We are now officially in the age of the “selfie.”
Once the Oxford dictionaries named it as their 2013 Word of the Year, it’s has become as institutionally cemented in our lexicon as any other noteworthy catchphrase in our recent public consciousness.
But a battle for the human soul now begins over what, exactly, selfies say about us.
And, if you haven’t heard of the selfie—because you’re holed-up like a hermit—it’s the bizarre, yet why-didn’t-I-think-of-that phenomenon of the inverted smartphone camera turned on the person who uses it. Selfies let us join offenders of E! Channel narcissism and accidental stars who dare flash derriere and wrinkles when no one else will—our Kardashians, Rihannas and … Geraldo Rivera.
If it’s the word of the year—and even the Pope is in on it—then God help the rest of us in our quest for self-immortalization, because a nasty byproduct of all of this self-photo-snapping is that some folks become envious of others in our hyper-cosmetic society.
Perhaps when Microsoft Word catches up and puts a stop to that red spelling-error squiggly under “selfie,” maybe I’ll start paying closer attention to the metaphysical meanings behind the craze of self-photography.
That debate will continue, but what does it mean for us politically?
Selfies don’t bode well for our politics, nor do they translate in any healthy way for our public policy, governance and discourse. It’s bad enough that our politics are so personality-driven that we can’t get budgets, fiscal cliffs and debt ceilings right. Now here comes the selfie, right on cue, with another dose of self-indulgence.
We’re subjected to countless images of carefully manicured candidates taking pictures of themselves in what will be billed as random moments of authenticity—and paid for by the “Committee to Elect (insert name here).” Any day now, President Barack Obama will awkwardly weigh in, as he sometimes does with our pop-culture fixations, and he’ll stumble into a guilt-absolving joke about “my kids made me do it” when he posts a selfie for the White House blog.
It seems depressingly cynical, right? But I worry that the selfie craze, and the incessant self-absorption that it represents, only fuel the boundless egos of our political class. These days, elected officials busily craft optics when they should be crafting policy. Our Sens. Ted Cruzes and Sens. Rand Pauls throw outrageous rhetorical statements at the wall, only to see what sticks, while our Hillary Clintons and Sens. Cory Bookers only seem vested when their messaging and imaging is finely calibrated.
And since we are busily going about the business of finding the right selfie and cropping it for Instagram, we’re not really interested in holding them accountable. We just want to know if what they say or tweet sounds good—and if they look good saying it. But, does that really work for the folks they’ve been tasked to serve? It’s not, if you consider that less than 40 percent of those 18-29 are so turned off by the concept of “public service” that they don’t want to run for public office.
Selfies may be just another innocent fad for the times. But, they should prompt us to reflect heavily on the state of our politics.
Those who run things are but are a mere byproduct of the constituencies from which they hail. That they are embroiled in the nonstop erosion of responsible governance speaks volumes to who voted for them in the first place: the selfie-maddening masses. Which helps explain conservatives from red-meaty, mostly-white Congressional districts trying to detonate every government safety-net program, despite the fact that their constituents are, statistically, the most likely recipients.
They’re projecting an image, but not actually delivering for the folks in their districts. Meanwhile, we're so busy taking selfies that we're not paying attention to the landscape crumbling all around us.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. He’s only taken a National Hiking Day legsie of himself, and he posted it on Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.