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Interview: Virginia Postrel on The Power of Glamour


MR. DRISCOLL:  You mentioned that glamour doesn’t have to be a person, it can be a concept, as well. As you write in the Power of Glamour, for much of the 1950s and ‘60s, the future was made to appear glamorous. In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy was said to be leading us into the New Frontier. In 1966, Star Trek sent its first viewers into the Final Frontier. But at the end of the 1960s, even as man was landing on the moon, many on the left began to view the future not as glamorous, but as terrifying, with famine, overpopulation, and alternating doomsday global cooling and warming scenarios. Virginia, your first book was titled The Future and its Enemies; why does the future seem both glamorous and terrifying?

MS. POSTREL:  Well, the often the flip side of glamour is horror, because glamour has this mystery to it.  And it hides things.  So if you are inclined to like whatever the glamorous thing is, you will see it as positive.  If you are inclined to be suspicious, you may imagine that what's being hidden is not, you know, mundane not-so-great reality, but really something terrible.

And this happened -- I've written about this not as much in the book but in some articles -- I mean, this was one of the reactions to Barack Obama in 2008.  Barack Obama was an incredibly glamorous candidate to his supporters.  And a lot of the people who disliked him, instead of saying, you know, he is to the left, he has these policy problems, they saw him as something over-the-top bad, you know, secret Muslim.  He's born in Kenya.  There's all this kind of really, really, negative stuff around it.

So what happened with the future, I actually have quite a discussion toward the end of the book about the ways in which glamour was a way that the general public in a sort of bottom-up, nonsystematic way, came to understand the idea of modernity and the idea of the future, first, in the sort of inter-war period, in the early twentieth century, and then in the jet age, which would be the sort of Kennedy era.

And partly what happened was, we got the future to a large degree.  We got the future that was imagined in the 1939 World's Fair.  We got a lot of the future that was imagined in the fifties and sixties.  And it became -- when it became real, the disadvantages showed up as well, whether that was, you know, air pollution or, you know, car accidents, that sort of -- carcinogenic chemicals.  I mean, there was a certain element of truth to this critique.

But instead of just saying there's an element of truth to it, it became in certain minds, the flip side.  That is, it's not that the future is reality and therefore not as wonderful in all dimensions as we imagined, but rather that it's horrible and going to get worse.  And so you get this sort of dystopic vision of the future.