Sunday, April 13, 2008

What Obama Said, What He Should Have Said, and What We Should Think of It

Having written a few long posts on the Obama phenomenon over the past couple of months (including a 2700+ word novella which threw Obama's speech on race together with Ronald Reagan and RFK), I feel kind of obliged to say something about his big gaffe out in California. But it's late, so let me try to keep it relatively short.

1. This is what he said at a fundraiser in San Francisco, according to the reports I've seen:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then [that] 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."

It was a stupid and clumsy thing for him to say. Stupid because he's trying to compete for these white, working-class, blue-collar, often Catholic or evangelical voters in Pennsylvania, and Clinton will use it against him...as will McCain, if Obama gets that far. And it was clumsy because, whether he intended it or not (and he probably did, at least a little bit) throwing guns and God and racism and trade and immigration all together into one sentence--in front of a wealthy San Francisco Democratic audience no less!--can't help but play on crude, Tom Frank-style, redneck stereotypes. Stereotypes that he (a rich, black, cosmopolitan, Harvard-educated, Chicago lawyer) probably believes to some extent...but which he shouldn't ever use, because relying on such stereotypes, even unconscious ones--and this may not have been unconscious at all--undermines exactly the sort of inclusiveness he supposedly is calling his party and his nation to.

2. Patrick Deneen, one of my favorite and one of the smartest of all academic bloggers, a man from whom I and others have learned a lot about the ideas behind localism and populism and those principles central to the lives of those same small town Pennsylvania residents, had this retort:

Someone should advise him to go to Latrobe [that's in Pennsylvania, incidentally] and say the following instead:

"You go to these big liberal cities in California, and like a lot of cosmopolitan centers of libertarian lifestyle individualism, they have benefited from the wrenching displacements you've experienced. They benefited immensely from free-trade and globalizing policies of previous administrations--Democratic and Republican alike--and they've been told that they have earned their status and they owe nothing to anyone. And it's not surprising that they get optimistic, they believe that they can dispense with religion or borders or community as a way to remake the world in exactly their image."


The localist/populist/social democratic/counter-cultural conservative message doesn't get any better than that. Well, said, Patrick.

3. Except...wait. Patrick can't resist goosing his excellent retort with a few of the usual ideological characterizations; he sets up the quote from Obama by saying that we wouldn't expect to be seeing from him "some of the typical Left-Coast elitism when it comes to explaining the backwardness of those superstitious townies who inexplicably do things like hunt, drink Budweiser from long neck bottles, and believe in God." All true enough. Or is it? It seems to me that Patrick's suggested statement is actually the same as Obama's, only with the rhetorical advantage of being able to make a well-known point in reverse. What is that point? It's a comment about borders, and identity, and the value of such to those who are living lives closely tied to family and the land, and the rhythms of nature and scarcity invariably embedded therein. Obama's comment, condescending and crowd-pleasing as it may have been when it came out of his mouth in San Francisco, implicitly acknowledges all that, while Patrick chooses to snarkily underline those transformations and assumptions which allow certain people to go merrily along all while denying those very same essential things. So really, they're in agreement: just that one is making the point in a much more clever, yet also much more respectful way.

Look, I can't, and I don't really want to, defend Obama against the charge of elitism here; it's obvious what was going on during that fundraiser, and for an occasional defender of rural and religious communities like me who has nonetheless found something appealing about Obama, it ain't pretty. But all that being said...did he use that stereotype in order to condemn those folks, to sneer at them, to mock them, to describe them as beyond the pale? I don't quite hear it. I hear a man clumsily (and a little rudely) talking about the fact that, when the socio-economic infrastructure of your life disappears, you naturally become all the more emphatic--with your words, and with your votes--in defense of those things which you can control. You get frustrated and you get protective, particularly when it comes to things like, well, yes, your guns (which are central to your rural hunting lifestyle and culture, anyway) and your church (which you are committed to and believe in and don't want to see marginalized), and your community (which you know was built on good wages, stable property values, and civic, wages and values and trusts that global trade and illegal immigration are compromising). In other words, I see a man telling a friendly audience, in a somewhat condescending way, the truth, or at least a part of that same truth which every culturally conservative critic of modern American life from Patrick Buchanan on down knows by heart.

The senator treated racism and its resentments and legacies with immense care a month ago; it'd be nice to think he'd pick his words just as carefully when talking about the white, rural, blue-collar world. This time around, he definitely didn't. But there are worse crimes than that.

13 comments:

Jake said...

He has commented on this topic more clearly in the past. See this youtube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a88wMPAWc90

Matt said...

I suppose there's a sense in which what Obama said was a political or rhetorical mistake. That people are upset about it shows that, I guess. But, it also seems to me to be largely true. The reply is partly true, but only partly. I'm not sure how the "libertarian lifestyle", whatever that might be, has gained via free trade, the bit about religion is neither hear nor there, and it's more than a bit of an exaduration to claim that "community" isn't important to "left-coast" liberal types. It would be good to stress that the benefits of free trade have not been fairly distributed, and I'd like Obama to say that more clearly and to actually mean it. That, of course, wouldn't make his other remarks less true.

