Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Keeping Obamatide

My minor "bah humbug" on the Day the Earth Stood Still got a little attention here and over at Prawfs (a bit less so on the faculty blog), so I thought I'd follow up.

So what happened to Scrooge on Inauguration Day? Did he throw open the upper window and call on a young passerby to buy an inaugural turkey? Did he jump from his bed and proclaim it a "bright new day" and find himself to be "as merry as a school
boy ... and as ... happy as a drunken man!"

Well, no.

I thought Obama's speech was fine - within the broad confines of the genre. While I am sure that those who are strong Obamans thought it dazzling, it was not and perhaps intentionally so. I think he wanted to do two things. The first was to dampen expectations and the second was to emphasize the bad hand that he claims to have been dealt. Thus, the speech was hopeful but sober.

This lead to Michael Novak to call it "Burkean" in its restraint. You can find that. But you can also read it as eliding personal and collective responsibility.

As someone said, Obama's speeches are susceptible to projection because they are more about, as Hillary Clinton said, poetry than prose. Even when they are more concrete, they tend to be given to lawyerly nuance and qualifications and, of course, inaugural speeches are generally platitudinous. So I am hard pressed to come away from the speech with much of an impression, other than that then poetry was muted and not very memorable.

The election of an African American is, as I have said, a momentous event but it is one that tells us more about where we are than where we are going. In that sense, I think that Joseph Lowry's benediction - while well received by the partisans in the crowd - struck a false tone with its 60s era doggerel. I first heard that bit of folk poetry in 1970 on All In the Family and it was, I understand, a favorite of Elijah Muhammed. It may have been relevant then, it is less so today and, in fact, diverts our attention from the ways in which people may be left or fall behind today.


Terrence Berres said...

"Even when they are more concrete, they tend to be given to lawyerly nuance and qualifications..."

Yet there was that reference to "the Muslim world...".

Anonymous said...

you can also read [Obama's Inaugration Speech] as eliding personal and collective responsibility


Let's see Obama eliding personal responsibility in his speech:

"those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly"

Wow, you're right! Totally elided -- except for the repeated explicit emphasis on it.

Now let's watch how he also elides collective responsibility from his speech:

"At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans."

"In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things"

"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

"For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids..., raise health care's quality and lower its cost... harness the sun and the winds and the soil... transform our schools and colleges and universities... All this we can do. And all this we will do."

Bingo again! Not the faintest mention of the collective responsibility of Americans to accomplish important tasks.

So, just for the sake of the entertainment value, let's see this one more time:

you can also read [Obama's Inaugration Speech] as eliding personal and collective responsibility

No, actually, I couldn't. But I'm sure not surprised that you could.

Billiam said...

"For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth."

Immigrants came here to improve their lives, not to "toil for us". They came because life here was better than where they were.

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works ‚ whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified"

Sorry, governments job is not to take care of us.

Two quotes from Thomas Jefferson come to mind, that we have ignored for some time.



Emily said...

Clutch: Nailed it on the head.

Billiam: Sorry, governments job is not to take care of us.

That's not what he (or others with similar opinions) is saying. There's a big difference between government trying to give things to people, and government making sure that people have a fair opportunity to seek out and earn good treatment.

For instance - Left to their own devices, we've seen what kind of service the health care industry doles out, and at what price. That is, millions without, many more bankrupted by. The health of our people shouldn't be based solely on a profit-driven model. It should be based on the common good, too. And sometimes, to get that out of any universally important industry, you need solid government regulation and assistance.

Sam Sarver said...

Due respect, Professor, but can you imagine John McCain giving a half-decent inaugural address? Because I can't. Why? Because every time he gives a major speech, it ends with him shouting the same paragraph: "Stand up! Stand up and fight! Fight with me! Fight against the special interests and lobbyists! We're Americans and we never surrender!" Ad infinitum, ad nauseum. I don't expect you to think Obama's speeches are great, because I know you disagree with the majority of the content, but at least they're listenable.

