Sunday, April 13, 2008

Pennsylama

Portions of a speech Barack Obama gave recently at a private fund-raising event in San Francisco:

“Here's how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism … You go into some of 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.”

And his apology shortly afterwards:

“Well look, if there — obviously, if I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that. But the underlying truth of what I said remains, which is simply that people who have seen their way of life upended because of economic distress are frustrated and rightfully so. And I hear it all the time when I visit these communities. People say they feel as if nobody is paying attention or listening to them and that is something — that is one of the reasons I am running for president. I saw this when I first started off as a community organizer and the steel plants had closed, and I was working with churches in communities that had fallen on hard times. And they felt angry and frustrated.”

It was a good idea for him to apologize, although his apology didn’t address the real issue: portraying rural Pennsylvanians as gun-and-Bible toting rednecks. The fallout is predictable: Clinton jumped all over it, as well she should have. Bloggers and pundits bemoaned a return to the “old way” of politics, although I’m not quite sure what they mean. Wouldn’t Obama degrading such a massive group of potential voters be playing into that old “red state/blue state” trope with all its attendant stereotypes, in a far worse way than his opponent or detractors using this against him?

His advisors are obviously telling him to publicly run his campaign as cleanly as possible because he’s winning, whereas they’d advise he attack if he wasn’t. (I suspect his advisors are privately telling him: “You got Philly and Pittsburgh, later for the rest of the state.”) To the folks who thinks he represents some “new wave” of political honesty and integrity … fuck you. That’s what you need to hear if you’re that naïve, or more honestly, that misled. It’s politics, and the real issue in this situation is 24-hour news coverage to the extent that something like this mushrooms into a disaster, not political strategy. The guy made a statement of casual bigotry, amplified because it crossed racial boundaries. Place it in the overall context of how you view the man. Judge accordingly. Might be a blip on your radar screen. Might be fighting words.

I stay out of politics as much as possible, and I’m addressing this instance mainly because I’m from Pennsylvania and know the drill. It’s nothing new. James Carville once described rural Pennsylvania as being like Alabama (once you get out of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Never been to Alabama, but judging by his accent, Carville ought to know better. Pittsburgh is hardly a cosmopolitan center. Philly is a bit run-down. You got places like Harrisburg, Allentown, Williamsport, Reading, Wilkes Barre, Altoona and so on, that are good-sized cities, parts of which are just as gritty as any inner-city neighborhood you’ll find in New York. Carville’s an asshole, but I don’t think he’d argue the point with you. “Professional Asshole” is a more apt job description than political consultant. (Maybe these doctored lyrics should apply: "I hope James Carville does remember/Northern man don't need him around anyhow.")

I like Obama in general, although I suspect he doesn’t have the political clout to pull off a fraction of what he puts forth. My main problem with him, much like the Grateful Dead, isn’t him, but his fans. The smugness. The feigned naiveté of people who should or do know better, which I find far more cynical than any other factor in this election. There’s a certain kind of liberal, the one who perceives himself as smarter than everyone in the room, who ought to be put out to pasture. Or just grow the fuck up and recognize no one cares how incredibly “enlightened” he is. The concept of millions of these annoying, luke-warm twats supporting Obama doesn’t sit well with me. And I basically like the man and see his worth.

I think Obama’s problem is going to be there are plenty of people all over the country in places like Pennsylvania who recognize they’ve been slighted, too. The real issue is the sense of being put out to pasture, of being made a joke of so, in this case, Obama could say something “insightful” about rural America to a bunch of wealthy, cosmopolitan Californians, who could just as easily take a drive one hour in any direction and encounter the exact kind of folks you’d run into anywhere in rural Pennsylvania. I don’t understand the game of painting these people as fearful, bitter, racist rednecks. I do understand it – he’s playing to people’s worst perceptions and using the white working class as a convenient punching bag – but I don’t understand someone as smart as he should be not recognizing the next step, that he will be held accountable for these words, and held accountable by people who are far more tired of being perceived as invisible, unless they serve as the butt of jokes and insults coming from the aforementioned twats in the previous paragraph.

Besides which, Pennsylvania’s really not doing that bad. The unemployment rate is not that far above the national average, and I’d wager that most of the unemployment focuses around the urban centers. It’s doing much better than when I was of employment age in the early 80s. Click on this URL for the US Department of Labor, then click on the back data for the unemployment rate, choose the range to go from 1976 to current, so you can see how the unemployment rate has plummeted over the past three decades – nothing like when I was a teenager and facing a double-digit unemployment job market.

