Law in Contemporary Society

I hope I am doing this correctly, although somehow I doubt it.

  • You did fine. I retitled the topic, because ObamaArticle was very general and not clear. The new title shows that the topic is a talk page, where ideas can be generated before being refactored, and that the topic of the talk is Judith Warner's piece on the Obama family. I added a link to the piece. I also gave the topic a proper parent, for the index, by attaching it to the course root.

Still, I felt compelled to post regarding the article concerning the effect the Obama family has had on people.

One of the repeated ideas surrounding the Obama campaign was that this was more than politics. The campaign was described as a movement, and more than any political figure (at least in my lifetime), Obama really transcended a lot of what a normal politician would represent. Many admirers described him in generalities, or on personal terms, while not much was discussed about the actual politics behind the man. Generally these 'movement' candidates fizzle (see Dean, Howard), but Obama kept going strong, probably for a variety of reasons (eloquence, timing, race, personal story, etc.). In the end, I believe he won mainly because of what people felt he was as a person.

  • On what does that belief rest? Given the standing with the voters of the outgoing administration and the economic situation as the election approached, most observers would have said that a Democratic victory would not depend much on the personal attributes of the candidates. Does the exit polling data give you something for your argument? Or is your belief grounded in some other evidence?

Generally, people have seemed to project their best thoughts and hopes on Obama; this makes sense, since clearly a candidate of pessimism isn't going to win much support. Still, the fact that this article had a clearly negative context was fascinating to me, and seems to speak most to the fragile psyche of (American?) people. By getting so caught up in the accomplishments of one person, the subjects in the article then reflect on their own inadequacies. Where does this instinct come from? Our competitive culture? Maybe I am reading this wrong, but this article definitely left a sour taste in my mouth.

  • Could you explain what you mean a little more? Your mouth is dissatisfied because (1) people have more complex feelings about Obama than they used to; (2) Judith Warner should be more with the program; (3) you're disappointed that people have more complex feelings about Obama than you thought they did; (4) people shouldn't be comparing themselves to a demigod like him; (5) something else?

-- AaronShepard - 11 Feb 2009

I think that having people "project their best thoughts and hopes" was rather the point of the campaign. More accurately, it was to have people believe that Mr. Obama stood for whatever they wanted him to stand for (thus the enthusiasm that Arnold says any candidate requires, which to those who disagree appears to be demagogy.

I take something less negative from the article as a whole -- I see more a sense of wonder at one's own past from these people, not anger and not really regret. It is like what happens once you grow older than movie stars -- they cease to be hazy magical people (Boagart, Bacall) and are simply kids who won a different kind of lottery (Di Caprio, Damon, Affleck). You don't think less of them (and I didn't read people as thinking less of Obama). But you do realize that destinies are not set in stone, and within the frameworks that have been imposed upon us, we have made choices.

-- AndrewCase - 11 Feb 2009

Regarding why he won, my reference was more to his overall campaign, mainly the primary. In the general election, I think party affiliation was probably the biggest factor, for obvious reasons. But if you look at the initial part of the campaign (where it is easier to discern), my point was that a lot of the attention was focused on who Obama was, as opposed to what he stood for. I mean, how many people fainted at Kerry rallies? Obviously there are many facets to the equation, but I think the fact that people so readily identified with, and projected ideals on Obama aided him tremendously.

As far as the other comment, I would say it's a mix of 4 and 5, and which in my mind are totally (or perhaps mostly) unrelated. Regarding 4, it saddens me that people have a desire (or compulsion/urge/draw) to compare themselves negatively with someone such as Obama. I suppose the examples with his fellow Harvard Law students are a bit more palatable, but even so, to let one elite person define your own relative success is unfortunate.

As far as transitioning into 5, which I suppose has only a tangential relationship to the article, my concern is that people have the WRONG feelings about Obama, not necessarily that they aren't complex enough. While trusting one's president is important (as is feeling good about him, believing in him, etc.), voting is still a political decision. I feel like many people became engaged in the civic political process because they liked the guy, not because they actually have a concept of the issues. Hopefully, this translates into a broader political awareness, and participating by people in the process. It is concerning though that so many are hanging so much on someone who, when it comes down to it, is still a politician. He's captured a lot of people on a personal level, but does that renewed vigor carry on past him?

