One of the more annoying phenomena of media memes is the way their repetition can sometimes utterly drain out actual content. It’s like a variation of the game of “telephone” – only instead of a simple circle, we have concentric layers of repetition so that the same message gets distorted and repeated and amplified.
One of my commenters the other day referred to Obama’s “racist ‘Bittergate’ comment (against Pennsylvania’s working-class).” And of course I knew what that referred to – since I haven’t been living in a cave – but I found myself thinking, wait, what actually did Obama say? Here’s a transcript (scroll down). In context, I fail to see what’s “racist” about Obama’s infamous remark, and I also think it’s a rather serious distortion to characterize it as being “against” the working class. The first few paragraphs make clear that Obama is responding to the argument that the white working class will not vote for him as a black man: so the whole reason he’s even focusing on white working-class people is that context. You cannot respond to criticism about your support among the white working class without, duh, talking about the white working class. That’s not racist; that’s responding to the question put before you.
Second, it’s clear that, whatever the truth of Obama’s characterization and however unfortunate his choice of words (more on that later), he’s sympathetic toward the situation of poor whites – who have, he notes, essentially gotten the shaft or been ignored over the years. So to characterize his remarks as being “against the working class” is quite a stretch.
The two words Obama shouldn’t have used? “Cling” – which implies a sort of mindlessness that does verge on insulting, although many other connotations are nowhere near so negative (if you describe someone suffering from cancer as “clinging to life,” you’re not saying they’re mindless or misguided to do so) – and, of course, “religion.” (Maybe “guns” – but for the gun crowd, saying anything at all about guns except “yee-haw” is a negative.) It’s the inclusion of “religion” among guns, xenophobia, and (oddly) “anti-trade sentiment” that got him into trouble. I think I know what he means – and I’m pretty sure Jesus himself said something against people who rely merely on the letter of religion rather than actually helping people – but certainly, it was poorly phrased.
Is “bitter” a problem? Politically, that seems to be what people have latched onto…even though it seems obvious that if you take a group of people who’ve been screwed over, some of them, even many of them, are indeed going to be bitter. But saying so falls into the same category of political mistake as Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” comment: it seems that a politician must, like Eric Idle’s “crucifee” (so the credits have it), always look on the bright side of life and be a walking Successories poster. Actually pointing out that people might be pessimistic – or indeed “bitter” – is such a buzzkill.
Or we could use our beloved leader’s old metric: looking at Obama’s “bitter” remark and Clinton’s “hard-working white voters” remark, who’s a “divider” and who’s a “uniter”? Obama’s comment came in a context of (a) addressing perceived problems he might have in connecting to white working-class voters and (b) saying that that cynicism is itself a part of the problem, while acknowledging that this problem needed to be addressed. Clinton, on the other hand, wasn’t addressing policy or voters’ concerns directly; she was (a) claiming that she had broader support than Obama and (b) driving a wedge between Democrats who favored her and those who favored Obama, trying to raise fear among the latter that they were harming the Democrats’ chances. Clinton’s remarks might have been more charitably interpretable if she had the lead Obama actually has…but coming from her nearly-eliminated position, they sound rather more desperate…and ultimately divisive. If Obama’s guilty of anything, it’s a poor choice of words, which may reflect a lack of understanding of working-class psychology. But between Clinton and Obama, who’s had more actual contact with the working class? Obama was a community organizer…and Clinton? A couple-few photo ops since she’s been a candidate.
And that makes it even weirder (or rather, less plausible) that “Bittergate” has been spun into the pre-existing notion of Obama as “elitist” (which itself, of course, ties into the bizarro-world notion of liberals as elitists. Because, of course, people like Bush – whose father was President, whose grandfather was a Senator – and Cheney, with his Halliburton billions – are simple working men). Apparently it’s “elitist” because Obama isn’t himself a working-class white man…or perhaps it’s “elitist” because what the hell is a Harvard grad doing talking about working-class whites? And yet Dick Cheney can respond to several years of two-thirds majority of the populace being dissatisfied with the Iraq situation with an arrogantly disdainful “so?” – and that’s not elitist. Because Dick Cheney – he’s a man of the people.