Thursday, April 17, 2008



People have asked why I haven’t commented on Barack Obama’s condescending remarks regarding the frustrations of working class, rural people. I have two reasons: First, I have been busy with other projects (specifically, wrapping up (hopefully) a novel) and hence have done little with the Pontificator of late and, second, I don’t think I have much to add. But this is too important a development to ignore, so here goes:

If this were anybody but Obama (or perhaps, John McCain (Did you know he was a POW in Vietnam?), who is the only person in the inhabited universe who gets better press than Barack Obama), such a comment would have finished his campaign. I say this admitting that there is a small element of truth in what he says: When people get angry or bitter, even when justifiably angry or bitter, they tend to lash out at others, especially at the achievements of others, and tend to seek comfort in the things that they have found most, well, comforting. This is the human condition and it is by no means limited to working class or rural people; it is how we all react but, in most cases, we wish we didn’t and, in many cases, we try hard not to react the same way “the next time.” Further, the politicians, and mostly the Republicans, have done a good job of deflecting those fears and frustrations toward issues that, even if not ancillary in many people’s minds, are at best, unaddressable in the political context.

That having been said, Obama’s comments were insulting, condescending, and hypocritical for a number of reasons. First, he seemed to be saying that religion is some sort of superstition, little more than an anodyne psychological teddy bear that serves as a pacifier in times of crisis. For many of us, our faiths, our religions, are the center of our lives, the very reason we live, even if our lives don’t always reflect that as much as we would like and, at times, at all. Second, Obama seemed to be equating religion with hatred and suspicion of others as just another of the many emotional balms to which we cling in difficult times. While one can always cite examples, primarily on the fundamentalist fringes of any religion, in which hatred and suspicion of others tend to go hand in hand with the practice of one’s particular faith, true faith, true religion of any stripe teaches us to love and respect our brothers and sisters, whether or not they share our faith. Third, Obama’s apparent denigration of religion and of protectionism (He also cited hostility to free trade as one of those seemingly fatuous sources of comfort for the angry and bitter.) appear to be the height of hypocrisy for a man who regularly trumpets his faith and his suspicion of free trade.

Even if there is some truth in Obama’s eloquent, but amusing, backtracking on these statements (a brave supposition), his comments look AWFUL. They wholeheartedly affirm the caricature of the Democrats (Note that there is much truth in good caricature.) as some sort of Party of Polyhistors bringing truth to the benighted working classes. Further, the comments were delivered at a fundraiser in San Francisco, of all places. Fundraisers are, by definition, attended by wealthy people, often with attitudes of superiority (usually belied by the facts, but that is another issue) and San Francisco is one of the very nerve centers of elitist liberalism. One can almost hear echoes of Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s “San Francisco Democrats” speech.

Senator Obama’s defense of himself against charges of elitism rings hollow. He likes to cite his hardscrabble upbringing in arguing that he is the least elitist of the remaining three candidates. (While he may be right about being the least elitist of the three remaining candidates, that is quite a low bar he is hurdling.) However, anyone who tries to appear be down home by citing the price of arugula at Whole Foods is without a doubt a long way, figuratively if not literally, from the South Side of Chicago. Obama may have been born under very trying circumstances, but he was one of those kids, like a former governor of Arkansas who had a similar difficult childhood, who early in life caught the eyes of important people early and was plucked from his world and put on the path to power. Barack Obama is no homey, just as Bill Clinton is no good old boy.

Will these comments hurt Obama’s quest of the nomination? As I have said before, I am trying to avoid making political predictions, largely because so many that I have made have proven wrong (which distinguishes me from professional political prognosticators only in the sense that I admit that I am no good at making political prognostications). However, it is hard to see how this hurts Obama’s quest for the nomination much; the press loves the guy, the Democratic Party is absolutely infatuated with the guy. He seems to be the new boyfriend whose miscreance is casually and conveniently ignored. (Incidentally, John Fund, for whom I used to have enormous respect before he gave up his job of reasoned advocate of free men and free markets for the position of meretricious Bush cheerleader, had a terrific article that made this same argument on the op-ed page of Tuesday’s (i.e., 4/15’s) Wall Street Journal.) So, barring another gaffe (like the Reverend Wright flap or the Tony Rezko sweetheart deal or the U of Chicago handout in which Michelle Obama played the role of bag lady), it’s hard to see how he can lose the nomination. This is especially the case when Hillary Clinton, in trying to take advantage of Obama’s fumble, tries to portray herself as a Bible thumpin’, beer guzzlin’, whiskey swillin’, gun-totin’, pistol packin’ Mama. She has shown herself to be more ridiculous than ever, and that’s saying a lot.

Will these comments hurt Obama against John McCain (Did you know he was a POW in Vietnam?)? Again, while trying to eschew making political predictions, it’s hard to see how the Democrats can lose this one with the Bush record and the almost unbelievably pathetic John McCain (Did you know he was a POW in Vietnam?) as the GOP standard-bearer. However, the Democrats have an uncanny ability to do a convincing imitation of the 1969 Cubs. Nominating a guy who has on several occasions now shown a tendency toward carelessness and unpreparedness might be yet another instance of this “talent” coming to the fore.

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