About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What a morning

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I have not written about politics lately. This is certainly not because I’m shy about my political opinions, as even a casual glance at Rationally Speaking’s posts will make abundantly clear. But the fact is that every aspect of this campaign has been dissected to death and commented upon from every conceivable angle, and I prefer to write about things that my readers may not have been aware of, or to present an unusual viewpoint that may stimulate productive discussion.

Today I’m writing about Barack Hussein Obama’s election as the 44th President of the United States not because I have anything particularly new or insightful to say, but because it is such a momentous event for the country and the world at large. It also happened to be the first Presidential election in which I could vote as a new citizen of the USA, and you can bet your life, as Groucho Marx would say, that I voted for Obama.

It was a long night for me not because the election was in doubt or too close to call -- McCain conceded around 11 Eastern Time, and Obama gave his acceptance speech an hour later -- but because in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I live, people were celebrating in the streets as if the US had won the world cup! I don’t remember that sort of enthusiasm when Bush was “elected,” either the first or the second time.

This is an historical election for so many reasons, some of which will become clear in the course of the next few months and years. We have just chosen an African American as President, thus striking a major blow to one of the last remaining forms of discrimination in this country. (There are three more, in order of decreasing likelihood of being overcome soon: the first woman, the first gay, and the first atheist presidents. But we can wait a few more years for those.) I don’t expect miracles from Obama, but I do expect him to do his best from day one to undo much of the damage that Bush, Cheney and associates have done both to the US and to the world. There isn’t going to be any magic bullet that Obama can fire at our problems, but he comes to power on the tail of a landslide victory and a significantly increased presence of Democrats in both the House and the Senate. He can surely claim a mandate to make some significant changes in Washington. And yes, he can.

Obama will have such a huge number of titanic and urgent problems to deal with (the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, global warming, health care) that it is hard to believe he was smiling last night during his acceptance speech. Nonetheless, two issues are going to truly define his Presidency: he needs to reverse Bush’s erosion of civil liberties in America, and he has to appoint liberal judges to the Supreme Court. We cannot pretend to be “the best democracy in the world” without showing to the world that we do not curtail our freedoms in response to fear. And we cannot afford to have conservative judges set back for a generation the liberties that have marked much of the social progress in the United States throughout the 20th century -- beginning with the right of a woman to control her body and reproduction.

Good luck, Mr. Obama, you’ve got yourself an overwhelmingly tough job to do, one that would halt most people in their tracks because they wouldn’t even know where to begin. But you can do it, and so can we all.


  1. Yup, it was a beauty. From the back of the bus to the big chair in some 40 years. I would never have believed that a couple of years ago.

    People all over the world are very happy about this, which of course is great for America and the world. A good start at least.

    And now, may Obama avoid large open spaces and too big crowds. Stuff l;ike that. You know, he might... catch a cold or something.

    Suddenly, it may be cool to be an American again

  2. Well I would've queued up for hours just to make sure Obama won ... if only I were an American. The worst part of it all is I didn't even know until it was too late that the American embassy here was hosting mock elections! And yes, Obama won by a landslide-- 3:1. If I heard the news correctly it was 4:1 in Beijing.

    Indeed it is so refreshing and invigorating that America finally has its first African American president. There is hope for America and for humanity. We learn, even if at an evolutionary pace.

  3. The atmosphere here in Vancouver, Canada was jubilant also - his support is over 90% here! I've never seen my friends sit so attentively as we did during the acceptance speech. Truly inspirational.

    The food was good too - we made a Ba-Rack of Ribs and Arugula Salad!

  4. Just another quick note that we shouldn't wax too poetic about the social advances shown in this election. 4 states - most shockingly California - passed resolutions redefining marriage as between a man and a woman, discriminating against thousands of homosexual couples who have already been married. Arkansas has disallowed gay couples to adopt children, denying loving homes to children in need.

    Two steps forward, one step back.

