Barack Obama is many things. Dedicated senator. Devoted husband and father. Adept orator. President-elect. Nerd.
It is, despite the historic significance of his election (and what that says about him and our country), that last one that I and my underground army of nerd brethren find most interesting. In presidential campaigns of the past, the electorate often struggles to find a reason — any reason — even to tolerate a political candidate. With Obama, it was remarkably easy — at least as far as us geeks were concerned.
Even if we weren't aware that Obama collects Spider-Man comics or that, upon meeting Leonard Nimoy for the first time, gave him the Vulcan hand signal, there was still a clear "one of us" vibe emanating from Obama, a vibe at odds with his charismatic rock-star image. But he pulled it off, and now, in addition to being our first post-racial chief executive, Obama will also our first post-nerd president.
His victory was the consecrating moment of a period that could be only described as the Year of the Nerd. Yes, 2008 was the year that the dashing high-school quarterback and the perfect prom queen got sand kicked in their faces by the freaks and geeks held previously under their thumbs. This rising subset is only beginning to realize its own strength. This was the year that a comic-book superhero movie grossed nearly a billion dollars. That video games, despite their relatively high cost in an economic shitstorm, seem to be recession-proof. That meathead pro athletes were using more and more Internet-based services. That world-music fans, trumpeting fringe performers from obscure countries, were vindicated. And that a Swiss shrine to Nerditude was unveiled, one that cost bazillions of dollars — and could have blown up the planet. (And still might?) That's sooo cool!
Hail to the geek
If, say, Dick Gephardt were to try to pass himself off as a Star Trek fan, nerds would sniff it out as cynical posturing in a nanosecond (a typically nerdy measurement of time). But Barack passes the sniff test — he's an honest-to-goodness nerd.
And he's about to be nerd-in-chief.
Of course, this national drifting toward what would be called, by the less enlightened, "losertown," did not start in 2008. But this is the year that popular culture all but openly embraced dorkdom, and much of that is thanks to Obama. He is, after all, our first president to offer an opinion on his favorite member of the X-Men. He is an intellectual, and he ran his campaign as though he didn't care who knew it, whether it was asking farmers about the price of arugula at Whole Foods or exhibiting his undisguised love of poetry (he's even composed a few poems himself).
His triumph in November was symbolic and inspirational for a lot of reasons, obviously, but it wasn't lost on many that this was the first win for the eggheads over the brutes in quite some time. And not only did the cerebral Obama claim a big victory, he did so by using his perspicacity as an asset. The bizarre cult of Ron Paul notwithstanding, Obama was the unofficial "candidate of the Internet," with more than three million Facebook users self-identifying as "fans." (Mind you, every aspect of the preceding sentence is dorky.)
Each day, aggregator sites like digg.com and reddit.com would be flush with new pro-Obama (or anti-McCain/Palin) articles. Someone even merged pro-Obama fervor with LOLcats and managed not to completely derail the campaign in the process. How nerdy is Obama? What other candidate would have ignited a firestorm of controversy by listening to music on — horrors — not an iPod but a Microsoft Zune?
Obama's victory for intellectualism was so sweet in part because it came at the hands of an opponent who, according to an eye-popping Rolling Stone article, had led a bratty, fratty life, who remained a gambler, and who couldn't even be bothered to learn how to use e-mail. But even worse was his running mate, Sarah Palin, who came to personify the concept of a high school–esque "jockocracy." Palin, whose biggest asset was supposedly the way she appealed to the common man, wound up with a 51 percent unfavorable rating just days before the election. Unpopular? Guess that makes her, too, a . . . nerd!
Live . . . from Juneau
Somewhat ironically, it was anti-nerd Palin's ascension that allowed another nerd to achieve her greatest prominence yet. Tina Fey's ready-made impersonation of Palin — Fey played the Alaska governor as a cross between Marge Gunderson from Fargo and the Miss Teen USA contestant who got stumped by the map question — helped propel Saturday Night Live to its best ratings in more than a decade. Better ratings naturally followed for her perpetually under-appreciated NBC sitcom, 30 Rock. Fey may not actually be a total nerd, but watching 30 Rock, it's hard not to wonder exactly how much autobiography is in her eccentric, nebbishy alter-ego, Liz Lemon. It doesn't really matter, though, whether or not Fey (like Lemon) actually was a Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master in college. She's a smart woman who's finding success with a character who quotes Bugs Bunny cartoons and used to be in a marching band — she gets claimed on the "nerd" side of the ledger. The fact that she writes, produces, and stars in the best comedy on television is simply another triumph for geekdom.