Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The world according to the Obamas


I'm not sure when it happened but, for me at least, presidential politics has managed to turn an old adage, "If you're not angry, you're not paying attention," upside down. If you're paying attention, it's well-nigh impossible to be angry.

At least, authentically angry.

Oh, every season brings a long train of fresh outrages—bogus attacks, slick spin, waffles, panders, flip-flops, fast ones and outright lies—over which to wax, as we say in the trade, "shocked and appalled." Barack Obama's resume-padding! Hillary Clinton's ducking sniper fire in Bosnia. Yes, it's all hands on deck, but authentic anger? Please.

At least I thought so until Obama's big-think musings on small-town Pennsylvania. As he was talking among friends at a San Francisco-area manse, Obama proceeded to commit sociology and in the process may have committed slow-motion political suicide: "You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania," he explained, "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 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."

The condescension. The arrogance. The elitism.

"I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people," Edmund Burke said in the run-up to the American Revolution.

Obama, the self-avowed "city-slicker," seems to have gotten the hang of it. Not only has he drawn up an indictment against a whole people, but he bases that indictment on what motivates them (not being drawn to Obama). Our candidate/psychoanalyst/anthropologist apparently knows what feelings and subconscious forces lurk beneath the small-town Pennsylvanian's self-destructive behavior (not being drawn to Obama). Maybe this is the kind of clairvoyance that comes with an education at America's elite universities. Or, more likely, it's just rank presumptuousness.

In Obamaland, Pennsylvania and Midwestern small-towners are bitter, anti-immigrant and racist, and they go in for guns and God because they're frustrated with their economic lot. They're either too stupid to vote in their own best interests or easily manipulated by bogus cultural-religious appeals.

Somehow, I'm not feeling the Obama healing.

Maybe that's because I grew up in small-town Pennsylvania. Or maybe it's because this reheated Marxist false-consciousness analysis is just silly and insulting. It may go over big at San Francisco cocktail parties or campus espresso salons or anywhere two or more hard-lefties gather to rationalize why they lose presidential elections, but the analysis breaks down for anyone who's done more than give campaign speeches in America's small towns.

For starters, it's telling that Obama lumps racial bigotry and xenophobia together with religion and gun ownership. Was that rhetorical clumsiness or an insight into what he really thinks? Is racial bigotry in the same category as religious worship? Is hostility to immigrants in the same category as gun ownership? It's also worth noting that religion and Second Amendment rights have been important in rural America for centuries—in good times and bad.

Then there's the larger matter of Obama's view of small-town folks across Pennsylvania and the nation. They're not bitter people. In fact, the churches of small-town folks who "cling to religion" in the hard times generally promote hope and joy and frown on bitterness and hatred of immigrants or people who look different. It's the old "All God's Children," "Love your neighbor" thing.

Maybe the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.'s church is different. His sermons make it sound that way. It helps explain the anger and resentment—dare I say, bitterness?—that Michelle Obama expresses about her country. We're a land that is "just downright mean" and "guided by fear," she's said on the campaign trail. Only with her husband's presidential campaign has she had a change in heart about her nation: "For the first time in my life I'm proud of my country."

OK, fine. But small-town Pennsylvanians don't wallow in that kind of bitterness. Or, if they're so inclined, a hunting trip on Saturday or a good sermon on Sunday helps them resist the temptation.

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