Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Discussion is often about making distinctions. I say that A and B are the same, you say no, there’s an important difference. I say the difference is trivial, you are only making excuses. You say the difference is critical, I am being obtuse.

I have said often in the past year that Obama’s supporters worry me much more than Obama himself. Supposedly rational people are exhibiting a starry-eyed wonder about the man. These often are – not coincidentally – the same supposedly rational people who are unable to find a single redeeming feature in George Bush.

Yesterday provided an excellent example. The hospital chaplain was wearing an outsized Obama ’08 pin. That is already pretty marginal. We are forbidden such displays during the election season, for good clinical reasons. (This is selectively enforced, but generally adhered to.) Because it was the day of the inauguration, not the election, the wearing of such a button does necessarily mean she voted for him or supports him. As elementary schools will attend to the inauguration of any president, so a person in an official capacity might also choose to highlight the inauguration qua inauguration, I suppose.

No one believes that for a moment, of course. The Obama supporters – staff – came gushing up to her about how excited they were. If they thought the button indicated Obama support, we certainly can’t expect people in acute psychiatric crises to absorb a more subtle distinction. Thus she becomes clinically unavailable to anyone who has strong feelings against Obama, for good reasons or bad. She can’t do her job.*

But that’s not what I came to talk about tonight. In one of the gushing conversations, the chaplain exclaimed “In his inauguration address, Obama used the word “I” less than any other president. He said “we” all the time.” I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s grant for a moment that it is. Here are my distinctions:

If Obama used “we” instead of “I,” that’s a good thing. Even if it’s calculated, even if it’s insincere, it’s a nice note to sound at an inaugural. Plus, it might even be heartfelt.

That his PR people pointed out that he used “we” instead of “I” - that’s also okay. That’s what they are for. Even if it’s cynical, if it’s a true statement, that’s allowed.

Oh wait. You thought someone spontaneously noted the use of “we” and reported it, like a news item? No. It’s either a PR move, or it was a glowing impression by a journalist - who just happened to have the word counts of all the inaugurals memorised - which makes it unreliable.

The distinction is in the hearing by the easily misled. Recognise that this was a PR move. Notice that this is an ad for toothpaste. Don’t take this at face value. You still might buy the toothpaste. Heck, it might be great toothpaste. But the reality-based community seems to need a little more interaction with actual, you know, reality.

The second distinction moves the opposite way - ascribing a meaningful difference to a trivial one. Deeper into the gushing, one of the people chatting with the chaplain mentioned the difficulties in providing security with a million attendees. "Four million," another shot back "the most in inaugural history." There was more than a hint of irritation, as if reprimanding the other for believing those doubters, those underminers, those attackers.

The size of an inaugural crowd isn't a measure of anything except, well, the size of an inaugural crowd. If only 100,000 came, that wouldn't make Obama any less able. But the size of the crowd has been important to lefties throughout my adulthood. Perhaps it is a tribalism, a gathering of the clan to show We are strong. How dare you oppose us? We are many. I'll bet someone trots out the number of how many watched on video feed, as if that were more than a curiosity.

Four million, one million, it wouldn't make any difference. Except if you're going to trumpet it as a big difference, in which case I will point out it was less than one million.

* She’s a UU pastor, so she may be unaware of the difference between spiritual and political guidance.


Anonymous said...

Most people believe that the National Park Service is responsible for official crowd counts on the Mall. This today from an NPS press release:

Today’s Washington Post analysis of the inauguration of President Barack Obama contains an estimate of the crowd on the National Mall – 1.8 million people.

The National Park Service does not contest the crowd estimate and will use the figure of 1.8 million attendees when we refer to the inaugural in the future.

Since 1997 the National Park Service and the U.S. Park Police have operated under Congressional restrictions related to crowd counting in Washington, DC since 1997. If event organizers wish to have an estimate on the number of people participating in their event then those organizers should hire a private sector firm to conduct the count.

Donna B. said...

Had I been the most avid supporter of Obama, I would not have been in that crowd. The type of person who enjoys crowds of that size and public displays of support (or at least, interest) is one foreign to me.

I am dismayed at the hubris of people wearing political "attire" of any kind in a manner that assumes everyone else is in agreement.

It's amazing to me how the political is overtaking every aspect of our lives. I am not happy.

Anonymous said...

I'll bet someone trots out the number of how many watched on video feed, as if that were more than a curiosity.


"The Raleigh-Durham market had the largest TV audience with more than 51 percent of households tuned to Tuesday's events."

At least they told the whole story (which I didn't hear on the radio account, BTW)...

"Many in the area were at home Tuesday due to a rare winter storm that covered the state capital with about half a foot of snow, closing businesses and schools."

jlbussey said...

I had someone at work (a laboratory for a federal agency) who went around all day saying "Happy Inauguration Day!" Like it was some kind of damn holiday. I just turned up my ipod and did my best to be somewhere else...

Ben Wyman said...

The size of the crowd is important because it's the number of tangible people who agree with them. Mentally, it's as if they now have these people at their back when they are confronting anyone else. Where are your 4 million people, Mr. McCain supporter? Not so smug now, are you?

jaed said...

She’s a UU pastor, so she may be unaware of the difference between spiritual and political guidance.

1. Ouch.

2. I wonder, seriously, how many psychiatrists, psychologists, PSWs, and like professionals are unaware of the distinction between psychological and political "help"?