Monday, October 05, 2009
Was Michelle Obama Begging?
I'm finding it hard to understand the logic of Michelle Obama's speech to the International Olympics Committee. When I heard somebody describe it as "begging," I had to think about it. I'm still thinking.
It does seem to fit the correct definition of begging. What, after all, is begging?
As I see it, there are four ways to get something from other people. One is to offer something in trade, trying to elicit the voluntary consent of the other party. On the other hand, you can pretend to offer something in trade and then fail to carry out your offer (fraud) or you can violate their rights or threaten to do so (including the various forms of theft). Somewhere in the twilit realm between these extremes is begging, in which you do not violate the rights of the other person, but neither do you offer them anything of value. The reason you give them for transferring the desired object to your possession is simply your own naked desire for it. You have nothing else to offer.
In this sense, most of Ms. Obama's speech clearly consists of begging. Give us the Olympics, she seems to be saying, because I have wonderful childhood memories of watching them on my father's lap. Give it to us because my dead father would want it. Give is to us because I want it. I truly, sincerely want it a lot.
In fact, her speech is a case of what you might call mega-begging-by-proxy, because she is presenting the IOC with, in addition to her own unadorned desire to get the Olympics for Chicago, the desire of the children of America, who want it too. They, too, love baseball, and so forth.
To this the skeptic might say, What about the children of Brazil, of Spain, of Japan? Don't they want the Olympics too? Don't they love sports just as much as American children? Well, sure, what she is saying makes no sense if you think of it as a logical argument about who deserves what. But it makes perfect sense if you think of it as begging, which isn't logical and isn't about desert.
If I am homeless and starving and out on the street, and I approach you asking for money, I'm not saying I deserve your money more than some other panhandler, or more than you do, I'm just asking for it. If you have other requests for your wealth that you are considering at the moment, it's your job to weigh them, not mine. But I do want the money.
What Ms. Obama is doing here clearly fits the definition of begging. But there is something that gives me pause here: the psychology seems all wrong. If I am on the street asking you for money for a meal, my manner and bearing will reflect that I realize how weak my claim on you is: I am a stranger and there are no bonds between us other than that we are both human. My request will be cringing and obsequious.
On the other hand, just because my claim is so weak, my manner will show that I would appreciate so much the more your kindness and generosity at conferring this undeserved benefit on someone with no claims on you or your property, if you should see fit to confer it.
I see none of this in Michelle's demeanor. Especially, I see no cringing. Her desire for the games is presented almost proudly, almost as if it were a promissory note the world signed when she was sitting on her father's lap.
Is it possible to beg without realizing that's what you are doing? Or is there a fifth way to get things from other people, in which naked desire is presented, not with cringing and prospective assurances of gratitude, but as a claim and a right? I don't quite get it.
Added Later: Until I read this column by George Will, I was the only person I knew of who had written in any detail about the speeches that either of the two Obamas gave in Copenhagen. Here he points out, as I do here in the comments section below, that both of them are actually very poor persuasive speeches. For me their amazing badness consists in the fact that neither one of them raises a single consideration that could possibly be regarded as a reason why the IOC should give the games to Chicago instead of Rio, Madrid, or Tokyo. The interesting question is what they thought they were doing.
Further Update: The humorless media have taken it upon themselves to combat the above, very rare for the establishment media, foray into Obama-satire. Note the grim warning that someone may poke fun of the president again, in the future: