Virginia Postrel has a knack for changing the way people think about everyday phenomena. As editor of reason during the 1990s, Postrel predicted how Western enthusiasm for Marxism would, in the wake of communism’s collapse, transfer seamlessly to a top-down, regulatory brand of environmentalism. When the World Wide Web triggered the excitable imaginations of censorious legislators, she calmly explained that thick strains in both major political tendencies cling to the precautionary principle at the expense of liberating progress.
In The Future and its Enemies (1998), Postrel tossed aside the traditional left-right paradigm and posited a new post–Cold War divide between “dynamists” and “stasists,” in which the former championed choice and creativity and the latter clung to fear and control. In The Substance of Style (2003), she unpacked the economics of design and offered an appreciation of the Age of Aesthetics. And when she donated her own kidney to a woman on the organ waiting list in 2006, Postrel introduced tens of thousands of people to the once radical idea of organ markets in a way no academic treatise ever could. In each of these cases, those who encounter Postrel’s work will never look at the subject the same way again.
In 2009 Postrel launched a new website called Deep Glamour to probe (as its motto says) the “intersection of imagination & desire.” In a typically eclectic selection from March, the site discussed female body image, the universal hatred for Oscar speeches, the power of nonverbal rhetoric, and whether cuteness and glamour can co-exist. By changing the way we think about glamour, Postrel is helping us better understand, among other things, the allure and frustration of the current American president.
Now 50, Postrel has spent her post-reason career writing for The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and her popular personal blog (vpostrel.com/weblog). reason.tv producer Ted Balaker caught up with Postrel last February in Los Angeles, where she returned in 2007 after living for several years in Dallas. You can watch an edited video of this interview at reason.tv.
reason: Tell us about DeepGlamour.net.
Virginia Postrel: DeepGlamour.net explores glamour in its many manifestations. We write essays; it’s not a street fashion blog or something like that. My view of glamour is that it is not a style, it is not just about movie stars, and it is in fact a powerful form of visual rhetoric and persuasion, an imaginative process like humor that takes place between an audience and an object. It takes many different forms, depending on the audience and what they find glamorous—the cultural context.
reason: You’ve called glamour a beautiful illusion. A lot of people would say that describes President Obama.
Postrel: Yes, President Obama is a very glamorous figure. Glamour is a particular form of illusion. It’s an illusion that tells a truth about the audience’s desires, and it requires mystery and distance. During the campaign people projected onto Barack Obama whatever they wanted in a president or even in a country. Lying is usually a bad thing, but they would project onto him that he was lying about his positions because he secretly agreed with them: “Anyone that smart has got to be a free trader at heart. He’s just saying this to pander to those idiots. He can’t really mean it.”
You’ve seen, as he’s taken office and tried to govern, this back and forth where he is consciously or unconsciously trying to maintain his glamour—which requires a kind of distance from the political process so that people can continue to see him as representing them, regardless of their contradictory views—while actually trying to be president, which means you have to decide what to do about Guantanamo. You have to decide what health care bill you’re going to back. You have to decide all these things, and you’re going to make somebody disillusioned. This morning I saw that the former editor of Harper’s is about to write a book, The Mendacity of Hope, attacking Obama from the left. That’s the power and the downside of glamour.
reason: I’m going to read you something you wrote in an April 2008 column: “Obama’s glamour gives him a powerful political advantage, but it also poses special problems for the candidate and, if he succeeds, for the country.” Can you explain what you meant and how it has played out?
Postrel: The flip side of glamour is horror. People say, “Oh, there’s something he’s hiding. It must be something terrible.” They say “he’s secretly a radical Muslim” or “he’s secretly really born in Kenya.” As opposed to saying he has policies that are bad for the country. So that is one type of disadvantage.
The other is the one that I just talked about, which is that there is always this capacity for disillusionment. People have projected so much of what they think, including things that are sort of impossible, onto a glamorous figure, that when any flaw shows up the glamour is dispelled and suddenly he becomes terrible.
reason: Is glamour bad for a president seeking re-election, after people have realized he couldn’t possibly live up to all of our hopes?
Postrel: There were two glamorous presidents in my lifetime besides Obama. The first was JFK, and he dealt with this problem by getting killed. That was something I didn’t want to mention in an article about Obama. There were lots of problems in the Kennedy administration and lots of secrets that were being hidden that came out later. But because he was assassinated, the glamour stayed.
The other glamorous president of my lifetime, I would argue, was Ronald Reagan. And he managed to govern because he actually did stand for some specific ideas that brought a broad consensus of supporters together. He was still a figure of distance and mystery, to the extent that his authorized biographer, who followed him around for years, was unable to get at what the man was really like and wrote a semi-fictionalized biography with fake characters. But there was a core of identifiable beliefs that enabled him to govern and to maintain this sort of glamour, particularly to the Reagan coalition. Libertarians would say, “well, he’s really more libertarian,” and social conservatives would say, “well, he’s really more socially conservative.” But he did have specific beliefs that held those people together. They didn’t hold together so well after him.