John B. said...

Russell,
Speaking as someone who, though not from Pennsylvania, is certainly a product of the socioeconomic class that is allegedly outraged by this, I agree with Matt on this. To say people are bitter is not an indictment of their character; and what else is religion for except to provide, as Frost said of poetry, a stay against confusion? As I've been following all this, I find myself thinking that this is of a piece with that moment in his speech on race where he notes that both blacks and whites feel resentment borne of the racial divide in this country and that both are in part justified to feel that resentment (he got pilloried in some quarters for saying that, too). Yeah, I'm an Obama supporter, but my response would be the same if Clinton or McCain had said this: Finally--a little honest talk about people feeling isolated (at best) from government. Indeed, McCain DID say something like this during the Michigan primary when he told voters that many of the jobs that state has lost aren't coming back . . . and his opponents' responses were just as strident as Clinton's has been over the past couple of days. But when McCain said that, I thought, Well--there's a bit of that legendary Straight Talk. It was good to hear. It's not feel-good talk; it's an acknowledgment of fundamental realities, which a guy like Obama in particular, with his theme of Another Kind of Politics, must show he has an awareness of if he's to succeed in November (hope springs eternal).

I think a fair reading of the entire transcript (scroll down) shows that he knows all that. He knows that, in terms of his youth and ethnicity, he's not your ordinary candidate. Quite apart from the fact that it seems pretty clear to me that this outrage is for the most part manufactured by some people who have the political bejeezuz scared out of them by an Obama candidacy, we've just not seen a candidate like this in a very long time (I certainly can't remember one), one who will speak difficult but undeniable truths to his audiences during an election year. As I watched the speech on race (twice), I thought to myself, This may very well cost him the nomination, but he's risen even higher in my estimation for saying these things.

The alternative to that sort of politics is to do things like brag about knowing how to shoot a gun, as his opponent in the primary did just last night: the very thing Obama tells us we've had more than enough of in politics. He's right about that, too.

Rob said...

Obama's tuning of his message was unfortunate, and he should have shown more of the compassion for the situation of those PA mill towns which he obviously has.

This is evident from his pre-political depictions in his book, Dreams From My Father, which he published before developing specific political aspirations on the national level.

But, Clinton's personal counterpoint, and McCain's surrogate counterpoint, were both just appalling. I listened to as much of the Clinton response as I could, but man, the woman was brown-nosing the people of Pennsylvania, and claiming an affinity for people from whom she fled with all her might, all her political life, until it became clear that she really needed them to beat a man she surely considers to be an upstart.

At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. McCain's guy simply overblew the gaffe with his semantics.

I'm happy with none of it, but I'm least happy with a mainstream media all too willing to follow such hyperbole, in order, as I see it, only to create ad sales.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt--

I'm not sure how the "libertarian lifestyle", whatever that might be, has gained via free trade, the bit about religion is neither hear nor there, and it's more than a bit of an exaggeration to claim that "community" isn't important to "left-coast" liberal types.

Well, what you're getting their from Patrick is a piece of his (and, to a certain degree, my) populist critique of globalism, and how the wealth produced by the frontierless information economy--an economy mostly untied to places, neighborhoods, vocations, and all the rest of the elementary requirements of local economic sovereignty--has mostly flowed to the lawyers and entertainers and intellectuals that are 1) often secular, and 2) rarely motivated by communitarian imperatives. You don't have to agree with it, obviously, but it holds together as an ideologically consistent argument.

Russell Arben Fox said...

John--

To say people are bitter is not an indictment of their character; and what else is religion for except to provide, as Frost said of poetry, a stay against confusion?

Exactly; I agree, and I don't think I said anything otherwise. "Bitter" wasn't the right word to use, I think, but the idea is by no means necessarily condescending towards or dismissive of a certain kind of religious belief. I can be employed in a condescending way, but I don't think this one statement is anywhere near enough evidence to prove that Obama feels that way.

The alternative to that sort of politics is to do things like brag about knowing how to shoot a gun, as his opponent in the primary did just last night: the very thing Obama tells us we've had more than enough of in politics. He's right about that, too.

Very well said. (And thanks for the link to the transcript of his remarks; I wasn't aware of them when I wrote my post last night--I thought it was just an off-the-cuff remark that had been caught on YouTube or somewhere.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Rob--

Clinton's personal counterpoint, and McCain's surrogate counterpoint, were both just appalling. I listened to as much of the Clinton response as I could, but man, the woman was brown-nosing the people of Pennsylvania, and claiming an affinity for people from whom she fled with all her might, all her political life, until it became clear that she really needed them to beat a man she surely considers to be an upstart....I'm least happy with a mainstream media all too willing to follow such hyperbole, in order, as I see it, only to create ad sales.

