Sunday, April 13, 2008

The mood of bitterness

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 gonna regenerate and they have not.

And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations. [Barack Obama]
When I was young, one of my favorite trivia questions was, "What is the second largest city in Illinois?" Some people would say Peoria, some Springfield, some Evanston, but very few would get the right answer, Rockford.

Rockford was one of the success stories of the 1950s and '60s, with a strong manufacturing base and independence from the massive influence of Chicago. (I'm oversimplifying here, of course; Rockford undoubtedly was helped by its proximity to Chicago, but, 90 miles away, it was never governed by the fates of the big city the way that the current #2, #4, and #5, Aurora, Naperville, and Joliet, respectively, are.) But we know what happened to any northern American city that relied on manufacturing. The New Economy smacked these places down, and few have recovered any significant vitality.

Oh, Rockford has plans to rebuild (as detailed here in a somewhat dated Chicago Tribune article). The two basic prongs of this approach seem to be closer ties to Chicago and attracting tourists through the construction of a river walk. My belief is that, at 90 miles, Rockford is too far from Chicago to become truly bound to it, especially as Chicago deals with high real estate and gas prices. What looked like a growing megalopolis is beginning to look like a place in serious need of retrenchment, and I doubt that exurban sprawl is going to encompass Rockford.

And they're going to build a river walk, the last refuge of frustrated urban planners. I live in Naperville, which built a riverwalk about 25 years ago as a civic improvement project. But all attempts to make it the centerpiece of a major tourist attraction are futile; it's a nice area, but the river is unimpressive and the scenery no better than many other places. Naperville's a nice place to live, to be sure, but it is not going to be a destination for world travelers any time soon. Rockford is even a tougher sell.

It's not clear to me that some of the cities like Rockford can even continue to exist over the long haul. When the majority of the working population are employed selling things to one another, you have a stagnant, at best, community. I wish Rockford no ill, there are some beautiful spots nearby, but, in this brave new economic world, it may not have a useful niche.

But home is a powerful thing, and one generation ago, Rockford was thriving with a strong future. Who could know then that the children and grandchildren of the productive workers would be facing the dismantling of their way of life, a life they worked very hard to achieve?

Are residents of Rockford bitter, as life has passed them by, their jobs and futures gone overseas, no leader with a plan to right the course? I don't know, but if some of them aren't, I'd be very surprised. For them, and for others in all the cities and towns across this country who followed the rules and worked hard to carve out a piece of the American Dream, only to see it taken and put in the pockets of the schmoozers and glad-handers who sit in the corporate suites or walk the halls of the Capitol, how could there not be bitterness?

Yet, let a presidential candidate say that, acknowledge the palpable sense of loss and frustration that pervades much of America, and he's jumped on with both feet. Obama's mistake: just once letting the veil drop and admitting that American self-love conceals a darkness at its heart. Truth, if it conflicts with the narrative, is the enemy; far better to live the lie, believe the magic, and hold up our fingers and chant "We're Number One" as we slide ever faster into the morass. Live the dream, sell the dream, be the dream, as reality slips up behind us and smacks us in the head.

Could Obama have stated the themes of his second paragraph better? Sure, he could have, but it is not wrong to accept that people do retreat into narrow portions of their lives in order to escape an unconfrontable reality. He used guns and religion to illustrate this, and those are toxic waste areas for open discussion. He could have said sports or cooking shows or any of a number of other diversions, but the point would have been the same, and it would have been valid.

Does the media attempt to engage the content of this topic? Absolutely not. A recent Chicago Tribune article explained the challenging retail market by writing, "Americans appear to be in no mood to shop," as if saving The Sharper Image from bankruptcy is just a matter of attitude. Consumer confidence is seen as the story, not the underlying challenges that have undermined that confidence.

Robert Reich, whose success would give him every right to buy into the Social Darwinism that is the coin of the realm, writes about this very topic today. This former Clinton secretary of labor, who admits he didn't do enough to help his fellow Americans, believes (rightly, I think) that the anger and bitterness has been used, inflamed into blame against almost anyone but the people who deserve it, those who have sold out their countrymen for riches or power. And Reich points out how the media, by stepping back and taking their neo-objective look at "reality," has contributed to a sense of inevitability and impotence, and that just further inflames the anger.

