Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Xenophobic Remark by a Gun-Toting Religious Small Town Person

Well, religious, anyway, and living in a small town.

In politics, I suppose two out of three is pretty good accuracy.

As I've said before, "Another War-on-Terror Blog" isn't political. But, since the way America chooses its leaders is political, sometimes politics butts in.

Barack Obama Opens Mouth, Inserts Foot

I've never wanted to run for office. That's partly because any remark, in any setting, no matter how well-intentioned, can turn on a candidate with the ferocity of a rabid badger.

Case in point:

"Obama: No Surprise That Hard-Pressed Pennsylvanians Turn Bitter"
Huffington Post (April 11, 2008)

An oddly unsmooth remark came from presidential candidate Barack Obama this week. This is what most of us have read about it:

"Obama made a problematic judgment call in trying to explain working class culture to a much wealthier audience. He described blue collar Pennsylvanians with a series of what in the eyes of creamy Californians might be considered pure negatives: guns, clinging to religion, antipathy, xenophobia."

I an cautiously skeptical about paraphrases, so I looked for an actual transcript.

I didn't find one, but I did find, linked from the Huffington Post article cited above, this page, with a brief discussion of the speech, quotations, and (most important) an audio recording of Mr Obama's remarks:

"Obama Exclusive (Audio): On V.P And Foreign Policy, Courting the Working Class, and Hard-Pressed Pennsylvanians"
Huffington Post (April 11, 2008) )
Consider the Source
Anyone forming a judgment about Mr. Obama's remarks should
  1. Listen to the audio itself
  2. Consider that Barack Obama was speaking at a fundraiser in California
I've got my own view about what Mr. Obama said, but first, a quote from the audio. It comes from a Q & A session after Barack Obama's prepared remarks. It's about 2/3 of the way through the 51-minute recording.

I'm leaving out quite a lot of Mr. Obama's prefatory remarks, leading up to the 'guns' quote. In my opinion, he was doing a fine job of explaining how people in rural areas have little reason, given the last few decades' experience, to trust or believe any assertion that the government wants to help them.
Liberal Humor: You Have to Consider the Culture
The only part of those remarks I didn't appreciate was "... when it's delivered by a 46-year old black guy named Barack Obama, [laughter] that adds another level of skepticism. [laughter] "

I think it's funny: I grew up in a liberal culture, and both understand and appreciate the humor. It's the implications about 'those people' that I don't appreciate. Particularly since I'm 'those people.'

The following is a quote from the Huffington Post page which contains the audio recording. It is not a strictly accurate transcript of Barack Obama's remarks. He was speaking extemporaneously, and his delivery contained the grammatical gaffes and false starts that are common to the spoken language in such circumstances.

However, the quote as written does not distort the meaning of Mr. Obama's remarks, so I have let it stand, apart from one correction.
Barack Obama, Explaining the Native Mores of Inner Pennsylvania
"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[ward] people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." [emphasis mine]

Presidential Candidate Says:
Rural People Cling to Guns and Religion, and Don't Like Immigrants

So what?

'Everybody knows' that urban people are all
  • Gun-free
  • Spiritual
      Without being [shudder] religious
  • Tolerant
    • In the great tradition of Martin Luther King
      • As imagined by 'intelligent' people
In sharp contrast, 'everybody knows' that rural inhabitants are
  • Armed and dangerous
  • Religious - and you know what that means!
  • Hate-filled racist bigots who hate
    • Black people
    • Brown people
    • Yellow people
    • Red people
      • Both kinds
    • Immigrants
    • Everybody else who doesn't
      • Agree with them
      • Look like them
Over-simplified? Yes!

An accurate reflection of many Americans' assumptions? I fear so.
Barack Obama: Bridge Builder?
The Huffington Post article says that Obama was trying to explain to Californians the exotic foreign culture of Pennsylvania, and I have no doubt that this assertion is true.

I was moderately surprised to see support for my view of Californians as a whole in the Huffington Post article. In common with the article's author, I think that Californians as a group "are a people in a state already surfeited with a smug sense of superiority and, as an ironic consequence, a parochialism and insularity at odds with the innovation, prosperity and openness for which California is rightly known."

Although I'll agree with the "parochialism and insularity," I believe that the claim to innovation and openness is debatable: although that may be a matter more of semantics than of experiential reality.

I will admit to a bias, when it comes to the comparative sophistication and tolerance of urbanites and people who live in rural areas.1

As for Mr. Obama's attempt to explain an alien culture to Californians, I think he was well-meaning, and acting with the best information and insight that he had.

I rather appreciated the way that he compared rural people with an established group of sympathetic 'victims:' inner city minority kids. I think it demonstrates a recognition that denizens of the fly-over states are as human as citizens of the coasts. Unhappily, he also described the natives in terms which made them seem more primitive and dangerous than the civilized Californians.

It's even possible that people in non-urban Pennsylvania do "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." At least, to an extent that's greater than what I see here in my part of central Minnesota: or have encountered in San Francisco; or anywhere else.

Possible, but unlikely.