I share your frustration, but I'm sure I'm willing to dump on Clinton quite that much. Has she really been running away from these people her whole political life? Well, perhaps...but then again, arguably she's married to one of them, and there's been plenty of hints here and there over the years that Bill understands and respects the evangelical, working-class, rural world which so many white voters inhabit...and while Hillary originally turned those voters off back in Arkansas, she was eventually able to bring at least some of them around. But all that being said, for certain: she's lept on his gaffe of Obama's in a desperate, wholly distasteful way. (Handing out "I'm not bitter" buttons at rallies...oh, give me a freaking break.)

John B. said...

Russell,
In your response in which you quote my saying that saying people are bitter is not an indictment of character, you agreed, saying, "I don't think I said anything otherwise."

Just to make sure we cool: I didn't intend for my remark to imply that you were implying that. Others, though, on the 'Nets and the talk shows, were doing more than implying.

Oh, how much more meta can we become here?

Rob said...

Russell, fair to say, and unlike some of my family members, I don't think another Clinton presidency would entirely ruin the nation.

I'd forgotten about the "I'm not bitter" badges, but I agree that it seems like desparation driving her campaign of late.

Anonymous said...

I don't buy the part that the culture Obama was talking about is one with a long and continuous history. Without bringing up my formerly Baptist wife who doesn't recognize the church she was baptised into fifty years ago, I have a hard time squaring "your rural hunting lifestyle and culture" with the fact that at the same time that the fetishization of guns, and their use as a symbol of masculinity, toughness, and defiance has grown to outlandish heights, the number of rural people who hunt has drastically declined, and there is some evidence that the hunting culture has been degraded -- I think of two recent Oregon incidents where guys were shot by drunks who claimed to be hunting. My late father hunted for sixty years (rural boyhood, suburban adulthood) and grew to be quite concerned in his later years with the coarsening of what had been a demanding and honorable sport in his youth. I also think the incidence of shooting vandalism is on the rise. And the guy I used to work with who got a deer with a bow after stalking it for eight hours didn't have too many kind words for rifle hunters.

Gene O'Grady

Nate Oman said...

I think that the Obama comments were condescending, and as an HLS grad and a former denizen of the Gannett House world from which Obama came professionally, I would be absolutely shocked if he didn't subscribe to Tom Frank-esque stereotypes about rednecks. It is not as though someone in Cambridge or Chicago law firms actually every comes into contact with actual rural citizens.

The problem that Obama faces, however, is not ultimately about his rhetoric. Rather, it is that he ultimately has nothing to offer these people. Sure he can demogogue abit about protectionism, but at the end of the day protectionism is not going to bring back highly paid, unskilled, union jobs to anyone. That ship has sailed and unless one is willing to repeat the world holocaust -- World War II -- that created it. Why do you think there were all of those comfortable, high paid, unskilled, union jobs in the 1950s and 1960s? It is an intellectual's conceit to think that they were created by a different ideology and it is a bit of historical and economic ignorance to think that they were created by tarrifs. They existed because with the exception of the United States literally every major industrial region of the globe had been subject to massive arieal bombardment. Scuttling another bilateral trade agreement may serve to hurt a small Latin American economy, but it ain't going to bring back Detroit in its hey day.

On this point, I actually think that Bill Clinton -- and Obama before Ohio -- was much better: global trade isn't going away and we don't want it to given the massive benefits that it has conferred upon the world. Rather than adopting perverse policies in an attempt to rescue or recreate what can't be rescued or recreated, lets provide opprotunities to obtain training and expertise that will allow people to prosper in a modern commercial economy.

I love the poetry of Wendell Barry and I read it regularlly, but I don't delude myself into thinking that it represents intelligent and informed thinking about economics.

Nate Oman said...

sorry for the typos in my last comment. I'm writing fast because I have to get back to prepping for my contract class so that I can train lawyers on the methods of modern commerce. Someone needs to make sure that the forces of local economic sovereignty are good and thoroughly strangled ;->.

Matt said...

Russell,

I guess I don't understand what "populism" amounts to very well so I have a hard time responding to it. If it means giving people the means to control their lives then I think that Obama's position does it better than any of the other candidates and that this critique is both misguided and, frankly, a bit incoherent. (Obama is hardly perfect on this, of course.) If it means something other than giving people the means to control their lives then I'm not sure why it's desirable. Traditionally it's been tied up pretty closely with all sorts of nastiness, though, of the sort Obama mentions- xenophobia, bigotry, etc., often motivated by a belief that elites are pushing people around. That seems pretty much to me what Obama said and also seems true. I can't say I see that to be true about the other person's reply. As for communitarianism, it seems to me that everything that was original and interesting in it was already said by Bradley in his _Ethical Studies_ and that this was already adequately criticized by Sidgwick almost immediately. I don't see that there's anything left to it other than a personal preference. It's fine as that, and liberalism gives room for it, but it really doesn't hold up as more than that, I think.