And ask yourself how hard it was to find employment in the early 80s. That chart seems to demonstrate sky-rocketing employment and labor force in the past two decades – correct me if I’m wrong. What I wouldn’t debate: the type of work you can find. Because I can see in my own home area, it’s all industrial and retail type work, not glamorous work, or even traditionally factory/coal-mine type work the state was historically noted for. I gather when Obama’s talking to people who feel “forgotten” in some sense, he doesn’t understand that he’s talking to people who are referring to a way of life that no longer exists, as opposed to people who are probably pissed off that their area is flooded with McJobs and other low-level employment opportunities that are nowhere near as romantic as coal miner or steel-driving man. The economy has shifted and grown in ways they may not grasp.

And that’s why I don’t live in rural Pennsylvania! (Believe me, after 20 years of dealing with New Yorkers, I have far less problems with rural Pennsylvanians than I'd have ever imagined. To be totally honest, assholes are everywhere, in all colors, shapes and sizes, so I don’t really dwell on which place is better or worse, as both have their merits.) As for this “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” business, man, that has to be one of the biggest political gaffs I’ve heard in a long time.

Again, he’s kissing up to a bunch of wealthy white folks who don’t know their ass from a whole in the ground when it comes to working-class people of any color. So he used these easy, regrettable reference points that have nothing to do with people struggling in any sense. The words sound like something you’d hear at an upper-middle-class dinner table, offering excuses for these poor, dumb white folk who don’t get they should be using the color of their skin to make more money and thus be enlightened. (Pass the tofu, spinach and sun-dried tomato salad, Dylan!) The “clinging to religion” thing is a political kiss of death. If it doesn’t sink him with Hilary, rest assured, McCain will give him a rough time over that one. Again, as well he should!

I’ve seen it put forth by a few bloggers that this will only inflame the red state/blue state divide. Got bad news for them. The only people I've ever seen harping on that divide are liberals. Because the perception is that “blue state” people are smarter/more affluent, ergo the only thing to be gained by any sort of “red state” pride is a shit-kicker/country music video sort of faux authenticity that might sell pick-up trucks, but not political candidates. The whole red state/blue state nonsense began as a negative reaction/explanation of the inexplicable … Bush winning a second term in office. How could this happen? Oh … it was all those dumb, gun- and bible-toting rednecks who made it happen, those rotten, inbred bastards! Not us. Don’t blame us! We’re smarter than that! Don’t you know we’re smarter than everyone? Here, look at this pill-shaped globe map of America that shows where all us blue-state people really live and how we voted! It wasn’t us, man! I hope they don’t hold this against us when we go to Paris in June!

I honestly don’t care who gets elected president this time around. (I've had friends on both sides of the fence lament that their candidate not winning would be catastrophic for the world and nation. Bullshit. Life will go on, no matter who wins, and I recommend they cut back on the silly political grandstanding.) As noted earlier, I like a lot of what Obama has to say. McCain, hate to say it, I simply like because the guy survived a desperately hard-assed situation in the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, and that impresses me, no matter what the guy does for a living. Even Clinton, despite all the dogshit she and her husband put the country through with the constant lying, I still like – she’s done nothing horribly wrong in New York state the past few years and has proved her mettle as a politician. I just came to the realization a few years ago that most politicians are lawyers, and that was enough for me to throw out the baby with the bath water. That’s all I need to know about most politicians. Call me cynical or unfair. But I’ve worked with lawyers, many times over in my adult life, and I trust those fuckers about as far as I could throw them. I keep that in mind with any politician. Should be an interesting few weeks in Pennsylvania. Those poor gun- and bible-toting rednecks!

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

"The “clinging to religion” thing is a political kiss of death."

Yeah, that was really a tone-deaf comment coming from someone who's written so much about how he came to Jesus, and whose pastor has been such a bone of contention.

But the whole thing also shows how the information revolution is changing politics. In the old days you could get away with giving different, contradictory messages to different groups, because those messages stayed out of the mainstream political coverage. With bloggers and YouTube covering and disseminating everything you say, that's no longer possible.

And there's so little difference between Obama and Clinton on the issues that their battle has to come down to stuff like this: picking apart every verbal gaffe made by the other. McCain has to be loving it, because it makes his victory in November that much more likely.