A Gen X view of Obama as fiction

Obama RallyWhen I first saw Obama on the Internet I wiped away my tears and thanked God no one was in the room. Why did I cry? Perhaps I was so bereft of optimism that the smallest amount moved me. I was hungry for hope and his words felt like cool water pouring over a parched world.

One of the reasons Obama’s rhetoric sparked my attention was because of the experiences of my generation, Gen X.

For some, if not all of us, world affairs affect our soul in ways we are not always aware of. This is where epic literature springs from–the connections and disconnections between the inner life and the polis. Many in my generation were born to optimistic parents who survived or instigated the social revolution of the 1960s. The disconnect between what our parents told us was possible and the ‘reality’ that blasted from the media and in our daily life was like daily shock therapy and from an early age we were immediately suspicious of anyone who told us it was a wonderful world.

The possibility of nuclear winters loomed over our birth and youth. Then Reagan and Thatcher came along and there was no-one to hang our youthful hopes upon. In adolescence the Berlin Wall fell–an ecstatic, even hopeful historical event–but imagine the confusion when our left wing parents cry with joy as each brick is passed down the line. That was it. But the hard left was dead and its fans were completely, and understandably, relieved. There were no good guys and bad guys anymore.

Then, as young adults, the media told us we were pathetic, apathetic, cynical, spoilt and apolitical. They branded us a whinging generation who harboured poisonous resentments and were not liable to contribute to the wider social discourse. This doesn’t make you confident your small voice will ripple through the polis with authority.

Some of us marched off to University thinking that’s where the action was; only to be told that there would be no more discourse because the great ideological battles had been fought and won. History was finished. Capitalism had triumphed and there was no bit of revolutionary activity or new thought that would stop its reign. Fukuyama told us that from here on in there were only ‘events’, not history and this was confirmed by the rest of the curriculum. Everything was post: post-feminism, post-modernism, post-Marxism, as if new thought had to be tacked onto its predecessors to give it any credit.

After the hard right, the bland triumphed. It felt like a certain kind of capitalism, a certain kind of man, a certain kind of ideology (that pretends it’s not an ideology) had prevailed and was permanent so we might as well take up bats and balls and exit from world history. No wonder our inner life felt depleted and starved.

And it got worse. Along came Howard and Bush; countries and worlds were divided. Wars that felt intuitively wrong were launched on the basis of ‘foolproof intelligence’. We tried to march against it: join the masses and let our voice be heard.

What happened? What was once centrist became a horror show. The binaries were back, with Muslims the new ghoul. ‘Events’ like Guantanamo Bay, detention camps and Abu Ghraib flashed on our screens nightly. It seemed nothing would stop this world from descending into a Hobbesian mess; life seemed solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But the bitterness obviously hadn’t hardened because an event came up on the horizon, lead by Oprah Winfrey and good old-fashioned American values–Obama - delivered by TV screens and Youtube.

Obama talked about faulty intelligence, dependence on oil, renewable energy, grassroots consultations, and how politics had become small and bitter. He talked about the power of diplomacy, and education and health care in a way that made me listen and believe he might just do something about it.

Obama says nothing new. Half of it is regurgitated from my parents’ generation and it still feels like spin; but he knows that the world, not just America, is thirsty for words like change and hope. In true ‘post’ style I found reasons not to like Obama, to distrust him and to reject the sentimentalism that often marks US rhetorical style. But I still hoped like hell that justice, including a mature comprehension of its nebulous difficulties, was central to his ambition and that my cynicism would be proven wrong.

David Foster Wallace wrote about the act of reading fiction: ‘This is nourishing: redemptive, we become less alone inside’. I dare not speculate on what he would have thought about an Obama victory. But on the day Obama was elected many of us felt nourished, redeemed and less alone.

Raised by television my generation learnt to distrust semiotics, so naturally I’m waiting to be told that Obama is a mirage. It’s all too good to be true, we say. Good men don’t get into power. How sad that our hope is contained; experience shows that a marketing horror show always lurks in the backstory. Obama’s term will be tested like none other in our lifetime. Declining American global power, an economy in tailspin, giant debts, global warming, a healthcare system in its death throes and overextended military commitments lie before him like a nightmare. A healthy democracy keeps its leaders on their toes, but I fear Obama faces insurmountable hurdles.

But for now it’s celebration time. I never would have thought I’d see a man with a name like Barrack Hussein Obama become president of the United States. Following Fukuyama's theory, the election of Obama may only be an ‘event’, rather than being central to the great clash of ideas: but it feels like history. If you see some Generation Xs out there in the street, smiling like drunk cats, forgive them their madness–it’s been a long time coming. We are letting our inner lives blend with the polis–all the way from a small village in Kenya to the biggest cities of America. We know it might all be fiction but like fiction; it makes us feel less alone inside.

Bronwyn LayBronwyn Lay lives with her family in rural France, over the border from Geneva. She is currently enrolled in a Masters of English Literature at the University of Geneva and is working on her first novel. Previously she worked as a legal aid lawyer in Australia with post-graduate qualifications in political theory.




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Existing comments

Only those with shorter vision have written off Gen X. Their reluctant demeanour is because they had no alternative with the dominance and infallibility of the Baby Boomers.

But they are now the street smart, life-experienced realists in a world that their predecessors have messed up. They will provide the leadership and the Millenniels will follow them to fix it up.

The election of Barrack Obama is a brilliant indicator that we are turning the corner - thanks to Gen Xs and Millennials.

And Bronwyn Lay is clearly another Gen X doing exactly the same thing in her given field. Thanks to her for a brilliant insight in the contemporary Gen X mind.
Eric Hodgens | 06 November 2008

Cynicism alone is a poor bedfellow.
Those of us like your parents who have lived long and seen much look beyond the immediate, media-driven hype. We too have seen and experienced horrors
We read, reflect, look at the big picture and remember that the cold war ended and the Berlin wall came down.
The world isnt just here and now....... it has a past and a future. I am still making a contribution to a better world by supporting compassionate issues as well as condemning evil.
It is a sheer joy to see Obama as President and the tearful pleasure of black Americans..they have waited along time

Judy | 06 November 2008

Two beautiful and insightful pieces of writing in Eureka Street today (this article and Jim McDermott on Obama), thank you so much for these.
Tony Kevin | 06 November 2008

Many of us, i feel, fall into the false belief that hope is manufactured by the human psyche. The Christian witness to the human spirit attests that hope is always alive within us and all things. Its existence does not depend on us, however relationships that live and breath it do.

Obama does not give anyone the hope we all need - his presence and eloquence mearly draws forth the hope always alive in all of us.

Many of us GenXers, i think, put our hope into a shoe box and stuck it uder the bed to gather dust. Many of us forgot about it being there. Obama has us on our knees at the foot of the bed, rummaging around under this bed for a forgotten shoe box.
Andrew McAlister | 06 November 2008

Hungry for Hope, this gifted woman writes. Let this apply to us all at all times. Congratulations on a Gen X voice we have not heard enough of. Christianity also has something to offer them. Obama seems messianic but he needs prayers, poor fellow, too heavy is the weight of expectation.
Molly Moran | 08 November 2008

Great article. You summed up the feelings of Gen X superbly.
Ralph Midnight | 20 March 2009


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