I am not in D.C. for the Inauguration so I'm forced to blog disconsolately from New York tonight. Today in The Daily Beast, Tina Brown talks about "What Obama's America Will Look Like." First she coos about how cute it is that he loves his Blackberry, but this is the part that interested me most:
The new president’s biggest potential opportunity for cultural impact is to reverse the anti-intellectual atmosphere that reached its apogee under Bush the younger. Obama’s John Coltrane cool allows him to get away with being a nerd. Being brainy, being a wonk, is allowable when the package is lean and effortlessly hip, with serious eyes and a movie-star smile. Obama could make it fashionable to be book smart after years of Hollywood depictions of the kid in the class with straight A’s and his nose in a book as a hopeless loser.
I'd argue the opposite. Nerds are already cool, and in fact, maybe Obama is president because nerds are already cool. As early as 2007, an NBC executive introduced the seaon's geek-heavy programming with the declaration, "Geeks are the new cool." We already worshiped technology long before Obama wouldn't part with his Blackberry, which is why we all think it's cute that he won't. We revere Steve Jobs as a wounded hero. (At PrayforSteve.com, solicitous fans can leave letters for him. My favorite: "Everybody clap (à la, Peter Pan & Tinker Bell), as we do believe in Steve Jobs!!!!") Being geeky was sexy long before Barack Obama and Jon Favreau.
There's a difference, also, between liking hip technology and having intellectual substance. (It's like the difference between having a lot of iPhone applications and actually reading books.) Brown is right that anti-intellectualism grew under Bush and perhaps under Palin too, as David Brooks and others persuasively argued. She's right that Obama seems thoughtful and smart.
But it will take a lot to reverse the idea that "constant reading, historical understanding and sophisticated thinking" should "bow down before the common touch," as Brooks put it. Reviving intellectualism in others means employing logos as well as pathos; in speech speak, Obama will have to move his listeners' minds as well as their hearts — and move them not just to listen to him but to inform themselves on their own, cultivate their own understanding and challenge his own understanding. So far, it's arguable that Obama moves hearts better than minds.
So yes, there's a "potential opportunity for cultural impact" and I want to see it, but it'll take a lot more than Blackberry love.
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