Parsing Obama's Gaffe
You go into 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.I've heard from some people I know that couldn't see how anyone could read Obama's statements, in context or out, as elitist. But I can.
Parse the statement (and consider the attitudes of many toward given issues) and you get the following chain of logical statements and emotional context:
- People are bitter.
- Only because they are bitter to they cling to certain attitudes.
- As they cling out of bitterness, these attitudes and espoused interests must be negative.
- Religion, guns, antipathy toward those who are different, sentiment against immigrants, and sentiment against open trade policy are all the same thing.
- Therefore, if you hold any of these positions or interests, it must be because you are bitter, and not because you believe in them for any other reason.
Of course people have been sold down the river and they're angry and it comes out in various ways. But to take these interests and positions and level them so that all people who have concerns about immigration, or who support gun ownership, or what have you, are exactly the same - to discount any nuance or recognize another potential motivation - is a problematic mindset. He could have talked about them being angry, or trying to cling to something they could hold on to. But that's not what Obama chose to do. Instead, he dismissed large groups of people based on the most gross generalization of their beliefs, without any acknowledgement that someone might honestly hold an opinion.
Perhaps that isn't what he meant, but then why choose those words? A friend pointed several people in an online discussion group to a Huffington Post piece that recalled similar words by Bill Clinton in 1991:
You know, he [Bush] wants to divide us over race. I'm from the South. I understand this. This quota deal they're gonna pull in the next election is the same old scam they've been pulling on us for decade after decade after decade. When their economic policies fail, when the country's coming apart rather than coming together, what do they do? They find the most economically insecure white men and scare the living daylights out of them. They know if they can keep us looking at each other across a racial divide, if I can look at Bobby Rush and think, Bobby wants my job, my promotion, then neither of us can look at George Bush and say, 'What happened to everybody's job? What happened to everybody's income? What ... have ... you ... done ... to ... our ... country?'Notice that Clinton's words addressed fear and economic disadvantage. They didn't take a number of often strongly-held positions and dismissed them as a reaction to being embittered. And to dismiss people as essentially being ignorant or immature or misguided because they don’t hold your particular set of beliefs sounds exactly like the claims I've heard from right wing parties that sends those on other parts of the political spectrum into a frenzy of anger. If people want reasoned discourse - and I don't think most actually do, no matter what they say, because they act as though that means agreeing with them - then they must do the difficult work of stepping into someone else's shoes and seeing how they'd feel under the same circumstances.