Last month, the Oxford English Dictionary named “selfie” the word of the year. If you are blissfully unaware, a “selfie” is a photo taken of yourself by yourself, holding a smartphone at arm’s length pointed towards your face. It is then typically shared on a social media site such as Facebook, perhaps with a brief comment or caption, as a means of letting your friends and followers know that you are, say, attending some fabulous event (which they aren’t), are looking particularly fine, and are perhaps surrounded by a fun-loving group of attractive people (ideally of the opposite sex).
If you think this trend is symptomatic of the malignant narcissism infecting our culture, you’re not alone. One brave American recently started a blog called “Selfies at Funerals,” documenting people who use this uniquely postmodern expression to put themselves inappropriately at the center of an important event that is not about them, or otherwise act inappropriately at a somber occasion.
Like most social media trends, selfies—let alone selfies at funerals—are predominantly taken by teenagers, teenagers-at-heart, and those who have a particularly exaggerated sense of self-regard. Regular readers of The Scrapbook should not be surprised to learn that the president of the United States falls within the latter category, most recently evidenced by the fact that Obama was caught posing for a selfie with Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark and her U.K. opposite number, Prime Minister David Cameron, at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. In fact, Obama generally appeared to be smiling and laughing a lot in the presence of Thorning-Schmidt, who happens to be very attractive. The New York Post called the photos of Obama and Thorning-Schmidt “flirty,” a judgment that casual observers might be inclined to agree with. Adding to the human drama is that in many of the photos, Michelle Obama appears to be giving her husband a serious case of stinkeye.
It may be too much to assume that the president was flirting with Thorning-Schmidt—pictures can be deceiving—but the photos do seem to convey a first lady none too happy that her husband is not exhibiting the sense of decorum one would expect of a head of state at a funeral. And if that’s the case, The Scrapbook is pleased just this once to affirm its solidarity with Michelle Obama.
The Danish prime minister has since announced that she will not be releasing the selfie she took. Perhaps it dawned on her that it was not a good idea for three important world leaders to draw attention to themselves while everyone else reflected on the death of a head of state whose accomplishments will dwarf theirs.
There’s also another unflattering sub-text to the unfortunate tableau vivant at Mandela’s funeral. As it happens, Thorning-Schmidt is the daughter-in-law of Neil Kinnock. As you might recall, Kinnock was the British Labour party leader whose tale of a hardscrabble childhood in Welsh coal-mining country was plagiarized by Barack Obama’s vice president in 1987 during the first of Joe Biden’s embarrassing presidential campaigns. If we lived in a world where shame and honor meant anything, that would have put the kibosh on Biden’s career. Instead, the Mandela selfie seems to neatly encapsulate how our political elites grow more shameless with each passing year.
Following the Mandela service, the “Selfies at Funerals” blog was shuttered with a post headlined “Obama has taken a funeral selfie, so our work here is done.”
Alas, our Sisyphean, if self--assigned, task of chronicling the other missteps of the narcissist-in-chief will no doubt keep this page occupied for a few more years.