Monday, April 14, 2008

Two Cents on Bitterness and Ambivalence

In the mid-90's, when I was working my graveyard shift food service job to pay for the rat-infested apartment I occupied with my unemployed girlfriend in a classic Dead/Dying Midwestern Industrial Town, intermittently driving a Dead/Dying Microcosm of the American Auto Industry, and hanging out with strippers and small time drug dealers, I made the to-be-immortal comment "Listen, you know White Trash, I know White Trash, we're not White Trash, we're... Bohemian."

So I realize that it is very possible to be in touch with the concerns of White Working Class voters, even to be immersed up to and sometimes past the nostrils in the concerns of White Working Class voters, and still harbor an elitist liberal attitude. It's tough to work with a guy who can't afford prescription medicine but can afford to send a check to Jack Van Impe. It's tough to talk with a woman who thinks that she can't get ahead at work because Affirmative Action has stacked the deck and not because a person (like herself) who drops the occasional N-bomb can't be allowed anywhere near customers. It's tough to talk with someone who actively discourages her kids from attending Community College because when she went they told her she could be a paralegal in two years, but they were lying and her Associate's degree was worthless. These people all knew that they were supposed to go to work, do their job, get paid, go to school, get a better job, get paid more, raise a family, help their kids do better than they did, and feel some sense of satisfaction. And they knew that that was neither where they were at or where they were going. And they firmly believed that the gap between what was and what should be was not under their control. Trying to convince somebody that there's a difference between preaching and a sales pitch, or that education was the only way to get ahead, or that just because nobody feels like a bigot doesn't mean that prejudice doesn't exist, often got received the same way: You think I'm wrong. You think I'm stupid. You don't think that I deserve any better. You think you're better than me, and you're not.

In typical liberal fashion, I engaged in introspection, and decided that although all but the first one were usually false, I couldn't completely deny all of those assertions, at least not all of the time. These were real people with sympathetic life stories, and if I presumed to know better than them, I had better get used to a snug fitting shoe called Presumptuousness.

What Obama said was that people in small-town Central PA were bitter because they know the difference between what is and what should be, and they know that gap has held steady or increased, despite the promises of decades of politicians. Obama's big-picture message is that he can shrink that gap. Bitter, cynical people would rather have their own justifications for that gap validated than get burned believing yet another politician who says he can close the gap, especially one who contends that he can do it without blaming anybody. The context of his comments was that his challenge is overcoming the cynicism that has been bred from that accumulated and justifiable bitterness.

What's interesting here is that Obama believes he can, Hillary and McCain think he can't, and both sides are doubling down. Obama's opponents are screaming: He thinks you're wrong! He thinks you're stupid! He thinks you don't deserve any better! He thinks he's better than you, and he's not! Obama is insisting that these attacks are the same sideshow politics that have been used to avoid addressing actual problems, which by extension is the root cause of unhappiness in small town Central PA.

Hillary reminds me this weekend of the song "Common People" by Pulp. It's not a flattering comparison. The irony in my overall take on the situation is that, as a populist-leaning liberal, I see Obama as being the populist for validating the discontent of Working Class Whites and crediting them with the desire to engage in transformation, and Hillary as the elitist for assuming that knee-jerk pandering is the most advantageous response to make. Of course, it is most likely a function of my elitism that I consider it knee-jerk pandering. Following that reasoning, if the Democrats of Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, etc. believe that Obama's comments make him less worthy than Clinton of being their nominee, than it doesn't really matter in what way Obama misjudged them, he'll deserve the hit he takes. Obama didn't believe he was insulting anyone's intelligence or sincerity. If that's true, intelligent and sincere people won't be insulted. If it's true and people are insulted anyway, Obama's entire campaign premise is flawed. If Obama's belief is false, and he inadvertently but manifestly offended intelligent and sincere Working Class Pennsylvanians, he deserves the hit.

Right now my cynicism outweighs my hope. Senator Obama should hope that I'm an isolated case.


Special J said...

Off the subject, but I like to digress right off of the bat...

As a good Dem, I think you should opine of the rotting, festering monstrosity that is the Marc Dann administration.

This has all the makings of a political scandal that will dwarf anything Taft ever dreamed of, and it's now being compounded by MD's bastardization of the same Open Records Act that he so skillfully utilized as a sword in his political career.

"Open government is important. But that axiom doesn't apply to me. Because I'm special. Wanna come to my kegger in Dublin this Saturday?"

This guy has to be absolutely burning you up. If he's not, you need a jump start.

bonobo said...

I'm not happy about our A.G.

Dann has potential legal problems, potential ethical problems, potential professional problems, potential political problems, and potential personal problems. I'm reluctant to opine further until we know which are which.

Special J said...

You say potential...I say kinetic.

Eric said...

kinetic. i like that. ;-)

Joe Peffer - Full Time Professional Realtor said...

wait, you used to hang out with strippers?

bonobo said...

Oddly enough, yes. It's amazing who you get to know working the midnight shift at Denny's. When I found myself with very little time to find a new apartment, it turned out that the friend of a friend was in the same situation, so I shared a two bedroom townhouse with a Deja Vu showgirl for a year. I started dating the woman I referred to in the above piece while I was living there, and those two are friends to this day.