Elbow Bumping Pols Promote Further Civic Rot

The connection between public gestures and our civic mores is something that perhaps needs more attention. The recent image of the president of the United States elbow bumping the speaker of the House and the vice president at his speech before Congress, along with the needless mask-wearing, are telling and depressing symbols of our current situation in America. These actions of our public officials when the cameras are on them are now understood by all but the most gullible to be cheap virtue signaling rather than sincere efforts to protect anyone. 

That our public leaders are no longer shaking hands, as if that would be publicly promoting an unsafe and risky act, tells us something unsettling and unfortunate about ourselves. But the near-constant aping of the CDC and the public health crowd’s championed alternatives is even more disturbing.

The two most common alternatives to the “risky” and “dangerous” handshake are the fist bump and the elbow bump. The former comes from the world of boxing, where the opponents meet each other at the start of the match before the fight begins. While it originated because removing the gloves of a boxer for the purpose of a handshake is obviously too cumbersome, nevertheless it is the act of opponents who are about to engage in a fight. It is more an act of recognition than it is a sign of respect or recognition of camaraderie. In other sporting events, the fist bump has replaced the high-five and other gestures of sportsmanship as those gestures can go wrong if not done correctly or if the parties are not in sync in their timing. Thus, the fist bump is the lazy, easy move. The combination of its sloth and its symbolism as a gesture of parties about to punch one another make it a regrettable substitute for the handshake.

Which brings us to the elbow bump. Its origins are from American urban culture of the 1980s and ’90s. It is said to have derived from the fist bump, but it is a more dismissive gesture. The best example of this was when Shaquille O’Neal in 2004 responded to Kobe Bryant’s greeting with a half-hearted elbow bump. The gesture itself looks like an attempt to physically assault and to inflict injury rather than to greet, welcome, or recognize another as a peer and fellow citizen. The elbow bump points to the ability of the stronger to thump the weaker and less powerful. It looks like two people fighting or struggling, not the giving of recognition between fellow citizens but something more akin to striking and responding in kind. 

Both of these gestures symbolize and encourage an antagonism between people that only feeds and fosters more civil strife. They signal aggression and opposition, not friendship, comradery, or brotherhood. Neither do they encourage welcoming or respect, but merely the recognition that the other is a potential threat or foe. These gestures have a more thuggish and hostile feel which does not promote the purposes of civilization or citizenship. Both these gestures, but especially the elbow bump, are the perfect symbols for the anarcho-tyranny of the Biden-Harris dystopia of our times.

What is so striking is how powerful elites and public offices have openly embraced these two gestures as a replacement for the handshake, which in our time of COVID pandemic hysteria, is now repackaged as an act of compassion in order to reduce transmission of infection for the sake of public safety. Yet if handshakes were the sign of the recognition of civic friendship (something I addressed over a year ago), these replacements suggest both contention between opposing parties and increasing separateness or atomization. 

In short, the fist bump and the elbow bump both have the individual acting out against the other rather than reaching out to the other to join hands and form a bond that unites the two parties. These gestures highlight the radical, solitary, and isolated individual reacting toward (and most likely against) the other, whose returning gesture signals a similar lack of trust. Both of these gestures point to the ennui and alienation of the current socio-political world. 

For at least  50 years, our socio-political, cultural, and business elites have foisted upon the American people a political culture of alienation and atomization to replace the solidarity and civic friendship that the founders and many succeeding generations of American elites had promoted. It may seem like a little thing, but fist and elbow bumps replacing handshakes is yet one more indication of the poisonous culture our elites have produced for America.

About Clifford Angell Bates, Jr.

Clifford Angell Bates, Jr. since 2002 has been University Professor in the American Studies Center at Warsaw University in Warsaw Poland. Since 2004 he has been an Instructor in the MA Diplomacy and International Relations program at Norwich University, Northfield Vermont. Bates holds Ph.D in Political Science from Northern Illinois University. He is author of Aristotle's Best Regime (LSU 2003) and The Centrality of the Regime for Political Science (WUW 2016).

Photo: Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images

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