One final point I'd make is on the meaning people put in his election (as witnessed by the feelings in the article). My friend teaches in the Bronx, and many of her kids now have a tremendous belief that the racial barriers they have faced are weakening, and that more doors are open to them as a result of the election. Clearly this is a beneficial effect, but I worry that it clouds the reality of what happened. For all the intrigue of his story, Obama is still 'elite'; he went to a rich private school, eventually followed by two Ivy league institutions. While his election certainly has some meaning, I think it will mean more for society when one of the kids from the Bronx becomes President.

I apologize if that went off task a bit, and if the midweek grind affected the cogency of any part of that rant. I also don't want it to seem like I resent Obama or the feelings surrounding him; quite the opposite in fact, as I'm personally glad it helped him. And while I'm happy he's President, I worry about the expectations and feelings (such as those discussed in the article) that are put on him.

-- AaronShepard - 11 Feb 2009

Andrew, I'm not disagreeing that that was the point of the campaign; I think it clearly was, and it worked brilliantly (with a nice helping of fortunate timing). But I think it's unfortunate that people are necessarily led to regret their own decisions as a result of the candidacy, and this perhaps speaks of the danger such a candidacy poses. People can get over movie stars, but Obama might be a bigger hurdle.

-- AaronShepard - 11 Feb 2009

A point which the article circled around, and which Aaron addresses, is the extent to which people feel as though they "know" Obama or can identify with him as a person. To presume such knowledge of a person who is extremely intelligent and who is equally calculated and measured is dangerous. It bothers me that people, in this day and age of cynicism and disillusionment, are still willing to have these blind allegiances.

If things aren't what they're called but what they do, then we don't fully know our president. We certainly don't know whether he and his wife have a great relationship, or whether he'd be a good lover, or whether he can be a part in solving the crises we face. We do know that he has a commitment to public service, that he is well-spoken and far less dogmatic than his predecessor, and that his election was a watershed event that has important implications for "JUSTICE" and our future.

Andrew's depiction of the campaign as allowing people to project their hopes onto Obama, to make him whatever they wanted him to be, seems pretty accurate to me. However, as Aaron notes, this is a worrisome state of affairs if followed by the president's inability to turn America into the land of milk and honey. Popular movements for "change" might help Obama to fulfill his promises, but I think its difficult to underestimate this country's capacity for apathy.

-- WalkerNewell - 11 Feb 2009

I don't think any of us are disagreeing about Obama, though perhaps about the others in the article. I guess I just didn't see them as bitter or angry so much as sort of in a state of sweet wonder. People I went to high school with are correspondents for ABC News, partners at law firms, on the editorial board of the Times, running newspapers in Australia, and Oscar nominees. I do not begrudge any of them that -- but I sometimes do nod my head and think how funny the world can be.

-- AndrewCase - 11 Feb 2009

Walker: I think it's because we live in such an age of cynicism and disillusionment that people were desperately waiting for someone like Obama, someone they could project their dreams onto without too much cognitive dissonance and who gave them permission to talk unironically about this like hope and justice.

I do think you're right that the idolization is disturbing. Ironically, I think this country's apathy is actually likely to make people place more faith in Obama than we otherwise would. Inflating him in our minds to some sort of savior absolves us of having to care or pay attention to current events. It is easier for an apathetic population to place its trust in a single hero to fix all its problems than it is for it to realize that everyone, individually and collectively, has to start doing things differently.

-- AnjaliBhat - 12 Feb 2009

“My president is black; I don’t have to pay my mortgage…. damn, I better not have to pay my mortgage.”

Said partly in jest by a young, African-American male at a results-watching gathering in Harlem, the comment addresses the phenomenon Andrew quite nicely described: there is some belief (largely among minorities) that racial barriers have weakened and representation has increased in the aftermath of the Obama victory. There is also a belief that Obama is somewhat of a superstar, an ordinary guy who has come from out of left field to solve all the problems of the world -- by day he will find a solution to global warming and by night he’ll travel the country paying the mortgage of the male in Harlem and putting a check in the mailbox of each struggling new family in Detroit. Expectations are very high. Warner suggests individuals are seeing his family and their accomplishments in a more positive light now (as in “Wow, this is what I could have done if I partied less or stayed true to myself”), but when the envy hits, if it has not hit yet, I predict it will hard. The closeness many now feel with the family, whether it be because Obama went to Occidental before making it to the Ivy League or because the children seem like happy, ordinary girls who roll their eyes at daddy’s speeches or rock out to the Jonas Brothers, or even because it seems as though we have a president and first lady who “look” in love, it seems that this closeness Warner describes plays a role in allowing Obama’s celebrity status to continue.