Reich apparently was appalled by this morning's Meet the Press (curiously, he calls Tim Russert "one of the smartest guys on television - I've never met Russert, I would assume Reich has, but I've never thought he came across as such a smart guy - smart aleck, sophist, self-impressed, maybe). He must not watch it very often, particularly with James Carville and Mary Matalin, the political odd couple that needs to find something else to do (Carville has little to say other than how much he "dearly, dearly loves" the Clintons, and Matalin's worship of Dick Cheney is embarrassing).

Does Russert really believe he’s doing the nation a service for this parade of spin doctors talking about potential spins and the spin-offs from the words Obama used to state what everyone knows is true? Or is Russert merely in the business of selling TV airtime for a network that doesn’t give a hoot about its supposed commitment to the public interest but wants to up its ratings by pandering to the nation’s ongoing desire for gladiator entertainment instead of real talk about real problems.
Hmmm, I wonder. But Reich goes on to describe the "downward spiral" that many real people know is occurring, and actually dares to point out that bitterness is not even close now to what it could become. He concludes, "Eighty percent of Americans know the nation is on the wrong track. The old politics, and the old media that feeds it, are irrelevant now." We can only hope.


Anonymous said...

White people are bitter and frustrated. Better-qualified white students, employees, etc. face intense racial discrimination. Obama and his liberal comrades call it “Affirmative Action”.
Millions of white Americans see “people who aren’t like them” illegals and inner-city parasites sucking up on free benefits.
Millions of tax paying white Americans can no longer use the public school system because “people who aren’t like them” have made the schools awash with violence, drugs, and gangster rap.

SCD said...

Anonymous, you're a moron. I could give a better refutation of your contentions, but I don't really see the point, so name-calling will have to suffice, for now. Idiot.

Red Oak said...

The problem with the "Obama comment" is that all the media talk is, well, all about the media talk. Are people really offended because Obama "dared to speak the truth rather than feed the public the lies it wants to hear"? Well, I've taken the time to peruse the offendees (myself included), and that doesn't seem to be the case. Obama's phrasing was very, very ill-chosen, and wide-open to being interpreted by reasonable people as a denial of any legitimacy to these people's concerns about these issues. Hey, I'm gunless, godless, and nowhere near the white blue-collar demographic, and the comment (which I encountered in its un"media"ted state) sure struck me as breathtakingly contempuous. Poorly spoken. Thuddingly poorly spoken. (And exacerbated by the fact that Obama has shown an incapacity to deal with certain real issues, that call for concrete material solutions, as anything but products of "wrong attitudes".)

But I accept that speech is an imperfect medium, and expect politicians to stick their feet into it. Though I do wonder why a man so credited as a good speaker should should be so unable to mount a straightforward, aggressive attack on the Republican party's failures, instead of wandering into the self-indulgent tar-pit of psychoanalyzing Joe Bob and deploring Republican tactics. Jesus, how stupid is that? Why do the Dems find it so excruciatingly hard to do it the right (easy) way? Reich is right about who should be getting blamed, there's a big, fat, fat cat target sitting right there in the center ring. So we have to ask why the Democrats won't get on with it. Well, I think I know part of the answer to that: a) they're fat cats, too, and b) their obdurate refusal to accept the first holy rule of making yourself understood: "Your failure to communicate is not the other guy's fault." Democrats have wasted obscene amounts of energy in these last years looking for the causes of their tone-deafness and ineffective rhetoric in everyone but themselves. And here they are, at it again! Genius. Pure genius.

However, the comment itself was nowhere near as offensive as the media hacks who poured out of the wooodwork and proceeded to lecture Joe Bob and me about why we were offended, without bothering to ask Joe Bob and me why we were offended. Now that's elitist!

The funny part is of course Clinton getting high and mighty about it, when she's every bit as out of it on these issues as Obama. But there, again, is the really offensive thing - they're not interested in Joe Bob but only in a Joe Bob refracted through Clinton's machinations and hypocrisies. Never, "hey Joe Bob, whaddaya think?", always "let's all have an incestuous pundit-fest on how this is gonna be used by Clinton's Rovian machine to bamboozle stupid crazy Joe Bob."

I don't watch television news so maybe my view is skewed by the blogosphere and reading about who said what online. Did any of the shows have callers or seek out Joe Bob for an interview? Or was it insiders talking to insiders about what some other insider thinks: 100% Joe Bob-free analysis about what Joe Bob thinks? 'Cause that's sure what it looks like to me.

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