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On Ridiculous Expectations

While I can’t imagine anything more irrelevant to the presidential campaign than the Great [1] Bling [2] Controversy [3], the existence of such a controversy does say something about the unrealistic and unfair expectations of many observers who are sympathetic to Obama.  There has been an obsession in some quarters with Obama’s possible role-model role for young black men, as if there were not already successful and admirable role models before now.  This business about overcoming the forces of “bling” is just the latest in the absurd preoccupation with Obama’s election as the mechanism for transforming the black community away from whatever it is the observer doesn’t like about it (which is, incidentally, one of the secondary sources of controversy over Obama’s association with Wright–he “let down” his admirers who probably thought that Obama was “better” than that), which is in turn based to a large degree on thinking of that community as a monolith in terms that are, as Coates points out, at best outdated and generally obnoxious. 

Then you notice something.  No one proposes electorally-driven social change for other groups of people in the same way.  When was the last time anyone argued that selecting Jim Webb on the presidential ticket would actually change the habits of Scots-Irish folks?  I don’t think a supporter of gun control has ever asked, “Can Webb get them to stop clinging to their guns?”  On the contrary, the rationale for selecting Webb has been that he can supposedly “reach” these voters in ways Obama can’t because he is one of them.  Even though this claim about his electoral support is not really true, at least it makes some sense in theory.  The notion that Webb could change the folkways of “his people” even if he wanted to would be laughed out of the room, so why wouldn’t everyone automatically respond in the same way when people make outlandish claims about some imagined Obama Effect?  Can anyone imagine the same sorts of arguments being made about Hispanics if Bill Richardson had somehow become the nominee?  Not really, and that points towards the completely unrealistic and unfair expectation that Obama’s election will bring about some social or cultural transformation on a large scale.  No politician can do that without extensive coercion, and it’s not clear to me that anyone should necessarily want a politician to be having this effect even if he could.       

This sort of argument is related to the equally far-fetched idea that relations with the rest of the world will be dramatically improved simply through Obama’s election.  In this view, symbolism and imagery are all important, as if America’s reputation in the world has fallen because of who the President is and what he represents rather than because of what he has done.  Likewise, in this bizarre debate over Obama’s effect on the use of “bling” the assumption on Battiata’s part is that Obama’s election will promulgate some new set of norms, as if the highest elected black official influences the habits of an entire community.  This is simply a new kind of paternalism, according to which people are supposed to imitate their superiors.

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7 Comments To "On Ridiculous Expectations"

#1 Comment By AL On June 17, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

It may be that the arrival of a candidate on the scene is so tied to the rise of a group that people convince themselves that such influence is possible — that the candidate has changed his people, rather than a changed people producing a different kind of candidate from what they’ve produced in the past.

Kennedy was such a marker of the rise of US Catholics or Pierre Trudeau of French Canadians that people jumped to the conclusion that they caused the changes that they symbolized. If Jimmy Carter had been a more successful President people would be saying that he opened doors for Southerners.

Behind all of this may be the idea that once you’ve arrived, you can let go of a lot of defensiveness, resentment, and victim behavior. Perhaps it works better with groups that still remember their immigrant past, rather than with those who’ve been here long enough to be considered native.

#2 Comment By vanya On June 17, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

Can anyone imagine the same sorts of arguments being made about Hispanics if Bill Richardson had somehow become the nominee?

Yes. Easily. For better or worse Scots-Irish are viewed as “real” Americans, they don’t need to assimilate. So Webb is a particularly bad example. Both Blacks and Hispanics are viewed by the majority as groups that need to “get their act together” and are believed, erroneously of course, to be malleable to the direction of whatever “leaders” the media choose to recognize.

#3 Comment By John Beeler On June 17, 2008 @ 6:23 pm


#4 Comment By conradg On June 17, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

Well, John Kennedy did get people to stop wearing hats, so maybe Obama can de-bling the hip-hop nation.

#5 Comment By Roach On June 18, 2008 @ 6:45 am

Blacks as a group have major problems. Americans are both frustrated, sad, and angry at the fact that this persists. It’s wishful thinking, but it’s not obnoxious so much as it is desperate.

#6 Comment By KXB On June 18, 2008 @ 7:37 am

If anything, it appears that blacks themselves are the most realistic in what an Obama presidency can achieve versus what it symbolizes. They do not discount the symbolism, but Obama becoming president does not make the black illegitimacy rate suddenly plummet.

If anything, it appears that foreign audiences are the most naive. They seem to believe an Obama presidency means an immediate pullout from Iraq, reduction of greenhouse gases, and open borders. Of course, Clinton was a global darling, while we were still bombing Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, and enjoying a tech stock bubble that sucked in capital from other markets.

#7 Comment By mattc On June 18, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

On this note, it’s amazing at how hard Obamacons, centrists, independents, and anti-Bush voters are trying to force Obama into a mold he does not fit (finally the answer to our pants-sagging prayers!!!). It is doubly amazing how much Obama has ceded in the face of this public pressure. Rev. Wright, lapel pins, bombing Pakistan, etc…all issues you would be more impressed with Obama on had he stood his ground. Or at least I would think he has some stones.

The guy is a quintessential moral relativist – there is NO WAY he would ever lead some phony revolt against current urban-afro-hip-hop culture. Remember, Jay-z is on his IPod!!! Get that dirt off your shoulder Barack!