  5. Now that's worrisome. I had the impression California's pretty liberal.

  6. I don't think that the legal status of the same-sex couples who were married in California prior to 5 November is yet clear. The Attorney General has promised to defend the legal validity of these marriages if and when they are challenged in court (and I very much hope he succeeds), but I would be surprised if the proponents of Proposition 8 are not already preparing for this battle. It will likely be a legal mess for a long time to come.

    In addition to highlighting the persistence of bigotry toward homosexuals, the success of Proposition 8 highlights the danger of allowing a state constitution to be changed so easily by a single plebiscite (in the highly charged atmosphere of an especially vigorous general election, no less). A legal act with the magnitude of a constitutional amendment deserves the dignity of being debated openly in a legislature and being vetted by a multi-stage review process. An amendment that was vetted primarily by religious interest groups (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Knights of Columbus, Focus on the Family, etc.) and that was passed by a slim 4% majority hardly constitutes a clear mandate to make a constitutional change with such far-reaching consequences.

  7. http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/editorials/la-ed-prop8-6-2008nov06,0,5635056.story

    Proposition 8 passed because of black and latino voters. The gay movement has failed to reach out to these groups, and in turn, black voters apparently do not identify their own oppression with the oppression of gay people.

    We've come a long way, but there's still work to be done.

  8. I'm not sure "tough" is what I would characterize his job as. He has the support of a multitude of undemocratic countries and accordingly their people groups of the world very much behind him. If you happen to be badly needing of an assurance that those people will NOT attack us any longer, or for quite awhile, he's your man, Massimo.

    It will not be apparent for awhile, but sooner or later the world will also began to understand that a weak America is absolutely no good whatsoever for the rest of the world's economic health. Or maybe it will be apparent tomorrow.

    But ya know, God is still 100% on His throne, no matter who is presumably in the seat of power in the USA. Saying presumably because I do not believe that BHO makes his own decisions.

    He has also spent more on this election alone than Al Gore and GW in their run for the presidency combined. Is that a concern to anyone AT ALL in the middle of this so-called financial crisis?

    Has it now become alright to buy an election? If a candidate on the right did exactly the same thing, would you approve?

  9. Stephen said:

    "Proposition 8 passed because of black and latino voters. The gay movement has failed to reach out to these groups, and in turn, black voters apparently do not identify their own oppression with the oppression of gay people."

    Even if this is true (and I'll asume for the moment that it is), is the strategy of appealing to the experiences of specific groups rather than to the general principle of universal human rights likely to be effective in the long term? I genuinely don't know. Although I can see the potential benefits of reminding groups who are or have been subject to discrimination of their experiences in the hope of gaining empathy, there is significant potential for such an approach to be perceived as minimizing or exploiting those groups' past or present suffering.

    There is also something I find distasteful (and ironic) about using appeals to group identities to combat discrimination rooted in the perception of group identities. But perhaps in the interest of winning this battle, I and others who share this distaste need to get over our squeamishness and accept the need for some degree of Realpolitik.

  10. I agree Jason: In a perfect world there would be no need to resort to emotional appeal, or play on people's primitive prejudices, and political decisions would be decided by rational, well-reasoned debate. But let's be honest: Do we really live in such a world? Would we even be discussing "Prop 8" if we did?

  11. Alas, no. It would be nice, though.

  12. I don't mean to gloat over Obama's victory, but I will say this: Regardless of how much money he raised and spent on his campaign (nearly all of which was raised from individual contributions), I'm much relieved that he will be the next president and not McCain.

  13. Too many typos and grammatical improprieties... here it goes again. :-)

    Well, I guess using the parallel between discrimination against blacks and against gays could help, but I'm not very confident.

    We're dealing with a religiously motivated hate here, remember. And nothing is more effective at blinding people to reality than religion -- just see how many people ignored the plain fact that Sarah Palin is as smart as a door post, just because she's a fundie.

    So even if the blacks (and Latinos) understand, at an intellectual level, that their toils and the gays' are fundamentally equivalent, they will always reject that conclusion because Santa says gay people are wrong, and evil, and out to get their kids, and destroy the moral fiber of the Universe. Or something. Therefore, the homosexuals are considered fair game, if god(s) say so. Does not matter to them that whites have used the same reasoning (and the same Bible) against blacks to justify and support slavery. And some apparently still do it here, and with pride.

