Sunday, April 13, 2008

Parsing Obama's Words

Let's leave aside for this morning the political fallout from Barack Obama's comments on the bitterness of working class Pennsylvanians. Instead, let's approach it from a different angle. To what extent is Senator Obama speaking the truth?

You could scroll town to read his words, but I'll go ahead and re-post them here. Referring to the residents of small towns where "jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," Obama says:

"And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Taken as a whole, it's not exactly a shocking statement. The historical record is littered with stories of cultures that resorted to violence and xenophobia in reaction to economic deprivation and hopelessness. The (perhaps too pat) story that every American schoolchild learns about the rise of Adolf Hitler begins with the sacking of Germany after World War I, the failure of the Weimar government to produce prosperity, and the need for a wheelbarrow to carry all the Deutsche Marks necessary to purchase a loaf of bread. Seizing on the anger and bitterness of his countrymen, Hitler was, according to this narrative, able to produce a scapegoat and enlist the German nation to perform unspeakable crimes against humanity.

Senator Obama, of course, is not suggesting that Pennsylvania in 2008 bears any direct resemblance to the latter stages of the Weimar Republic. The first mistake he makes, however, is his selection of the subjective personal pronoun. By saying that "they" become embittered, gun-toting bigots, Obama seems to be suggesting that the majority, or even all, of the people concerned fall into this category. Much of the trouble in which he now finds himself might have been reduced had the senator simply replaced both instances of the word "they" with a less inclusive term like "some".

Obama's second mistake, and perhaps his biggest, was to include religiosity in his list of qualities that describe the embittered. While people may "cling" to religious faith during difficult economic times, that's hardly something to decry. Indeed, the degree of religious devotion in the United States is high enough that it makes no sense to suggest that it is some unique quality of the dispossessed.

I presume that Senator Obama meant to say that some frustrated working class Americans find themselves attracted to particularly intolerant religious orders. Certainly, there is an abundance from which to choose, if one is so inclined. Depending on one's anger, bigotry, and work ethic, the menu can range from Pat Robertson's occasional conspiratorial musings to that awful church in Kansas that sends devotees across the country to picket the funerals of those who have died of AIDS. Still, it is unclear if even these sorry individuals are motivated by bitterness at external economic conditions or, rather, by deeper, far more personal struggles.

That same point holds for two of Obama's other claims: that economic deprivation encourages fierce support for gun rights and equally fierce opposition to immigration, both legal and illegal. Again, there's probably a grain of truth here. The militia movements, the Minutemen, and perhaps even people like Timothy McVeigh may have been driven to their extremism by a sense that the rules of the modern world were stacked against them. A whole generation of American men witnessed the dismantling of the assembly line and other factory jobs that allowed those without college degrees to enjoy upward mobility. This created the sort of smoldering frustration that Billy Joel captured two decades ago in his song "Allentown" (a song, fittingly enough, about recession in Pennsylvania):

"Every child had a pretty good shot/
To get at least as far as their old man got/
But something happened on the way to that place/
They threw an American flag in our face"

But xenophobia and bigotry (not to mention gun worship) do not exist exclusively among the downwardly mobile in the old steel towns. There are plenty of gun nuts and racists to be found among the ranks of the middle and upper classes. The current anti-immigrant movement spawned in the boomtowns of the Southwest during the relatively prosperous 1990s. I realize, of course, that the Clinton-era recovery did not always reach down to the lower rungs of the economic ladder, but certainly cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and San Diego provided ample opportunities for people across the class spectrum.

Indeed, there is, perhaps ironically, a strong measure of optimism hidden in Barack Obama's damning ruminations about working class Americans. There is the implied suggestion that if we can find a way to bring upward mobility and hope back to the people of Allentown and elsewhere, we can solve the problems of violence and hatred that plague our society. We might even persuade them to crash Lou Dobbs' ratings and send him back to CNBC, the business channel that nobody watches.

Unfortunately, this is only partly true. There is little doubt that a return to prosperity coupled with a restoration of upward mobility for working class Americans would do wonders for the country's crime rate. On the other hand, anyone who has spent time in the Southwest understands that the anger directed at Latino immigrants knows few class boundaries. Rather, it speaks to the primitive centers of the brain that instinctively reject the outsider and the "alien".

In the end, then, Obama's statement was, especially for a man so famously careful in his crafting of phrases, stunningly careless. It unnecessarily indicted entire swaths of the population. It was unacceptably vague in its treatment of religious faith. And it seemed to assume that xenophobia was entirely economic in its origin. It was the sort of loose talk one would expect from a 1970s limousine liberal, and not a 21st Century presidential candidate promising to unite a nation.

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