Tuesday, April 15, 2008

More on bitterness

I wasn't going to comment on this issue again, the comments by Barack Obama on bitterness, having done so just a few days ago. But it doesn't seem to be going away, as polls come out indicating that Obama is either holding to a single-digit deficit to Clinton in Pennsylvania, or has gone down by 20 percentage points.

And as I read the usual sources, it is clear that Obama's observations, which seemed correct if poorly stated, have engendered a wide range of opinions. For example, 2Truthy, whose passion and ragged eloquence I admire on Losing the War on Humor, is incensed about the comments, comparing his supporters to Nazi sympathizers. Leaving aside whether this falls under Godwin's law, I would like to speak to 2Truthy's criticisms.

First of all, I share his concern, if not so vehemently, that Obama is no panacea; he is a product of the same system that produced pretty much every current politician, and the idea that our problems will magically disappear January 20, 2009 is ludicrous. There are many issues that are being ignored in this campaign, by all the candidates, and many common economic assumptions are held by all that have been proven not to work quite as the academics say (or they assume away the inconvenient realities). I remain a guarded supporter of Obama because, we have to have a president, and I think that, of the three, he has the highest probability of working closer to the truth. I accept that I could be wrong, that he may just be the unknown on whom I'm projecting my hopes, but I prefer that to the ambitious Clinton or the obtuse McCain.

2Truthy parses the statement in detail. First, there is the feeling that "bitter" is not a sufficiently strong word, that "'bitter' doesn't begin to describe the state of mind most Americans are in." This strikes me as a definitional matter, since I have always found "bitter" a very strong word to describe a state of mind. That Obama recognizes this much, as opposed to the Clinton/McCain oblivion when it comes to the feelings of the average assailed American, is, to me, some progress.

Second, the reference to guns. Here I think 2Truthy misses the point somewhat; my sense is that this reference (as was the one to religion) was about the ways in which Americans are treating their angst with diversions. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Obama could have mentioned football or NASCAR or any of the other consuming pastimes that keep Americans from feeling that their lives are over.

Third, religion. I didn't see Obama's remark as religion-bashing, he was pointing out, clumsily, that religion is used for comfort, and I don't see how that can be objectionable, except in the current way that any comment that mentions religion at all is contentious. Anyone who has ever felt closer to God in a time of tribulation is religious in that sense, and that's not an attack.

Fourth, "antipathy to people who aren't like them." To argue that people (not just Americans) tend to blame those who are different for their problems is self-apparent. Absolutely, that sentiment has been inflamed by leaders anxious to cover up their unwillingness to represent their people, but it's natural - who will blame their neighbor when there is an "Other" to soak up the bad feelings? 2Truthy's view on this, and I can't say I fully followed this line, seems to neglect this truth.

Fifth, that people are against immigrants and trade "as a way to explain their frustrations." This is, to me, probably the most objectionable part of Obama's words, mainly because it simplifies a complex matter. The idea that real concern about policies that have enriched some people at the expense of others is simply a coping mechanism ignores reality. The public may not be discussing trade policy in terms of regression coefficients, rent-extraction mechanisms, or labor endowment, but they do understand that it's not working for them. They certainly understand that an influx of low-wage immigrants tends to lower wages for all, and that's Econ 101.

So, unlike 2Truthy, I don't see Obama's comments as social Darwinism in action, but as a mixture of obvious truths and "common wisdom." At least he's not arguing, as so many do, that the "fundamentals are strong, and we're on the verge of turning the corner."

Others have weighed in on the truth of Obama. James Howard Kunstler, in his entry for 4/14, and Jane Smiley, in a Huffington Post item, both write with anger about the reaction to what seems to them to be rare truth. Kunstler:
Nevertheless, in the manner lately prescribed for those who slip up and speak truthfully in public (and in contradiction to the reigning delusions), Obama was pressured to apologize for his statements.
So now, Barack Obama tells the truth about conditions as we know them--that the countryside and the small towns are dying in many places in our country, and that the corporatocracy doesn't care enough to do a thing about it. He points out that immigrant-baiting, gay-baiting, gun-baiting, and religious pandering have helped to destroy those towns and that countryside, that those being destroyed have been cynically enlisted by their very own destroyers to provide the votes that help accomplish the destruction.
And each is passionate about Clinton's exploitation of this issue. Kunstler:
The evermore loathsome and odious Hillary Clinton, co-owner of a $100 million personal wealth portfolio, seized the moment to remind voters what a normal, everyday gal she is -- who would never look down on the small-town folk of Pennsylvania the way her "elitist" opponent had -- forgetting, apparently, that the Clinton family's consigliere, James Carville, famously described the Keystone State as a kind of redneck sandwich with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as the bread, and Alabama as the lunch meat in between....A President Hillary will also go a long way to defeating the popular delusion that a world ruled by female humans would be heaven-on-earth. (It would be more like one of those chaotic single-parent households in Section-8 housing, ruled by a harried and distracted mom, with a shadowy man in the background molesting the little ones while she was off working at the WalMart.)
I cannot believe that after the last seven and a half years, I can even get this angry. Yes, I know she is pandering to her audience. Yes, I know she will do anything to get elected. Yes, I know that she and Bill Clinton are corrupt to the core, and that I should have never expected anything better of her. But, please, any of you angry white women who still support this craven shill, don't mention it to me.
I can't add anything to those.

But what does surprise me is the reaction of Kevin Drum at Political Animal. He is usually a little more attuned to these things, and I think he missed the point in his post:
Once you clear out all the meta-clutter, though, what really strikes me as odd about Obama's statement is that, on its merits, it's largely untrue, isn't it? Economic distress probably is responsible for growing anti-trade sentiment (though the Midwest has never exactly been a bastion of free trade support), and maybe for a bit of the increase in anti-immigrant sentiment too (though I think this has been more cultural than economic, and is primarily rooted in the simple fact that we have a lot more illegal immigrants today than we did 15 years ago). But does anyone really think that stagnant wages and globalization are responsible for rural gun culture? Or the rise of the Christian right? Or an increase in bigotry? This stuff just doesn't seem to be related to recent economic distress in any serious way at all.
Did he read what Obama said? I saw no contention that stagnant wages created "rural gun culture," just that people retreated into an embrace of what they already valued when besieged by an economy that had no use for them. Drum seems to think that the point is that recent economic problems have created a surge in the Christian right, but, as Obama pointed out, this is the culmination of a 25-year process (in some cases, more than 25). There is ample evidence that politicians shamelessly used economic woes to inflame the political involvement of Christians.

At any rate, it's interesting to see these different views. What real effect this might have on the campaign remains anyone's guess.

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