The Right has gotten themselves up in a tizzy because Obama apparently insulted middle Americans. You know, the pro-gun, pro-God, anti-Government, anti-Illegal Immigration folks that never seem to vote for us anyway.
This is something we’re going to have to expect more of in the future, and ready ourselves for. While I truly appreciate the way Obama’s mind works, and think it’s the kind of mind that would serve us best as president, his thought processes and manner of expressing himself don’t lend themselves favorably to soundbites.
He employs clauses and justifications, and his arguments are typically layered and require hearing them in full and then allowing for time to digest as opposed to simply picking which slogan fits neatest on a bumper sticker. Because of this structure of communication that he employs, it is far easier to take something out of context, or to under analyze it for mass consumption and turn around and use it against him.
And that’s about what happens here.
This is the quote in question:
You go into some of 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.
The first thing that I want to ask is, where is he wrong? Does anyone doubt that the Rust Belt has suffered significantly over the past few decades? Globalization, improved technology and processes, free trade deals, and a shifting in the paradigms that govern our economy seem to have hit the hardest in those regions that were specifically geared towards an older economy from a bygone age.
Now, “economy,” is an intimidating word. It represents an overly complicated monster with fancy terms and abstract numbers that seem to have little to do with whatever it is most people get up every day to go do, or how much money gets put into the bank account, or how much money you have to take out of the bank account to pay your mortgage, your utilities, and your grocery bills. We know that it does, but there’s a gap filled with technobabble that prevents it from being a personal issue.
At least, that’s the case until it hits you square in the gut.
Then it becomes very personal, but the nature of the beast does not change. Watching your plant close down doesn’t all of a sudden turn you into an economist who can turn around, crunch some numbers deep into the night, and provide a working alternative solution to the job loss and hunger and pain that has resulted from the economy monster turning its teeth and claws upon you.
In dire times, when our situation worsens through no fault of our own, and we find few acceptable avenues to improve things, we do turn our attentions elsewhere. We find scapegoats and bastions of comfort to aid us through a terrible time.
Of course people will turn to religion in tough times. As my wife once told me upon my new found spirituality early in my military career, “There’s no atheists in the trenches.” (Please, no atheists in the trenches argument, that’s not the point of this post)
Of course people will turn apathetic or antagonistic to a government that turned its back on them during the toughest of time. Of course they are going to find someone to blame, such as illegal immigrants, and they will turn to anything to make their world view and existence better.
We see this on the other side of the world in the nation we currently occupy, if you are inclined to open your eyes beyond the most rudimentary black and white concepts of black and white and good and evil. Are there instances of good and evil in Iraq? To be sure, there are, but understand that people have turned to radical Islam and militias and insurgencies out of a desire to again impose control over the world around them, or at least have a view that there is a benevolent presence that is trying to shape the course of events in their favor.
So Obama’s speech is not a condemnation of the people of the outlying Pennsylvania, but as Mayhill Fowler suggests (in a kind of backhanded way), an introduction into its peoples, an attempt for people who don’t necessarily understand why or how people who hold different views or think differently are the way they are.
This has been a significant part of Obama’s message from the beginning, and one that makes much sense given the patchwork heritage that he comes from. Essentially, it is a plea to all Americans to get over themselves. To not blindly assume that we all ride on a high horse, and that just because someone holds a different opinion or viewpoint doesn’t automatically make them bad or wrong.
And he challenges us to see our own flaws.
It’s an important first step, and one that is going to be extremely difficult to take. We don’t like to recognize our flaws; I only emphasize mine when I know I’m going to broach a subject I don’t readily understand. There’s no courage in this because I’m not announcing my humanity in a desire to better understand myself or others, but instead to save myself further embarrassment, to prevent being seen as even more flawed than I’m willing to admit.
Everyone has a similar barrier, and these barriers have connected and reinforced themselves and created a cultural stigma against taking them down. In a way, it’s as if the politically correct movement came too early, and had too lasting of an effect.
We weren’t mature enough for it, curbing out language before understanding the underlying motivations behind why some words are hurtful, and others are not. We created a situation where we only sought not to hurt, as opposed to seeking to heal.
And as anyone who has scraped their knee, anyone who has had their parent pour hydrogen peroxide or alcohol on a nasty cut, can tell you, sometimes you have to go through a little pain in order for the healing to take.
If we were to liken the social wounds of this country to real ones, we have not treated our wounds, but instead ignored them, and worn clothing over them to cover up the scars. We grin through our winces and slow our stride so as not to appear to limp. The whole time the wound becomes infected and rots. It spreads and becomes more painful until sometimes the scar can not be held at bay any longer and flares up and debilitates us.
We then throw a bandage over it, stay off our feet for a little while, and go back to doing what we were doing before.
We thus live in a reality of one of two extremes. We either hide who we are and what we feel as illustrated in my example above, or, for a smaller few of us, we revel in it. We can’t say that, okay, maybe I’m a little bit racist, we either hide any racially bigoted thought in polite society, or we join the Aryan Nation. We can’t say we are put off by the redneck culture, we either adopt an elitist stance and look down upon them, or we don’t say anything at all, applying our own rationales to arguments targeted at them that are never likely to work.
In short, we all suffer from a terrible case of having to get over ourselves. We need to understand that people are going to disagree with us, and at times act and hold views that offends us. And they need to have the same understanding about us. I don’t understand what on earth people see in guns that makes so many of them rabid collectors, for instance, but does my lack of understanding mean that I am justified in denigrating them? Am I justified in saying they’re stupid, or beneath me?
The answer to that of course is no.
So we have to get over ourselves. We have to be willing to hear things we don’t want to hear, and understand that this country wasn’t tailor made for us, this world wasn’t tailor made for us. Instead this country was created with a basic framework to allow people of all sorts to come together and form a greater community. It has evolved and shifted and morphed over the decades and centuries, and it will continue to do so.
But as it does, the cracks that divide us are likely to only propagate and divide us further, and eventually the foundation upon which this community sits will no longer be able to bear the burden of its myriad grievances and animosities. So long as we continue to turn away from the kind of painful healing that is required, America will eventually fail.
As for Obama, I respect what he’s doing. It’s easy for a politician to tell everyone they’re great; that’s essentially what they are supposed to do. Pandering is imprinted in our political make up. And to be sure, Obama has done plenty of pandering during this presidential election. But he’s also begun to scratch away at the surface of this other, this alternative to pandering. It is not a condemnation, but instead an illumination that we all need. That the African American community needs to work on its attitude towards the LGBT community, and that the wine track liberals needs to work on looking down its collective nose at midwesterners. That white people need to understand that the grievances of the African American community did not magically disappear at the end of slavery, or Jim Crow, just as the African American community needs to understand that White People might have a grievance or two as well that needs to be understood.
In the speech that made him famous, Obama said, “There is no black America or white America, there is the United States of America… we are one people, all pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes…” It was a beautiful sentiment, one that tore the roof off of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and pretty much upstaged every other speaker that week.
It was the kind of America so many of us wish for, but what has to be understood is that we don’t wish for it and it automatically happens. We have to put in the work for it, and we have to realize we’re going to feel some pain too. It’s going to be hurtful and messy, but then, sometimes, that’s exactly what’s needed in order to heal.
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