It seems not even the Wall Street collapse can sour the mood many Americans are feeling in the run-up to Barack Obama's swearing in Jan. 20. For some, the day couldn't come soon enough. The estimable Thomas Friedman in The New York Times exhorted readers Nov. 22, “[J]ust get me a Supreme Court justice and a Bible, and let's swear in Barack Obama right now!”
For those gearing up for the inauguration, there's plenty of gear to go around. On zazzle.com you can buy red-and-gold-stenciled Obama flats and psychedelic-looking buttons that scream “Obama is My Homeboy!”
Obama promised change, and America became a kind of Promised Land. Everyone wanted to participate in the Obama bacchanal. Even the Irish band, Hardy Drew and the Nancy Boys, produced a ditty straight from County Limerick that goes, Toor a loo, toor a loo, toor a loo, toor a lama, there's no one as Irish as Barack O'Bama.
I can't help but feel there's something unreal about it all. Or ironic.
Six days after the November election, Joan Didion, who's been called our poet laureate of disillusion, delivered a short talk to a gathering of intellectuals assembled at the New York Public Library to discuss Barack Obama's recent victory. Didion, known for her cold-eyed ironies, described an “inexpressible uneasiness” over the direction national events were taking. She was less troubled by candidate Obama, she said, than by the reaction he evoked among many Americans. She noted the frequent use of adjectives such as transformational and inspirational that had been tossed out by people — particularly young people — to describe the president-elect, and she likened this new vocabulary to the “spirit of a cargo cult let loose in the land.”
Americans were “drinking the Kool-Aid,” Didion worried. “Irony was now out. NaivetAc, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in.”
Didion's speech, remarkable for its frankness, caused quite a stir.
The next day the blogs were choked with mixed response. One lady wrote, “Rapture is not her thing.” Another blogger accused Didion of “slacktavism.” A New York liberal lamented, “She was kind of a downer.” And this doozy, from a conservative: “The single women who voted [for Obama] are going to wake up one morning soon and realize they're still fat.”
Had the disillusioned Didion touched a nerve?
The New York Times ran a post-Didion reflection piece suggesting that perhaps some Americans had grown afraid of appreciating the folly of taking things at face value while others preferred the warm glow of expectation. The Times quoted the comedian Gilbert Gottfried who bemoaned his gun-shy peers who were “afraid of spoiling the love fest.” Perhaps irony was the stuff of desperation, and we were no longer desperate.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us irony exists where there is a discrepancy between what is expected and what is the actual status quo. But what happens to irony when the status quo spells rapture?
Irony gets little attention in a world where we get what we want. We don't need books when we're happy. We don't need relief when we're relieved. As the essayist William Hazlitt once said, we prefer a world “full of amazement and rapture, and no thought of going home, or that it will soon be night.”
Was Didion, whose collection of complete nonfiction writings is entitled, “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” being ironic?
The 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer lamented a utopia where all the turkeys fly around ready-roasted and lovers are easy to find and easy to keep. In such a world, he wrote, men would beat each other up — or else hang themselves. The polar opposite of disillusionment is boredom, the parody holds, and one might suspect that writers such as Didion are as uncomfortable with boredom as they are with happiness.
I wondered what Didion would have thought of my Facebook friends who posted their ecstatic prophesies on Election Night as the results trickled in. One such friend, a journalist standing in Chicago's Grant Park, typed from his Blackberry: “[H]istory is being made. People weeping, dancing, thinking of those who came before us, thinking of our children.” Another wrote, “Free at last. Now we can count our blessings!” I hate to be ironic … but it all sounded like Tim LaHaye, the author of the Left Behind series of novels.
According to my small Facebook circle, we'd cracked heaven's vault. Salvation had come. Magazines and newspapers would now be filled with photographs of parents holding babies decked out in Obama gear. On the street outside my Fan apartment, crowds of teenagers in Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirts whooped and hollered like it was one giant lollapalooza.
It seemed that America had wanted a savior, and now we were getting one.
A week after the election I had lunch with a friend from Santiago. I asked him what Chileans thought of our new president. He chose to answer my question with one of his own: “Do you guys really think all the world is now with you?”
The election happened after the Wall Street collapse, but Americans still seemed hell-bent on partying like it was 1999. As one celebratory blogger put it: “We were allowed to take joy in a moment that saw some redress for what had come before.” Did she also mean this to include our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the budgetary crisis and unemployment claims at their highest levels in two decades?
No matter. Obama was in for the rescue, and there was no downer that could curb the rush of expectation. The American essayist Agnes Repplier once said that irony brings a deeper and less friendly understanding. Who wouldn't prefer rapture to the cool awareness that perhaps some were celebrating a little too much too soon?
On the Wednesday after Election Day, I was pleased to see that some of my Facebook friends had returned to their little selves. Suddenly gone were the revelatory postings. Back were the little disillusionments that keep Barnes and Noble's shelves stacked. Tony was “imagining Whirled Peace” while trying to figure out “what to do about the neighbor's dog.” Louise wanted to “postpone the working life” but was “happy to have one.” Matthew wondered if “snowflakes really were bigger in New York City.” Laura wondered if Obama “had bad breath in the morning.”
Now that was ironic. S
William Spruill is a lawyer and writer living in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.