Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Two ways of looking at Obama: the sportswriter and the sociologist

Here it is, my obligatory collector's edition Obama Inauguration post. First, tedious though it may be, I must mention a couple of varieties of post that I can't make.

I’ve enjoyed the posts at Talking Points Memo the past several days where readers have shared the heartfelt personal meanings they sense in Obama’s inauguration. I cannot make such a post. In this year’s election I was focused on my desire to have the Democrats defeat the Republicans, and the reality-based community defeat the forces of truthiness. The identity of the candidate took a backseat. The symbolic weight of Obama’s victory, of his race and his life story, didn’t especially move me. I take no pride in this admission. On Election Night, as the returns rolled in, the reactions of the network talking heads and of the crowd at Grant Park actually, implausibly, took me a little by surprise. "Oh, yeah, that's right! We never elected a non-white President before, did we! And [smack] I coulda had a V-8!"

I can't make a post nitpicking any of Obama's transition moves looking for signs of betraying progressivism. For instance, I mostly stayed out of the discussion of Rick Warren giving the invocation yesterday. I just wasn’t outraged about Warren ’s inclusion. And I suppose I was a little perturbed by GLBT activists' second-guessing Obama before he even took office. Again, no brag. I’m insensitive, no doubt, about Warren ’s role in the passage of Prop 8 in California .

As an aside, speaking after the fact, I think a non-outraged response to Warren was justified. For one thing, Warren is taking a beating from some of his evangelical cohort merely for taking part in the Obama festivities; I think it remains to be seen who has co-opted whom here. Also, is there any doubt that Joseph Lowery outshone Rick Warren?

I rather suspect that Barack Obama knew Lowery would trump Warren. That's the kind of political skill and diligent preparation I expect from Obama. I admire him. I trust him. In the Rick Warren matter and other matters of political optics and balancing opposed constituencies, I simply have a lot of faith that Obama knows what he’s doing, sees all the angles, certainly much better than I do and better than 99.44% of journalists and bloggers. He's secure, he takes a long view, he has integrity, and he recognizes those qualities when he encounters them in other people. I cut him miles and miles of slack for his vision and judgment.

I don't go in for the hype that Obama is a post-politician or anti-politician, but it's undeniable that he's a refreshing new breed of politician. Obviously he's not above forging partnerships with pols like Joe Biden, but he breaks free of the well-mannered, constipated, Ron Burgundy style that Biden represents.

One way to sum it up is that I’m so delighted that Obama doesn’t play golf.

Oh, golf is fine in itself, gets you outdoors and rewards patience and teaches humility and all that. But golf is also suffused in the trappings of privilege and technology. It's classist as all hell, of course. It's an affront to environmentalism and land use planning. When the revolution comes, golfers will be the first up against the wall. Don't talk to me about mountain biking or brush-clearing -- George W. Bush is the quintessential golfer. I can see both sides in the intra-liberal argument about the merits of Bill Clinton, but I will say that everything wrong about Clinton is crystallized in the fact that he loves golf.

Instead of golf, at the relatively advanced age of 47, Barack Obama plays basketball.

Alexander Wolff makes the case in Sports Illustrated that basketball is the reason Barack Obama is sitting where he’s sitting today.

I miss playing basketball. It’s just a great game, basketball, rivaling jazz music as a great American invention and gift to the world. Two of my kids are playing YMCA basketball this winter, and I watch them from the bleachers with my legs twitching and my palms tingling. I want to lace up some high tops, cinch some baggy shorts, and run full-court. The squeak of sneakers and the pounding of the ball on a hardwood floor: these sounds get my blood moving.

Like Obama, I didn't have much luck on organized basketball teams. (Self-aggrandizing comparison of the day!) In my prime, I was a competent pick-up player. And as Woolf explains, pick-up basketball is its own special animal.: "basketball's speakeasies, not its licensed establishments." You call your own fouls, you check the ball between possessions -- there's an implied social contract that the game relies on. You really learn about people in a special way by playing pick-up ball with them.

You reveal yourself as well. A pick-up game tests you, physically and socially. I have several warm and satisfying memories of pick-up games where I held my own, ball-wise and also in terms of getting along with a group of guys unlike myself: one time in a rough urban neighborhood in Houston, Texas; another time with a group of Naval officers in Pensacola, Florida. The main satisfaction of these games wasn't that my team won or that I made great plays; it was that I fit in. I worked at belonging. The game wasn't mine, it preceded me and it lived on after I departed, but I could hang with it for an hour or two, and I didn't drag the game down. (This is, in part, the pathos of a guy who yearned to play for his high school but was cut from the team. Alex Wolff sees this pathos in Obama as well.)

I really recommend Woolf's article; it's Sports Illustrated at its finest, and it expands beautifully on my poor wheezings about playground ball. One guy who has played hoops with him pays Obama the compliment that he is able to score, but willing to pass; the ideal pick-up player, animated with enlightened self-interest, wanting all individuals to thrive for the sake of the social whole.

This bit sheds light on the distinction between hoopsters and golfers, as well as that between Obama and Bill Clinton:

Pickup ballplayers don't talk as much as golfers during a round, but they more quickly reach judgments about temperament and collaborative aptitude. And there's the emotional containment that ballers learn to bring to the court, even if only to ensure that no one can sneak up behind you to see emotions... you didn't want them to see. Asked the boxers-versus-briefs question, Obama gave the pitch-perfect pickup baller's reply: "I don't answer those humiliating questions, but whichever one it is, I look good in 'em."
Fewer words, but better chosen. Another highlight:

Basketball's appeal, Obama told HBO's Bryant Gumbel last year, lies in an "improvisation within a discipline that I find very powerful." With its serial returns to equilibrium -- cut backdoor against an overplay; shoot when the defense sags -- the game represents Obama's intellectual nature come alive.

"Improvisation within a discipline" is a lovely paradigm. It operates in jazz, in religion, in teaching -- in a lot of cool places. I also like "serial returns to equilibrium" as a way of characterizing Dr. Naismith's game.

As a postscript, the past few weeks have seen a myriad of brief reflections on the Web about Obama from (mostly white) writers saying what they love about the man, the moment when they knew he was special, the time they met him in 2002 before he was famous, ad nauseum. Most are easily forgettable, but a good one, and one that deserves a plug, came from Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah:

For a long time after November 4, I found it hard to believe that Barack Obama
had actually been elected President of the United States . Even as his
inauguration approaches I still find it a remarkable moment in our history… What
is most remarkable about him as a person is that he is a grown-up. Growing
up is a task for everyone in every society and most of us don’t do a very good
job of it. Even highly gifted people, in the arts and sciences as well as
politics, are often not very grown up, or have obvious personal flaws, even when
we admire them. I’m not saying that Obama is perfect—no one is. But
he shows the quality of maturity that the great classical philosophies,
Confucian or Stoic for example, tried to inculcate in their followers.
Extraordinary intelligence helps but we know many brilliant people who are not
very grown up. Extraordinary ethical sensitivity is closer to the core of
what it means to be grown up. My amazement and near disbelief in Obama’s
victory is that I never again expected an American president to be so grown
up. In my lifetime some have come close to the mark, but for me the
clearest previous example is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom I, as a very young
person, heard and admired.
Bellah goes on to discuss Obama’s victory as America’s return from its default attitude of individualism, to one of its periodic moments of awareness of the collective good. There it is again: Obama as point guard.

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