No one thinks the family they know and trust will have problems behind closed doors and no one really expects Obama to “screw up.” In my experience as a member of the African-American community, it is obvious that many think descriptive representation is a reality and that racial background means Obama will have their backs, if you will. When he takes action that alters these beliefs, there will be disappointment, a re-assessment of expectations and a change in one’s view of the ordinary man. It is this re-assessment (rather than the constant comparison going on now) that seems as though it will be most beneficial.

-- UchechiAmadi - 12 Feb 2009

Uchechi, I'm not sure that the reassessment you speak of will be a good thing. People have put a lot of proverbial eggs in Obama's basket, and I think society could certainly experience a civic backlash (lack of participation, more alienation and frustration, etc.) once Obama fails to live up to many people's unrealistic expectations.

-- AaronShepard - 12 Feb 2009

Hi, Anjali. I think the way that you reframe Americans' intense interest in President Obama is really interesting--that this idolization is really a substitute (whether consciously designed or not) for getting over our apathy and actually educating ourselves about what policies Obama stands for. In many ways, fixating on Obama as a person is probably easier than actually learning about how his politics are relevant for the problems that America faces today. Personality cult is far from the idea that I'm comfortable associating with Obama's campaign, but I throw out that loaded phrase because I think it is important to recognize the many forces that have selectively amplified aspects of the "Obama package" (including his personality, background, constituency, and policies)--aspects that may not be so useful in assessing what Obama has and what Obama needs to have in order to actually fix the problems in our community. (And now to relieve my sense of guilt from associating Obama with a personality cult by way of elaboration, maybe we can take from this association that as dictator-designed media devices have served to elevate past leaders, Obama's image as this generation's new type of leader has been elevated by similarly powerful forces--and perhaps justifiably so.)

Maybe the driving force behind this process of idolization is Obama's symbolism--that is, Americans locate in the symbol of Obama many of the solutions to our community's problems without investing the necessary effort to discover whether there's more to the person of Obama than just the symbol. Certainly, the symbol carries with it things like hope, optimism, and maybe even the motivation to once again participate in political discussion. But if the symbol does not represent more concrete indications of how Obama will actually achieve his goals, then our captivation by the symbol may be misguided and even reckless.

I think Aaron's point fits well here--that it would be even more meaningful the day that a Bronx-raised black candidate becomes president. I wondered to myself why this would be, and I came up with some obvious points about the reality that race and economic and social capital have inextricably intertwined in our cumulative history of racial exclusion, and how an even more spectacular phenomenon than Obama would be a candidate who will have overcome all of these twines of disadvantage. But I think there might be a more subtle point--again, about the power of a symbol. I think that the symbol of Aaron's Bronx candidate would be meaningful not because the symbol primarily indicates a set of concrete policy goals and capabilities in a way that Obama's symbol primarily does not, but because the symbol of the Bronx candidate would be a symbol of our system actually changing. To piggyback on Aaron's point, then, the symbol of Obama is lacking in even another sense because his presidency tells a narrative that many black Americans do not share.

I think that this post has ultimately split into more than just a few tangents, but I'd just like to make the concluding tangent that maybe, in the end, I am suspicious of the symbol of Obama because I, like Walker, underestimate the power of the American--not in her capacity for apathy, but in her capacity to create meaningful change from hope alone. I remember a quote: "If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." Is this true?

  • The author of your quotation is the French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Asking whether it is true is a category error, I think. But the free software movement certainly demonstrates that it describes an approach to changing the future of humankind. See

-- JosephLu - 16 Feb 2009

I like your post Joseph, although keeping with the theme of the quote at the end, I think the American people will quickly give up their longing. We are a culture of 'now', and want things instantly; our patience is thin. When something inherently difficult and perhaps unreachable becomes the focus of our attention, many people turn away in frustration. In sum, I very much doubt our capacity to build a ship.

-- AaronShepard - 19 Feb 2009



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r13 - 07 Jan 2010 - 22:39:54 - IanSullivan
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