Monday, April 14, 2008

These Words Have Legs

Barack Obama has taken some flak for his remarks about rural America:
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 antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
I think he had the best of intentions at the outset. In the fashion of “if that happened to me I’d feel the same way as you”, he meant to show empathy. But there’s a fine line between empathy and pity, and people don’t like to be pitied and he should have stopped right there (I’m making a generalization too, but I’m not running for office).

He dug himself deeper when he attributed bitterness--an emotion that mature adults try to rise above--and political beliefs--guns, religion, anti-immigration--to small-towners’ financial misfortunes. Not only did he generalize about their feelings, Senator Obama implied that their political beliefs were irrational because they originated from anger and bitterness. (I’ll refrain from observations about how the emotional state-of-mind of some Democrats influences their decisions---too easy.)

Words damage the speaker when they confirm our worst suspicions about him. A southern Republican’s use of a racial term, even a mild one, means he’s a racist if not a Klansman. And a liberal Ivy Leaguer can never betray his belief that he’s smarter---and it’s only a short hop to better---than everyone. This story has legs.

An historical note: over 60 years ago Eleanor Roosevelt espoused similar sentiments about another downtrodden group:
If I were a Negro today, I think I would have moments of great bitterness. It would be hard for me to sustain my faith in democracy and to build up a sense of goodwill toward men of other races.

© 2008 Stephen Yuen

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