American Cutie

But it was also a reaction to several popular magazines’ reticence to criticize anything.

McSweeney’s, the magazine founded by the writer Dave Eggers, was disappointing to the founders of n+1 because of its “orientation toward childhood,” by which he meant the magazine’s Wes Anderson-like devotion to being a cabinet of curiosities.

Then there was McSweeney’s child, The Believer, founded to erase snark, and written to bring out its own enthusiasms rather than to find things to tell its readers not to read.

“When we launched, it seemed like they were the ideal representatives of a certain kind of literary position, which states that (1) reading, in any form, is good, that writing is good, that literature is good; (2) all these things are imperiled, and therefore (3) that anything done in the service of these things is good. We disagree with all three parts of that, even No. 2. And we’ve said so a number of times,” Mr. Gessen said.

Years on, that dispute is still largely about procedure. Between The Believer and n+1, you will be hard-pressed to find a disagreement of substance. Their questions are not ones of policy but of best practices: What is the point of criticism? What is the purpose of writing? Is there any way of telling whether something is good or bad? What do you do with the bad stuff, anyway?

In this it is unlike other literary disputes of the past—Marxism versus the New Criticism, say; the founding beliefs of T. S. Eliot’s The Criterion or the swiftly tilting politics of the Partisan Review.

But it is like this year’s Democratic primary. That is, once you get past the war, on which everyone is pretty much agreed, the only active question is, what’s politics for anyway?

It’s often been said that Barack Obama is an “empty vessel,” and to mix the metaphor in the common way, that things are then projected onto him. But when an aesthetic movement takes on a political cause—think of all those rich young lady Fabians in England!—emptying the vessel and projecting is all just part of the operation.

In terms of policy, Barack Obama seems to offer much the same answer any thinking Democrat would who has watched the depredations of the legacies of Bill Clinton, the Warren and Burger courts and, yes, F.D.R., under the current administration.

“We all agree that at this defining moment in our history, a moment when we are facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril, a dream that feels like it’s slipping away for too many Americans, we can’t afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush’s third term,” Mr. Obama told his supporters in his victory speech in North Carolina. “We need change in America. And that’s why we will be united in November.”

In other words, it’s a repair job. By “we,” he means Democrats. And by unity, he means to say that, on the most important points, Democrats all agree.

So why Obama, then?

“Yes, we know what’s coming,” he told the crowd. “I’m not naïve.”

No, he’s not. Maybe today’s Cuties will forgive him for that, or find a way to gloss over it. Maybe the Obama Oval Office can still feel indie even after the first incident forces him to choose between upsetting Palestinians or upsetting Israel; organizing trade with China and protesting Tibet; saving the economy or offering middle-class taxpayers a break. Like Iron Man—a movie with a big indie heart and a giant budget and record-breaking box office.

On second thought, scratch that. I just want to tell you all to have babies and be happy and not get sucked into that Washington thing.