How One of 'Those People' Reacts to Mr. Obama's Remarks

I'll give Barack Obama credit on two points: He
  1. Didn't use the word "xenophobic"
  2. Was talking to a room full of California liberals: as a good communicator, he was using their existing beliefs and assumptions, in an effort to explain a foreign concept
His remarks in the Q & A about rural Pennsylvanians - and by extension, all rural people - have not had an effect on my voting intentions. Nothing in the recording has changed my mind about Mr. Obama as a presidential candidate.

The odds that I'd vote for him are still approximately the same as those that a snowball will retain its structural integrity in a blast furnace.

It has nothing to do with his being black, or white, or because he was born in Hawaii, or went to Harvard. When this eloquent speaker emerged as a candidate who said he wanted an end to political bickering, I was hopeful. I thought he might be a person who had the ability to bring that lot in Washington into sporadic contact with the universe that the rest of us inhabit.

Then I found out about his voting record, and statements he'd made on a variety of issues. Much as I'd like to, I can't vote for him. His positions are, almost without exception, antithetical to mine.

Although I think it's possible that Barack Obama may have succeeded in making a roomful of Californians aware of Pennsylvanian natives' humanity, that victory came at a cost.

America now has one more national figure who is perpetuating the idea that people who voice disagreement with urban liberals are "poor, uneducated, and easily led."

(That quote, from a February, 1993, Washington post, is hard to track down - understandably, the Washington Post is non too eager to make the faux pas2 easy to find. The phrase was originally used to describe evangelical Christians.)
Bridge-Building With Negative Stereotypes?
For a man who says he wants to bring the country together, branding rural people as armed-and-dangerous 'religious' (California usage) foes of immigrants and minorities is, to say the least, an incredible blunder.

Even given the possibility that Mr. Obama did not know his remarks were being recorded.

For a presidential candidate to characterize the natives of rural areas in America in that way is a huge blunder. It's as if John F. Kennedy had referred to the darker-skinned followers of Martin Luther King as people who 'like watermelon and religion, and have a great sense of rhythm.' Even in the sixties, the sharper politicians knew better than to make statements like that.

Forty years later, I think it's time that America's dominant culture begin considering the possibility that natives of rural America are due the same respect extended to other 'minorities.' I'd ask for understanding, too: but I'm a reasonable man.
Update, April 13, 2008

I ran into a very, very, interesting post today:

"Obama, in his own words............"
geeZ! (April 13, 2008)

There's a little text, and a YouTube video.

Granted, the video, which shows text from words and works of Barack Obama, and his supporters, was not compiled by an Obama supporter.

However, I think that the collection of drearily familiar 'black power' rhetoric in this roughly 10-minute video is an indication that the ideas and ideals of the mid-sixties are alive and well.
1 I do not share America's dominant culture's preconceptions about urban/rural differences.
  • Although I've run into jerks everywhere I've lived, the most egregious case of racial bigotry I found outside a university classroom was in San Francisco. A white guy, witnessing another man trying to get a car parked, made remarks to me about the man, his driving expertise, and general character. The only part of his remarks which I can repeat is "electric rickshaw." I suppose that the white guy assumed, from my blue eyes and melanin deficiency, that I would agree with him. I don't, but that's another matter.
  • More recently, a colleague of mine told me about a conversation she'd had, involving someone traveling from the east coast to the heart of darkest Minnesota. The man's flight ended at the Minneapolis International Airport, but his destination was Bemidji, over a hundred miles north of there. The urbanite sensibly wanted to learn what sort of transportation he'd need, from the Minnesota metro area. Specifically, he wanted to know if he'd need to rent some sort of all-terrain vehicle, or if there were some sort of roads up there.
For the record: yes, Minnesota has a network of paved, two-lane or wider, roads, from Iowa to the Canadian border. We also have electricity, running water, telephone service, and high-speed Internet connections.

2 That spelling of faux pas is not a gaffe. I know that the equivalent French term for faux pas is bourde or erreur: or gaffe. The spelling I use is in common usage among people writing American English, and the term is, by now, an English one, by right of usage.


Ruinous Right said...

Fair coverage. I definitely agree those were a poor choice of words and I understand how they may have offended some people. I THINK I understood what he was trying to convey and you seem to as well.

"America now has one more national figure who is perpetuating the idea that people who voice disagreement with urban liberals are "poor, uneducated, and easily led."

We also have right-wing pundits like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter mischaracterizing Democrats on a far more regular basis.

I'm not an unbalanced, anti-American, unpatriotic, far left loon fascist as these people would have you believe. I'm simply a concerned U.S. citizen and moderate Democrat who is fed up.

Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...

Ruinous Right,

Thanks for the comment. Public debate (using the term in a very loose sense) on the two major American presidential candidates seems to be dancing on the ragged edge of reality these days.

One more thing, re. the term "fascist." I'm not sure where that came from. I avoid using it, unless the person or idea actually is fascist - and there are precious few of those around these days.

I suppose that some on all sides of politics use it indiscriminately - what's generally meant by "fascist" apparently is "arbitrary" or "unreasonable." More often, I think, "fascist" is used as a simple expletive.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.