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Michelle Obama's Pride--Stuntz

A lot of ink has been spilled on Michelle Obama’s comment that “for the first time in my life, I am really proud of my country.” I’m a McCain man myself, but the criticism seems dumb to me. She isn’t running for office, and she’s entitled to feel what she feels and express it as she chooses, as long as she doesn’t insult anyone else along the way – as she manifestly didn’t. Her comments are part of (and an exceptionally mild instance of) a long tradition of moral self-criticism that may be Americans’ greatest attribute. In the mid-1850s, at the height of Know-Nothingism, Abraham Lincoln wrote more caustically about his country’s history and character than any candidate or candidate’s spouse would dream of writing or speaking today:

"Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

Instead of attacking Michelle Obama’s offhand comment, it might be both healthier and more interesting to ask what lies behind it: not what’s wrong with her (the answer may be: nothing – just as nothing was wrong with Lincoln) but what’s wrong with us, such that a famously talented and successful black professional whose spouse has nearly reached the peak of American politics should feel so alienated from her native land.

I have a guess about the answer, though it’s only a guess. The last generation, the generation that saw the rise of legally protected civil rights for African Americans, also saw the rise of mass imprisonment of African Americans. Today, of every 100,000 white men, 471 sleep in prison beds – a record-high number, many times the comparable figure elsewhere in the Western world. Among black men, the analogous number is 3,145. (For the numbers, click here). Mass imprisonment is the defining fact of life in many black neighborhoods in the United States. It would hardly surprise if that fact shaped the attitudes black men and women have toward a country that imprisons so many of their fathers and sons, brothers and friends.

I’m a middle-aged white guy and a Republican to boot; I have no special insight here. But would it really be that surprising if a large fraction of black professionals look at our legal and political systems with a jaundiced eye, given the truly mind-boggling levels of black incarceration we’ve seen over the last twenty years? Something tells me there are an awful lot of people who, when they read or heard Michelle Obama’s words, thought: she read my mind.

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Comments ( 7 )

I saw Michelle Obama at a rally in Wisconsin recently, expressing this despair. You're absolutely right--we don't have to censor ourselves to be good patriots.

The Lincoln passage was very well chosen!

I dunno - it's one thing to be deeply and even provocatively critical of one's country. That is, as you say, perhaps central to the American tradition. But I think her commenters and critics are picking up on the sense she seems to project that there's really *nothing* in her experience of American life of which she feels proud. Now, maybe that's true, and if so, then we really should reflect on what's caused such alienation. But that suggests two further thoughts: does she really mean that and what does that suggest of her (and her husband's) view of the American order more fundamentally? As to the first, my guess is that she doesn't really mean it and that it was a bit of rhetorical excess (nothing special, of course, in a campaign); after all, her husband took pains to downplay it almost immediately. As to the second, though, the fact that she would be willing to make such a categorical claim suggests that she sees the American order as fundamentally corrupt, in a way that neither, say, Lincoln or even MLK did. Both of them had scorching things to say about the particulars of American politics, but were also quite clearly enamored of the fundamental American ideals. I don't think it's a slur to suggest that certain elements of what's been called the New Left don't share that last part and think the country's institutions need a much more radical makeover. Mrs. Obama's remarks call up the question of where she (and her husband) see things - how deep is the change for which they are campaigning? It's a fair question and one I, er, "hope" we get an answer to.

What is negative about Mrs. Obama's words is that they convey the noise of hatred coming from the hard left these past 30+ years. It is, to me, a Freudian Slip. And, a very telling slip at that. It would also help explain how one can attend/support a religious establishment who shouts that negativity.

Dear Mr. Stuntz: Not at all. What's driving these high imprisonment rates? Drug convictions. So the problem is drug usage. Ms. Obama has been conspicuously silent about this trouble, as has Mr. Obama. I think it is because drug usage, unlike racism, can't be blamed solely on The Man, unless you buy the idiotic 'the-CIA-is-running-the-whole-thing-to-keep-us-under-control' paranoias, on sale at Huffington Post or Firedoglake, get 'em while they're hot. Does Ms. Obama think this explanation of the drug trade is true?

So far as her implied notion that America is one vast despotism goes, this is just another mass paranoia, bought at Overstock.com after being marked down twice. Again, the drug wars are a big part of the real problem. But the Hollywood zanies can wear orange ribbons to the Oscar ceremonies in "solidarity" with the Guantanamo detainees, with no fear that cops will bust them with a truncheon, handcuff them, and haul them off to the station for the wrecking crew to work on.

Consider her position: she's a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law. That's not enough? Good heavens, not one in a thousand Americans has that opportunity. To be sure, we humans are notoriously prone to self pity, but is she so lacking in self awareness as not to see what sort of reaction her loose cannon comments could cause? Wearing chips on shoulders can lead to arrogance just as surely as wearing stars. No, Michelle Obama is one vast grievance, never to be satisfied. Why should it? It has led her to great rewards with precious little effort compared to many others.

I will pray for you to beat your cancer. Every day. Good luck.

a famously talented and successful black professional

Is she really? She went to Princeton, even though she didn't have the grades or the test scores -- and the capstone of her career there was an essay on why her classmates seemed to look down on her! Handouts and affirmative action have poisoned race relations in this country, by ensuring that there is a large group of black professionals who, thanks to special favors, are centered around the bottom 10% of whatever schools or workplaces they attend, meaning that the most intelligent and articulate black leaders are often highly resentful.[1] The fact that Mrs. Obama is prouder of a primary than of victories the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Second World War, or the Cold War is a symptom, and should be treated as such rather than explained away.

[1] Which is not to say that there aren't very successful black intellectual leaders -- Sowell, Keyes, Powell, Thomas, etc., are all very admirable. But if you assign any predictive power to test scores across ethnic groups, then you must conclude that preferences that deny such predictive value will lead the preferred group to underachieve relative to others. And I would hate for race relations in the US to be stuck in such a status quo.

Rhetorical excess is my best guess. Similar to "a hundred years" in Iraq. I don't think it means anything.

As for drug use, there is no excuse for the drug war. When you examine the history of the drug war, a very long history that stretches across the globe and over centuries, there is no conclusion that can be sustained other than complete, total, devestating failure. At every level. It has destroyed governments in South America, fueled the Taliban, increased incarceration and resulted in personal tragedies of an epic scale.

It will end as all such misadventures end. Because of costs, economic and human.

There is nothing un-american about being critical of one's country. Indeed criticism is what drives improvement.