There was something especially ironic about Obama receiving pointed criticism in, of all places, The New Yorker in this George Packer post. I was reminded of the famous partially self-ridiculing cover of one issue, showing how New Yorkers saw the rest of the country: New York City loomed large in the foreground, and everything beyond the Hudson became indistinct and unknown almost at once. For non-New Yorkers and Middle Americans in particular, this cover has long served as a kind of shorthand for people in the coastal and urban areas who know little about the rest of the country and care even less. (I am reminded of something my father told me decades ago–people who live in big cities like to think of themselves as some of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan in the world, but are in fact some of the most incredibly provincial people of all.) The Packer post reminded me of this cover because it seemed striking to me that even someone blogging for The New Yorker could see what was wrong with Obama’s remarks, and he refused to accept the explanations of what Obama meant that conveniently and consistently ignored the remarks about racism and xenophobia:
In November, 2004, Senator-elect Barack Obama told Charlie Rose that hunting and church provide solace to men like the laid-off factory workers he met in a small Illinois town. Unfortunately, in spite of his best efforts and those of his supporters, this is not what Obama said last Friday in his now notorious remarks in San Francisco. He equated guns and religion with racism, xenophobia, and crude economic populism as the refuge of the hard-pressed—the false consciousness of the white working class who need to channel their financial frustrations somewhere.
What is striking is how willing some people are to credit Obama’s later explanations, when, as Packer says quite correctly, “his remark doesn’t require strenuous feats of interpretation.” They really don’t. Not, that is, unless you wish to give the impression that Obama wasn’t explaining the behaviour of small town Americans, but was actually praising it (which entails leaving out the bits about racism and xenophobia, which he obviously isn’t going to praise). Here we see the reverse of what Obama and his supporters hoped his Philadelphia speech would achieve: in that speech, he wanted to explain, but not justify what Wright had said, and now he wants us to believe that he was lauding or approving of the habits of small town Americans, when he was principally trying to explain them (or explain them away so that his audience would not dismiss these people out of hand as racists–instead he defined them as racists and xenophobes who didn’t really mean any harm). Now I think, as I have said before, that he was trying to be sympathetic in his efforts to explain them, but even with good intentions assuming that people do something for reasons other than the reasons they themselves give is insulting. We should all be able to remember just a few weeks back when many of Obama’s harshest critics were attempting to explain the reason for his attendance at Trinity United. They were prone to impute to Obama the most cynical or careerist motives, claiming that he had joined the church “just” to advance his community organising or his political ambitions. This is frankly about as convincing as Marcottian arguments that men become Christians because they want to oppress women, and conservatives would never advance this kind of argument against one of their own. Not surprisingly, the sorts of people most likely to advance these arguments tend to be equal-opportunity bashers of religious Americans. The inability to imagine that the religious belief of someone with radically (or even moderately) different politics is nonetheless genuine and reached through no less real an epiphany or spiritual experience than one’s own was marring a fair amount of the anti-Obama commentary last month, but it was then replicated in what Obama said about the small town folk last week. This has opened him up to the (typically) unfair charge from the likes of Schiffren, whose hatred for Huckabee was likewise incandescent (and also bound up with weird regional and class obsessions), and it has been compounded by the rather lame defense that he couldn’t possibly have been demeaning other “people of faith” because he, too, goes to church. As I suggested before, someone whose church adheres to a kind of liberation theology is going to be exposed to, and likely will come away with, a very different understanding of the relationship between a relationship with Christ and questions of economic and social justice than most more traditional and conservative churches are going to provide; what seems like common sense to someone who goes to such a church is probably going to sound like vulgar Marxism to the rest of us. Where Obama exposes himself to this charge of cynicism is in the failure to extend to those small town folks the same kind of understanding that he has asked of the public when explaining his membership in his own church. Of course, Schiffren is wrong, but that also means that Obama was wrong in what he said as well. They are actually mirror images of each other in their apparent contempt for or condescension towards people in Middle America, but that is why it is all the more imperative for Schiffren to strike the pose of being a defender of “ordinary Americans.”
P.S. In case I hadn’t made it clear already, there is something supremely rich and hypocritical in attacks on Obama’s elitism coming from any Republican and movement elites who derided Huckabee as “Huckleberry” and regarded him and his supporters as obnoxious rubes. Patronising social conservatives is all very well when they’re being criticised from the left, but actually taking them seriously is something that a lot of Republican elitists would never dream of doing.