The Real People

Maybe you’ve seen this astonishing Obama ad featuring Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue talking about all the incredible women she gets to meet including Sarah Jessica Parker, and urging you to enter a contest to have dinner with Wintour, “Sarah Jessica,” and the Obamas.

It’s pretty amazing. I find it deeply creepy, but I’m suspicious of my own reaction. Dumpy academic guys in their 50s are not the audience for either Vogue  or “Sarah Jessica.” I’ve  always found Vogue to be puzzling and incomprehensible: I can’t tell the ads from the text; I can’t find the “there.” But again, like most late middle aged guys, the world of fashion is manifestly not my thing. Neither is fundamentalism or yoga, and both of those things have audiences in the millions as well.

Anna Wintour is the head of a fashion empire of enormous economic importance, and he magazines are psychically important to millions of people.  She creates jobs. She wields power. She’s an entrepreneur. Sex and the City, for reasons that escape me entirely, was an extremely popular show with an audience in the millions.

Predictably the press and the GOP have seized on it as an example of elitism and being out of touch, both of which are probably true, but both of which are always true for all politicians at the national level.

If the Obama campaign had filmed the owner of a machine shop in Ashtabula, a middle aged guy in a carharrt shirt, the press would see it as an example of being in touch with the real people. Never mind that the guy employes 50 people in an industry being eroded away by CNC machines: he would fit our vague image of the real people while Anna Wintour, with her vast audience, would not.

The point is the immense power of the “phantom public,” the imaginary “real America” to which we are all required to kowtow. Who is this “real America?” It’s generally imagined as midwestern, or southern: it generally hunts and fishes; it doesn’t have that much education; it’s working class; pickup trucks are often invoked; flags wave in golden sunsets; it’s “joe the plumber,” the entirely imaginary character which a real person was asked to embody by the McCain campaign.

John William Ward, in his classic book Andrew Jackson, Symbol for an Age pointed out how Jackson’s election initiated a frenzy of real people-ism. My favorite example, one of my favorite quotes in US history, comes from Henry Clay’s effort to claim log-cabin credibility for himself:

GENTLEMEN, it did not happen to me to be born in a log cabin; but my elder brothers and sisters were born in a log cabin… its remains still exist. I make to it an annual visit I carry my children to it and teach them the hardships endured by the generations which have gone before them.

I’m sure the kids must have loved that. And of course Clay was much more likely to be entertaining lobbyists than trecking out to a log cabin.

As we all know on the slightest consideration, “real people” are just as varied, just as diverse, as people like  me, e.g. “fake people;” just as varied and diverse as anyone.

The reflexive reaction to the Wintour ad points out how mannered and scripted and riven with cliches our political discourse is. Nobody is in touch with real people because nobody is “the real people” and at the same time, everybody is the real people. Obama is out of touch, Mitt Romney is out of touch. “The real people” is a phantasm created out of political narrative.

Perpetuating the idea of “the real people,” with whom one is or is not in touch, is a tool for letting style and theatrics replace real substantive change. It’s been a disaster for most Americans, enabling elites to aggregate wealth to an extent not seen since the 1890s. This is the key problem–the “real American” crap is a soothing story told to a delusional, suffering  patient

But I till find Anna Wintour alarming. Why is that? Well partly, it’s straight up sexism. Partly it’s the reflexive idea that fashion is silly and trivial. And partly it’s the degree to which my imagination has been colonized by the fantasy of the “real American.”

One Comment

  • I have to agree. There are “real people,” and you can find them at the DMV. In other words, that’s where one encounters all of us. Probably doesn’t make for a very good campaign ad, and so I’ll get back to my day job.

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