Moreover, I thought the knock on government was always that it didn't reward innovation, whereas the private sector always does, because the market demands it. Yet, where has the innovation gone in Detroit? I'm not saying we need to nationalize, only that perhaps some of the assumptions made about big government always been evil need to be revisited. Besides, if not for big government, and the outbreak of the Second World War (which further increased the size of the federal government), the Great Depression probably would not have ended until quite a while later than it did. Or does your side care to maintain an argument that somehow, someway, the private sector would have dug us out of that hole?

And where were all the principled small-government conservatives talking about personal responsibility for the last eight years? I know you aren't a big fan of the unprecedented growth of government under Bush 43's watch, Professor, but it seems like a whole lot of Republicans who didn't share your consistency are suddenly coming out of the woodwork and crying foul when Obama has the audacity to propose doing exactly what Bush did. Surely you and I can agree that an act is not made more objectionable simply because a different person is doing it.

And Emily is exactly right in making this implicit argument: Who would you rather have deciding whether or not you can get health care: An employee of a corporation ultimately in it to make a profit, whether or not that works for you, or a government employee ultimately accountable to elected officials? If you say neither, I can't say I blame you, but at least the government employee isn't explicitly required by his shareholders to maximize income and minimize costs.

But my biggest problem with this post is one people so far seem to have missed: "...the second was to emphasize the bad hand that he claims to have been dealt." Claims? Really? Are you implying he doesn't really have it that bad? Let's see: Two wars, two countries being rebuilt, an economy in a deep recession, unemployment rapidly approaching double digits, a sullied national reputation abroad, a camp full of prisoners we may not be able to prosecute at all, and the national debt above $10 trillion (it was at $6 trillion when Bush took office). Oh, and no one wants their taxes to go up one iota to pay for any of it. I think that objectively qualifies as a bad hand.

I understand the purpose of this post is to try to engage what you see as the overoptimistic attitude many people have towards President Obama and government in general. You'll hear no disagreement from me over whether or not that phenomenon exists. But you'd be mistaken to assume that applies to all Obama supporters. Most of us would be satisfied with a government that does what it supposed to do, rather than one that solves all our problems, which isn't possible anyway. This, as Clutch wisely points out, was the thrust of Obama's speech.

Oh, and Billiam: When he said "for us," he mean "us" as in their descendants. And you might not want to say respond to the explicit reference to slavery ("endured the lash and whip") with: "Immigrants came here to improve their lives, not to 'toil for us'. They came because life here was better than where they were." At best, it makes you look insensitive, because I'm pretty sure life in America for slaves was, in fact, not better than the lives they had before they were enslaved, unless you want to appeal to the White Man's Burden. But the point remains, Obama was saying that they worked so that their children and their children's children could have a better life. I don't think there's much arguing with that.

Anonymous said...

Ebenezer, as the above posts demonstrate, you need to be visited by a few ghosts, for a little reality check. Maybe Clutch and Sam Sarver (Obamatide Present? Obamatide Past?) serve that role.

Billiam said...

Sam, I speak plainly. Had I intended to speak of slaves, I would have. My ancestors came as indentured servants.

Emily, I disagree. Government has been taking over more and more areas that they have no business in. Oversight, yes. Government run and paid for? No way.

Anonymous said...

The Reverend Joseph Lowery led the Montgomery bus boycott. He led the march from Selma to Montgomery. And now, at the age of 87, he has lived to see the inauguration of an African-American man as president of the United States. Unlike Reverend King, he made it to the mountaintop -- as he acknowledged in saying "as we leave this mountaintop." His words about black, brown, yellow, red, and white harken back not to the 1960's, but further back -- to the lyrics of Big Bill Broonzy's "Black, Brown, and White," recorded in 1951, but undoubtedly older. Those words look forward to the day where, as Rev. King said, we will be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character. We're not quite there yet, but one big step closer. Lowery's benediction invoked the spirit of fellowship and inclusiveness. It was right on. What can I say? It is so tone deaf to carp.

Anonymous said...


Your attempt to lower expectations for the president is cute, but the argument that "We had a lot of stuff to do" isn't going to carry much water when voters don't see progress come reelection time.

Anonymous said...

"...the second was to emphasize the bad hand that he claims to have been dealt."

Yes, that bit was completely through the looking-glass, too. I just couldn't be bothered after the crass confabulation of "eliding responsibility".