Matt Welch points out that President Obama seems to be working a theme—using three recent speeches to rail against the hyperconnection of our Internet age: a commencement address at the University of Michigan on May 1, a remark at the White House Correspondents’ dinner on May 2, and another commencement address, at Hampton University on May 9.
You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations—none of which I know how to work—information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy. . . .
With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, and on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult, at times, to sift through it all; to know what to believe; to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s not. Let’s face it, even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I’ve had some experience in that regard.
Welch rightly notes the political purpose here: “While hypocritical,” he writes, “this critique is strategically clever. For those still inclined to believe it, the message reinforces Obama’s fading image as a truth-telling, above-it-all academic. . . . And for the straight-journalism types this is a soothing tongue-bath from the Sensible Centrist in Chief that reinforces their own self-pity/importance and gives them even more motivation to go after the real lying liars: The ones who noisily and hyperbolically oppose the policies of the most powerful man on earth.”
And Ann Althouse correctly notices the peculiarity of a man warning us against “diversion” as he leaves for the diversion of a golf game.
But there’s more here—particularly in its echoes of the kind of big-think that Christopher Lasch used to do.
Everyone who reads Lasch seriously falls for a while under his spell—as well they ought, for a book like The Culture of Narcissism is a powerful experience, and its author was a brilliant man.
But is big-think what we actually want from our presidents? Jimmy Carter once read Christopher Lasch—and the result was his famous Cutural Malaise speech (in which, as it happens, he never actually used the word malaise; that came from the pollster Pat Caddell’s later—but sadly accurate—description of the speech).
By the time of that 1979 speech, Carter was deep in his presidency and had an approval rate below 30 percent. The world was ready to mock him, and it did.
Obama is earlier in his presidency, and the political turn he gave his words offers a self-congratulatory way for his listeners in the media to ignore the Carteresque echoes.
But make no mistake—this recent Obama stuff is genuine, old-fashioned big-think: “information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.”
It may be smart-ish. It may even be true-ish. But it’s not presidential. As Jimmy Carter learned after he tried to be Christopher Lasch, the job of cultural gadfly and the job of leading the Free World just aren’t the same.