Skunk At The Garden Party

After I posted this morning’s item, I watched the inauguration, along with the rest of the world. It is unquestionably a promising and historic moment, and I am not immune to President Obama’s charismatic appeal myself — but I have to say, at the risk of being a cranky old grouch, that I found the love-fest in the National Mall rather disturbing. I’m leery of large crowds, particularly when they are sharing a powerful emotion.

G. I. Gurdjieff described humans as ‘three-brained beings’: we have, he suggested, quite separate intellectual, emotional, and physical/instinctive centers. I think he is right, and that furthermore there is something that happens to humans in groups: we appear to be designed so that it is easy for the emotional parts all to link up, with a cumulative power that easily overrides the comparatively slow and feeble activity of the intellectual center. And when that happens, anything is possible. We have seen it before.

The remarkably magnetic — ‘astonishingly’ is a better word — Mr. Obama has an enormous well of power to draw on here, and it is a power that is, it appears, available to him personally. It must be a very strange position for the man to be in. Although I do not have any reason to doubt his good intentions (indeed, that almost nobody seems to is a root cause of the very effect in question), I don’t like having to trust anyone with power like that. The President of the United States is already, arguably, the most powerful man in the world, even without that kind of frenzied popular support. What a corrupt or misguided man might do with it is a sobering prospect. And we know what they say about the power of power.


  1. Jacob says

    Malcolm, you are completely correct to be leery. Although I am an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama, I also found the crowd’s adulation and the procession too close to Caesar’s procession through Rome to be comforting. Our president is not our ruler, he is a head of one, and only one, branch of government. But no-one can doubt that he is the face of our government.

    But I think that we cannot separate this aspect of the inauguration from what the inauguration represents: a consummation of the civil rights movement, a kind of absolution for white America, and a step forward to a more hopeful and a more unified future, in a time of great uncertainty and weariness, weary of discord, weary of politics, weary of war, weary of Bush. But what we in the future should make of this day should not be what we have seen this day, but what we in the next hundreds of days, not in the adoration showered upon him today, but what Obama does with it. And whether in the end he will willingly relinquish it.

    Like many others (notably Richard Rodriguez) I was perhaps most impressed by the fact that once again the U.S. has managed a peaceful and cordial transfer of power. An amazing feat. And remarkable to see a room full of ex-presidents shaking hands and smiling to one another. US socio-political structure may be at its heart imperfect and even unjust, but better a chain of 44 presidents shaking hands, than a chain of 44 tyrants toppling tyrants.

    A small confession: despite my great enthusiasm for Barack Hussein Obama (especially because of my environmentalism), my vote did not go to him. Nor did I vote for John McCain, though I might have under other circumstances. His exit was gracious and a model for democracies everywhere.

    Posted January 20, 2009 at 11:31 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I agree with everything you have said here, Jacob, although I am surprised that, given your confessed enthusiasm, you didn’t vote for Mr. Obama.

    One might almost imagine that you voted instead for Ralph Nader, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that you just stayed home.

    Posted January 20, 2009 at 11:51 pm | Permalink
  3. Court says

    While I certainly don’t have much faith in the wisdom of crowds either, Malcolm, from my vantage point here in Thailand, this transfer of power is a remarkable example of the wonderful power of American-style democracy. I second what Jacob says on that. All that pomp and grandeur – sure, it smacks of Roman bread and circuses, but considering everything that BHO represents and all that hopes that are going along with him, this time around the hoopla seemed justified. (My personal case in point: I can point him out on the TV to my mixed-race daughter and say: You really can
    be president someday.) It seems ikely that we are at a crossroads where we really need a visionary in the White House. Is BHO that man? Too early to say but I, for one, sorely hope so. And I can take comfort in the fact that if he’s not, he’ll get the boot in a few years. That’s more than this place I live now can claim, by about 233 years.

    My concern now is what happens when manna fails to fail from the sky in upcoming weeks and months. Could an (inevitable?) backlash tomorrow be the result of these sky-high hopes today?

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 4:02 am | Permalink
  4. Jesse Kaplan says

    I just want to quickly point out that the fear expressed in your last paragraph of the potential power of this President to do wrong is precisely what happened under Bush II, a consistent campaign of consolidating power in the Executive, which appears to have been rejected. The psychology supporting this under the former President versus that which seems to have swept Obama into office seems negative versus positive to me, though some would disagree. I agree we are so far dealing largely in psychology rather than substance.

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Jess,

    Yes, the previous president sought aggressively to expand the power of the executive branch.

    My point here is a different one: namely that a demonstration of mass popular support of the magnitude seen here, along with the absence of any organized opposition, now that the GOP is in disarray, provides Mr. Obama with a heady gift — one that must surely have a tempting psychological effect on any politician. Imagine what the recently departed administration would have done with it.

    In politics, and games of power generally, psychology is substance.

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  6. Jesse Kaplan says

    Have you forgotten the Republican takeover of Congress, the one that began in the ’90s and ended in 2006? Moreover, even before Obama took office we saw Congress seeking to differentiate itself from him; this opposition to his economic proposals is expected to manifest itself more broadly, as well.

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Yes, of course I remember the Republican “revolution” of 1992 – the Contract With America, etc. And perhaps an opposition in Congress will coalesce now as well.