    What I think is the solution? Well, as any real solution, it is neither easy nor quick. Education, REAL education. Then religion becomes as significant as your favorite sports team, and you can use your own brain to get to conclusions, instead of towing your religions line. Will it happen? I hope so, but will not hold my breath while waiting for it. I'll try to do my part and keep going...

  14. Mufi: "I'm much relieved that he will be the next president and not McCain."

    I don't feel like you are gloating at all, you are mainly working within the knowledge that you happen to have.

    To me, McCain is not a true conservative anyway, so I haven't an idea what there is to be relieved about. It was more or less a win win if you were a dem, I think. "A Hobson's choice is a free choice in which only one option is offered..." or something to that effect. Governor Palin could have provided some level of choice, but an overwhelming majority in the elite media (who do not speak for many in the US) are against choice and therefore Palin. Unless of course one thinks that ending the life of a child, honor killings or same gender "unions are truly loving and valid choices to pursue. Why such things are considered "forward thinking" I simply have no idea. That's "social justice"? It is strange indeed that people would consider the option to do such things as such. Allowances for this kind of thinking effectively begins to narrow the field of what justice is into smaller, and smaller increments till only the choice of individual prefs is what matters. And a world of people mostly all doing their own thing cannot indefinitely maintain cooperative attitudes under this type of standard. It will, however, bring an end to civilization as we know it.

    One day I suppose that some people will figure it out. But likely it will not be today.

  15. "Why such things are considered "forward thinking" I simply have no idea. That's "social justice"?"

    Yes, that's right Cal, you simply have no idea.

    And Palin, through displaying her obvious ignorance did herself in.

    What was it you said? "Ms. Alasak rocks"! Yep, and it tipped the boat over.

  16. Should have figured out ages ago shel, that I am not about to change my mind or loyalties on an issue or a person like Palin just because some people complain. ::yawn::

    The media,in general, has absolutely no concept of loyalty, is soft minded and terribly unimpressive in what it is they either promote or deny free speech for. Further, if the left leaning media HAD NOT THEMSELVES spent LIKE MILLIONS in air time and investigative tactics to find out if Gov Palin in fact spent 150 K on clothing or misunderstood a question about Africa (neither of which had any truth to them. ie so-called "sources" won't even come forward) one might consider ANYTHING that many of these journalists say as even BEING CREDIBLE.

    Leaves one with the feeling that only a truly humble and decent Sarah Palin would go and buy a four dollar suit from Good Will. I mean, really. Anything less is just apparently unacceptable and just ridiculously excessive.

    The way the media treats her just confirms to me that she is probably EVEN TWICE the woman I thought she was AND
    I WOULD BE DELIGHTED AND PROUD TO PLASTER HER NAME ALL OVER MY 850 in one of the most leftist states in in the US.

    I AM NOT at all amused at the stupidity of much of the REPUBLICAN party for distancing themselves from her when some flack started coming her way.

    There were a lot of fools in this election.

  17. A late, snarky comment.
    MP wrote: "We have just chosen an African American as President,..."

    1. As best that anthropologists, archaeologists and genetecists can tell, we are all African Americans. It's just a little matter of when we left Africa.
    2. BHO's parentage is half black, half white. Seems to me that we could call him white just as easily as designating him as black.

  18. Even though the polls showed Obama would win, I just couldn't allow myself to believe it and then have my hopes dashed. I donated money to his campaign. I convinced my 94-year-old mother, who hasn't voted in years, to register. She was a life-long Democrat, so when I took her to vote, she gladly pressed the button to vote for a straight Democratic ticket. But we couldn't stand to watch the numbers trickle in, so my husband and I watched a DVD, deciding we would wait until midnight to turn on the TV ----just in time for the acceptance speech.

    In the last two elections, I voted more AGAINST Bush than for Gore or Kerry, but this time I was voting absolutely FOR Obama. I was young and starry-eyed (and too young to vote) when Kennedy ran. I have not been as enthusiastic about a presidential candidate since 1960.

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