En Words

A place to talk about words - whether from books, stories, magazines, brochures, or matchbook covers.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Parsing Obama's Gaffe

Let's start with the quote that caught so much attention:
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:
  1. People are bitter.
  2. Only because they are bitter to they cling to certain attitudes.
  3. As they cling out of bitterness, these attitudes and espoused interests must be negative.
  4. Religion, guns, antipathy toward those who are different, sentiment against immigrants, and sentiment against open trade policy are all the same thing.
  5. 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.
His political opponents are jumping on this, and, yes, they, like virtually all people running for office, tend to be entirely opportunistic. But I'd suggest that the statement itself says a lot about him, and not in a positive way.

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.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Future Presidential Debates to be Released for Public Use

NBC had tried to control use of the first Democratic presidential debate of this season. But after a public backlash that included candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards, CNN at least has decided to give way and release future debates under a Creative Commons license - a form of open use licensing that is gaining popularity on the Internet. Hopefully all the networks will. Congratulations to the DailyBackground.com for apparently breaking the story.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Tommy Thompson and Power of Words

Words are peculiar. You can't touch them though you can see and hear them. And sometimes you can taste them. The taste of the words uttered by Tommy Thompson - former governor of Wisconsin and former Secretary of Health and Human Services - were sour and nasty. Not just the statement he made in front of a D.C. Jewish group, saying, "I'm in the private sector and, for the first time in my life, I'm earning money. You know, that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition, and I do not find anything wrong with that. I enjoy that." There was the moment he again walked up to the podium and allegedly said the following:
"I just want to clarify something because I didn't in any means want to infer or
imply anything about Jews and finances and things. What I was referring to,
ladies and gentlemen, is the accomplishments of the Jewish religion and the
Jewish people. You have been outstanding businesspeople and I compliment you for
that and if anybody took what I said wrong, I apologize. I may have
mischaracterized it. You are very successful. I applaud you for that."
Not only did he use an offensive racial stereotype, but then he followed it with something that makes you wonder whether he actually managed to stuff three feet into his mouth instead of the regulation two. What comes next: "Some of my best friends are Jews?" Oh, wait, apparently he has already.

And there's yet another aspect as noted in this editorial from a Gannett paper. He made $115,000 a year as governor and $180,000 annually as HSS Secretary, and neither of those salaries was money? Does he mean that people who make those trifling amounts don't really earn a living? Are the only people worth talking to in the real world those who make, oh, $500,000 a year and up? Will the rest of us be asked to stand quietly at the back of the room - or the line or the bus - while the "real" people get taken care of?

What astounds me is that some conservatives are still taking him seriously as a candidate. George Will calls him "the Republican presidential candidate with perhaps the most impressive resume." Yet he's even managed to make George W. Bush seem like an intelligent public speaker. Now there's a frightening thought.

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