Politics & Policy

Obama Must Have His Applause — Please (Don’t) Clap

President Obama at a White House signing ceremony, December 2015. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
NPR and the peculiar politics of applause

Applause was a serious business in the Soviet Union, as it is in Cuba, as it is in Venezuela, as it is in all unfree societies and at our own State of the Union address, which is modeled on the ex cathedra speeches of unfree societies. The less free you are, the more you are obliged to applaud. Joseph Stalin’s pronouncements were greeted with perfervid applause, which would continue, rapturously — no one dared stop — until Stalin himself would order its cessation.

But what to do when Stalin was not there? The mere mention of his name, even in his absence, would trigger fanatical applause, and nobody wanted to be the first to stop. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn related one famous story:

The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter.

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them.

That same night the factory director was arrested.

Stalin is long gone, and the Soviet Union, too, having been deposited, as Ronald Reagan predicted, onto the “ash heap of history.” But the craven instinct on display in the scene Solzhenitsyn described remains. The desire to rule is complexly mixed up with the desire to be ruled, just as the most masterful among us bow the lowest and grovel the most enthusiastically when presented with a strongman-savior. There is something atavistic in us that is older than the human part — the inner chimp — that makes those who listen to its voice keenly aware of their places in the social hierarchy. Even a predator instinctively recognizes a predator higher up the food chain.

Which is not to say that National Public Radio’s Marilyn Geewax is a Stalinist, but rather that they were what she is, representatives of the same species.

Geewax, who is a senior business editor for NPR, is very interested in applause. This week, she expressed some concern that Representative Tom Price has been nominated to serve as the next secretary of health and human services. A year ago, she noted, President Obama gave a State of the Union speech during which he called for developing a cure for cancer, and Tom Price, blackhearted reactionary and probable saboteur, “refused to applaud.” She remarked on it at the time, too. Politics may not bring out the best in people, but it does contribute to the length of their memories.

The language there is interesting: She did not write that Price “did not applaud,” “refrained from applauding,” or even “failed to applaud,” but that he refused to applaud, a formulation that converts passivity into a positive act, one from which we are to derive something of significance about his fitness for the role of secretary of health and human services.

State-run media denouncing political nonconformists for refusing to applaud the leader and his five-year plan. Oddly familiar, that.

State-run media denouncing political nonconformists for refusing to applaud the leader and his five-year plan. Oddly familiar, that.

Price knows a little bit more about the treatment of medical conditions than does the typical NPR senior business editor, and hence there are all sorts of possible explanations for his non-applause. One of them might even be that President Obama’s proposal was scientifically illiterate to the point of absurdity: Cancer is not a single disease that is going to have a single cure, and many of those who study it believe it may not even be curable in principle. Cancer is a category of loosely related maladies with very different pathologies requiring very different medical strategies, and much of the best oncological thinking at the moment is not oriented toward “curing” cancer at all but toward developing treatments that will convert various cancers from death sentences into treatable chronic conditions like diabetes.

Never mind the complex medical realities — put your hands together, you kulak swine!

President Obama must have his applause. He got plenty during his recent speech in Chicago, clearly basking in it even as he joked about his lame-duck inability to command an end to the public adulation of his semi-divine person. And he is going to get some more, too: On January 19, the day before Barack Obama’s successor is inaugurated, a group of self-abasing would-be subjects — there may end up being thousands of them — plan to gather down the street from the White House and applaud. Obama will not be there, but mere mention of his name, even in his absence, will trigger fanatical applause.

“His legacy is one of kindness and grace,” according to Bejidé Davis, a 29-year-old New York lawyer who organized the clap-out. That opinion is not universally held, to say the least — the consequential policy innovations of President Kindness and Grace include assassinating American citizens, a line that even Prince of Darkness Dick Cheney never crossed — but this is a question of affiliation, not a question of judgment. The people gathering to applaud for President Barack Obama as President Donald Trump waits in the wings are not really making a statement about the outgoing president. They are making a statement about themselves: “This is our tribe.”

The most important thing about a tribe is not the question of who is in it but the question of who isn’t. Entertainers, who live for applause, have taken a keen interest in the question of who will and who will not perform at the upcoming round of presidential inaugural parties.

“Please clap,” poor old Jeb Bush said, and they mocked him for it. And they’ll mock him for it as they stand out in the January cold cheering the God-Emperor Obama, First of His Name, from afar, each looking around at his friends and countrymen with narrowed, suspicious eyes, wondering who will be the first to stop. But these are different times, and the paper-factory business just isn’t what it used to be.


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