Back in my political campaign days, an old political hand once advised me to try to avoid having a candidate visit a sporting event. His reasoning was that fans are more than a little irrational in the love for their team, and anything that interfered with their enjoyment of the game could get booed. Applauding fans wouldn’t be news, but booing would be, so unpredictable sports events should be avoided. Or, as Dick Armey once put it, “If you insist on center stage, you get the tomatoes” (Axiom 22).
So what, then, should we make of the booing of Michelle Obama at a NASCAR event? We can look at the video.
To recap, in case you aren’t interested in watching the video: a veteran is introduced, along with his family; his accomplishments as a sniper recounted and he gets applauded; then Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden were introduced; then some booing; then everyone announced, “Start your engines.”
The whole stadium, thankfully, wasn’t booing, but there was clearly a significant number of upset fans. Unfortunately, we quite literally don’t know what they were upset about. Would there have been booing if Mrs. Obama were white? Or a man? Or a Republican? Or would any politician shoehorning in on the tribute to a veteran have gotten booed? We don’t know.
What has been far more interesting is the reaction of pundits and their interpretation of the boos. The debate has focused on race: did the fans intend a racial insult or no? There’s no way of asking the fans what they meant by booing, so the only thing pundits can do is project their own meaning onto the event.
Two friends of mine, Robert and Dan, were tweeting about the event. Twitter is good for many things, but nuanced debate isn’t one of them. Dan made a couple of tweets that I’d like to address a bit further. First:
Dan is utterly right that it’s inappropriate, but whether it’s racial is the whole reason things blew up on Twitter and the blogosphere. First ladies from Lady Bird Johnson to Hillary Clinton have been booed. It was wrong then and wrong now. On first amendment grounds, they have the right to speak. Common courtesy alone should dictate that we listen politely to what they have to say. Booing is nearly always the wrong reaction; it’s inarticulate mockery, more worthy of barnyard animals than humans. It was particularly inappropriate on when Mrs. Obama was ceremonially starting a stock car race.
But since Mrs. Obama is the first black first lady, the question of race comes into many things she does. You may not care if the booing is racial, but many people do. Bad manners don’t get tons of commentary, but racism does.
Dan also made a second, rather more inflammatory tweet:
The booing fans are unquestionably guilty of bad manners, but a lack of patriotism? That seems overstated and unprovable. Measuring patriotism is tricky, for the most valiant soldier may have achieved his deeds not through love of country but through love of his own glory; we cannot measure patriotism without God’s abacus.
The booing of Michelle Obama has become a Rorschach test. What we see in it says more about how we view NASCAR fans than it does about what the NASCAR fans actually think. Going back to the old political hand, it’s pretty clear that booing politicians at sporting events is relatively common. We can’t know if the fans are racists, but we can know what you think of them.
You can follow me on Twitter, which where this blog post got started. I’m usually much less long winded there for some reason.