    What I do not remember is a living carpet filling the entire National Mall, hearts swelling as one, unanimous, as a gigantic hive mind, in adoration of their Deliverer.

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  8. Jesse Kaplan says

    Well, I appreciate the reference to Orson Scott Card, but I think it will be alright; it’s kind of a self-selecting group, even if big. I feel right in tune with the exact note you think I missed, after all these back&forths, though. And I don’t doubt the power will go to his head. It will be another era before politicians aren’t self-selecting because of self-regard. But I think Court’s right that Obama’s problem will be getting things done, and because even before entering office his own party has shown a tendency to resist the momentum of the cachet.

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Well, I suppose we will just have to see.

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  10. I am impressed with BH Obama- he seems to be taking a middle course for the most part. I also did not vote for him but did (###3 Xs !) for Ralph Nader…

    There were 3 reasons for this:
    1) Obama did not need my vote to get the electoral college in NJ
    2) I am a great believer in the expansion of our dualopoly into a multiparty system -if only!
    3) The Obama campaign took New Jersey for granted and did almost no campaigning here whatsoever…

    The mass histeria is very off-putting (if a bit contagious) – humans are a social lot and group-think is pervasive – just look at pop culture-yakes !

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  11. Jacob says

    I voted for Nader, though I usually vote Green. I live in California…definitely not a swing state.

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  12. Ron D says


    I am more of a lurker here and I am rarely, if ever, feel comfortable commenting about politics – music and recording is more of my thing. But, with such a knowledgeable group here, I would like to bring another skunk to the garden party. In the interest of accuracy only, I must ask (rhetorically) if I am the only person that knows that BHO is only half African American? His father is from Kenya, and his mother is a white American from Kansas.

    I cannot stress enough how little I care about one’s race, but I find it odd, or inaccurate specifically, to celebrate BHO as the first African American to become president. Shouldn’t it be that he is the first person of mixed race to become president?

    Ron DiCesare

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  13. JK says

    I feel rather odd here myself, posting this particcular link. I can’t figure out whether Don King is agreeing with Malcolm (in which case well…) or if, perhaps the guy is simply making your point for you.

    Somehow I cannot bring myself to picture Malcolm and Don being soulmates.

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 9:57 pm | Permalink
  14. Jacob says

    Well Ron D, race is a concept which has cultural reality but weak if any underlying biological reality. We can talk about the one-drop rule in US race: one ancestor who is deemed to be Black makes all his or her descendants black. But most important of all, President Obama self-identifies as black, is accepted as black by most Americans, including other blacks, and would be treated like a black by most strangers. And that, my friend, makes him black.

    Posted January 21, 2009 at 10:12 pm | Permalink
  15. Charles says

    Actually, it’s interesting that one of the major themes he addresses in his book, Dreams from My Father, was his constant awareness as he was growing up that he wasn’t fully black, and his discomfort with militant black movements that vilified whites. I think saying that President Obama self-identifies as black might be an oversimplification. My impression is that he has accepted the public desire to see him as black, but his own thoughts on his race are much more complex.

    Posted January 22, 2009 at 1:05 am | Permalink
  16. I think that an element in the outpouring of delirious joy was RELIEF. After eight years, it’s palpable, isn’t it?

    Posted January 22, 2009 at 2:04 am | Permalink
  17. Hey Ron-

    I agree and indeed brought up that point & that mixed races make the bigots more nuts than anything- so that made me even more happy… ( I have had serious run-ins with the KKK as a guy with a “Jewish” name, and love to cause them angst…)

    – Just because race means so little to many of us, the black thing matters to many. His being half white does not take away its tiumphalism for blacks, who are probly mostly mixed race themselves- the whole “part native American” thing of the ’60s and 70’s is part of our socio-historical background…

    That we have for the most part transcended the issue of race as a society is a great relief -there are too many things to do to let such BS get in the way of shared experience…

    And yes it is the being rid of the Bush administration that so many are over-joyed about-

    Too bad Cheney & Bush et al are due for some jail-time and the national trauma that that trial will bring is also part of his legacy…

    Posted January 22, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  18. Pat, IF ONLY they were prosecuted for their crimes.

    On a happier note, an elderly black lady at a thrift shop today apologized to me for her hoarse voice. I said, “I bet you’re hoarse from screaming on Tuesday!” and she said “Girl, that’s right.” We both praised the lord, even though I’m a devout atheist.

    Posted January 22, 2009 at 9:20 pm | Permalink
  19. Jacob says

    Charles, you are probably right, there.

    Posted January 22, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink
  20. Patrick says

    “But I think that we cannot separate this aspect of the inauguration from what the inauguration represents: a consummation of the civil rights movement, a kind of absolution for white America ..”

    Can anyone explain to this immigrant what it is that “white America” feels so amazingly guilty of and why it thinks it need “absolution”? The whole thing seems very peculiar to an outsider.

    Posted January 22, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Permalink
  21. Patrick says

    “We can talk about the one-drop rule in US race: one ancestor who is deemed to be Black makes all his or her descendants black.”

    Whence does this rule come from, and should not a civilised country abolish it?

    Posted January 22, 2009 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

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