On Ridiculous Expectations
While I can’t imagine anything more irrelevant to the presidential campaign than the GreatBlingControversy, 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based to a large degree on thinking of that community as a monolith in terms that are, as Coates points out, at best outdated and generally obnoxious.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.