the post-ironic era, it worked brilliantly.

Yet in the final analysis, we will have a president with the middle name Hussein largely because of the actions of Middle Eastern terrorists. So perhaps irony isn't completely dead, after all.


Blogger Jason said...

I think the reason McCain got his political booty handed to him was his running mate. She turned it into a circus act when she went on SNL and that is what steered me away from that combination

2:56 PM  
Blogger Tong Vue said...

Palin was not much liked from the start. I don't think that is why the american people favor Obama. McCain, whether he knew it or not, was not displaying character throughout the whole presidential debate. It was only until he lost that I was able to see his true colors. I think if McCain was being himself from the start, I think he could have beaten Obama. Still, I'm happy Obama won :)

8:17 PM  
OpenID said...

Good thoughts. Here are some random ones of my own:

1) Not sure what Hussein has to do with middle eastern terrorists. Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator, but he didn't have anything to do with 9/11.

2) Tong, I don't think McCain could have won if he continued to be the McCain of old, unfortunately. Most of the base of the Republican party didn't like or trust him (which is why he chose Sarah Palin in a desperation move) and when he tried to win those in his own party over, he alienated independents. He was really stuck between a rock and a hard place, and he only changed his tune in the final days because he knew he was going to lose no matter what.

3) I'm not sure you can pick any one thing that caused Obama to win, but I've heard a number of times it was when McCain said "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" after Wall Street was tanking. After that all Obama had to do was run out the clock.

4) Regarding irony, I'm not sure it translates so neatly into "resistance to progress." The Onion and John Stewart and Stephen Colbert -- all still relevant today -- have extremely strong opinions that are cloaked in irony. I think in those cases irony helps to make a strong message or a bitter truth more palatable.

5) I cried during Obama's acceptance speech. But I'm also kind of a baby.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

trainingwithteecycles, #4 is a semantic point. I wish that there was a better way to differentiate "irony" as a philosophical or cultural paradigm from "irony" as a rhetorical device.

Of course, I conflated the two applications myself so I could have a clever closing paragraph.

Speaking of that paragraph, don't be disingenous-- that name had been associated with a perceived threat from the Middle East, and however you define "irony", it is ironic that another threat from the Middle East would help to create a climate in which an individual bearing that name would become entrusted with defending us from threats from the Middle East. Or something.

7:23 PM  
Blogger thesincitymama said...

OK Azor, I just read this 3 times. You ARE the teacher. Are you saying that since 9-11, we as a culture have reduced our ability to benefit from comedic relief? I guess that makes sense, because it's not possible to "lighten up" such grave circumstances as what went on that day. Perhaps in the past we just couldn't conceive of a circumstance in which laughter could not make things better.

1:15 AM  
Blogger Azor said...

Actually, not really. I'm saying that instead of finding humor in mocking the absurdities of life, we now find humor in things that are funny.

2:52 AM  
Blogger Nanette said...

Like you, I was most struck by the image of people cheering, crying and hugging in the streets that momentous night. I never thought I'd see such a thing in my lifetime.

Azor, please forgive me for crashing in on your blog, which I didn't even know existed a mere half hour ago. I've been playing around with a new Facebook account and, just out of curiosity, decided to do a search for local members. And there you were!

You've got some impressive stuff here.

1:27 AM  

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