The “selfie” and its most controversial subcategory, the funeral selfie, briefly dominated online conversations earlier this year — narcissism or reclamation? Callousness or an honest expression of grief? Whatever they represent about American society, it’s now being reflected at the highest levels of our government. AFP / Getty photographer Roberto Schmidt captured President Barack Obama snapping a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, along with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. It wasn’t the only controversial decision of the day: elsewhere at the ceremony, Obama also shook hands with Cuban president Raul Castro, a rare and symbolic gesture that brought opprobrium from conservatives and speculation about a potentially warmer relationship between the countries, though the administration denied planning it beforehand.
The selfie, granted, bears superficial similarities to its outwardly facilitated counterpart, the “photograph.” But as we’ve realized over the past several months, it’s also a symbol of everything wrong with ourselves, our teens, our internet, and our society. As the world grieves for Mandela, it’s not surprising that Obama is attempting to boost his self-worth by setting what should be a fleeting moment in stone, asking for affirmation of his existence while desperately searching for the ties that he lacks in real life — and in the process, alienating those who love him. Even a death as important as this is now so dull that it must be a thing to be filed away with an Instagram filter and a few vapid twitterings, we must conclude, and the pleasing visage of Bono has no meaning to former leader George W. Bush without a stream of hearts and comments. It is, perhaps, the tragic irony of our own connected age.
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