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Monday, January 19, 2009

An Inaugural Scrooge

Paul's post on the iinaugural spectacle prompts me to confront my own reaction which is, for the most part, one of bemusement. It all strikes me as too much by half. 

Of course, the election of an African-American president is a significant event. I was not one of those who doubted that the U.S. would elect a black president. Contemporary racial bias seems to express itself in presumptions about people that we don't know. In a nation that has - for reasons that are lost on me - made Oprah its most admired person, the election of an African-American is not all that surprising.

But that doesn't make it any less momentous. As others have noted, Obama could not have been served lunch at many restaurants in North Carolina during the year he was born. Last fall, a majority of the state's electorate voted for him for President.

So that makes this inauguration special. In contemplating my own reaction, I also have to make allowance for the fact that I did not vote for Obama and do not welcome much of what I believe his administration will do. I understand, as well, that this type of transition is a time for us to engage each other with good will.

Paul suggests that the triumphalism of the inauguration might be justified as a celebration of the event and what it tells us about our democracy and racial progress. It is better, on this view, to see it as being about the event than about the man and his ideology.

While we can qualify our individual enthusiasm in this way (I am all about that), I don't think the social meaning of the event can be circumscribed in this way. The avalanche of Obama Inaugural geegaws and jingles; the starry eyes and breathy invocations of Hope, Change and New Day and whatever cannot help but be about the man and his ideology.

But who cares? Aren't I just refusing to be gracious in defeat? Isn't it OK to be optimistic about new leadership?

To some extent, I am and it is. But just as you can't separate politics from the celebration, you can't completely remove ideology from your reaction to it.

As a Burkean conservative, my expectations for politics are modest. One of my concerns about the Obama movement is that it places (in its rhetoric, if not in its specifics) excessive hope in politics and the state and, worse, does so by investing its personification with some post-ideological and extrapartisan wisdom.

I suppose that we will all come down to earth in a few days. But I think there should be some healthy skepticism about what is on offer. Political honeymoons are times when things get done. They are also times when mistakes are made. I would prefer a more subdued reception.

Cross posted at Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog and Shark and Shepherd.

Posted by Richard Esenberg on January 19, 2009 at 10:55 AM | Permalink


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"Skepticism [is]...the sine qua non of the Obama approach."

Anon 7:29,

I must have been following a different election.

Posted by: Aaron | Jan 20, 2009 12:28:17 PM

"something can be historic and have great symbolic importance without being "surprising."

And that is precisely what I said - that the election of the first black president was "no less momentous" for not being, at least in my view, surprising.

Posted by: Rick Esenberg | Jan 20, 2009 11:33:16 AM

Okay, but even if you weren't "surprised" (and clearly, many people, including people who are actually subjected to racism on a regular basis were, so emphasizing that point seems a little silly), something can be historic and have great symbolic importance without being "surprising."

Posted by: anon | Jan 20, 2009 11:14:03 AM

I'm done:

The point of the post was to comment on the inauguration and the reaction to it. If I wanted to fully explain why I thought that Obama's race would not prevent him from winning, I might have included African American cultural icons, public opinion polls, recent campaigns by African American candidates and what I have learned about racial voting patterns in defending voting rights litigation. It seemed to me that Obama could get what the Democrats normally do among whites and could mobilize a higher black turnout of which he would get something way north of 90%. That would make victory very possible.

I never said that I couldn't understand the "difference" between an entertainer and a president (although I would not characterize the esteem in which Oprah is held as being the same as, say, the popularity of Will Smith or Michael Jordan). I simply noted that the regard in which Winfrey is held and the extent to which a substantial portion of the population regards her as an opinion leader tells you something about the way in which attitudes have changed in a relatively short period of time. It is not the only data point, but it is a data point.

I don't miss Anon 7:29's point. For him or her, excitement about the inauguration is very much about politics and that will, of course, make it difficult for the event to be an occasion of unity for those who disagree.

Posted by: Rick Esenberg | Jan 20, 2009 9:25:27 AM

P.S. - get off my lawn, you kids!

Posted by: a | Jan 20, 2009 8:43:48 AM

What you and Paul are missing is that a great many people are truly and quite rationally elated with this transition. A large majority not only were unhappy with Bush but believed, correctly, that his presidency has been disastrous - certainly the worst since Nixon and even worse along many reasonable measures. For the first time in a very long time a true urban dweller has been elected president - an intellectual, a pragmatist, a "yankee," and, though it may not have surprised you, an African American.

A great many of us feel like celebrating. I'm sorry if some folks don't like that. What I resent is the implication that we, the celebrators, are caught up in some sort of unreflective, ideological fervor. We're not naive enough to think there won't be bumps in the road or that Obama will be able to solve all of the problems Bush has had a hand in creating. We are indeed "healthy skeptics," but we are at the very same time hopeful for better days. Skepticism and pragmatism are, contra Bush and just about every other elected Republican, the sine qua non of the Obama approach. I fail to see what's wrong with celebrating this hope and our patriotism.

(Indeed, after the spectacle of this and the past few Republican National Conventions, not to mention the fall's McCain and Palin rallies, with their knee-jerk, infantile version of patriotism as giving into fear and authority on full display, I find it bizarre to train one's sights on people showing up to celebrate an undeniably historic inauguration.)

Posted by: anon | Jan 20, 2009 7:29:22 AM

I don't understand how his election shows that you are correct. It is true that we now have a black president. But your claim was that the election of a black president was not *surprising*, and the reason you gave was that an African-American entertainer has great popularity in the United States. The United States has had popular and prominent African-American entertainers for many, many years. They have certainly shaped public attitudes, often for the better. But I find it ignorant, perhaps willfully so, of the history of this country to suggest that the existence of African-American entertainers implies that people are willing to elect a black person as president. I honestly have nothing else to add to this conversation if you cannot understand the difference between a white person accepting a black person as an entertainer and a white person accepting a black person as the leader of this country.

Finally, I think the best way to judge whether something is surprising is to see whether people were surprised. You, with your belief that the presence of black entertainers means that we have--what, achieved racial equality?--may not have been surprised. But lots and lots of people were.

Posted by: I'm done. | Jan 19, 2009 6:04:22 PM

I wouldn't minimize cultural icons as shapers of public attitudes. Jackie Robinson, Bill Cosby and many others taught the larger society something about race and the public's attitude toward them reflected those lessons. In any event, since Obama won, I guess I was, you know, right.

Posted by: Rick Esenberg | Jan 19, 2009 5:22:04 PM

And yeah, good point about Oprah. Actually, it's surprising we didn't have a black president *sooner*--I mean, the Cosby Show was the top-ranked TV show for *years*!

Posted by: And How About That Jackie Robinson? | Jan 19, 2009 5:04:50 PM

Actually I think it was more like: keep that crap in perspective.

Posted by: Rick Esenberg | Jan 19, 2009 3:38:57 PM

Great point, Rick! To all of those feeling hopeful and excited about our country's future, you heard it here first: cut that crap out.

Posted by: Dave | Jan 19, 2009 2:52:20 PM

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