Wednesday, 16 April 2008

On liberal 'condescension'

White people spend a lot of time of worrying about poor people. It takes up a pretty significant portion of their day. They feel guilty and sad that poor people shop at Wal*Mart instead of Whole Foods, that they vote Republican instead of Democratic, that they go to Community College/get a job instead of studying art at a University. It is a poorly guarded secret that, deep down, white people believe if given money and education that all poor people would be EXACTLY like them. In fact, the only reason that poor people make the choices they do is because they have not been given the means to make the right choices and care about the right things.

That's from Stuff White People Like , a website on which I currently fritter away far too much of my time (and which of course should really be called 'Stuff White Liberals Like'). It provides a humorous sidelight on a topic that's been getting a lot of coverage since Barack Obama's 'bitter' speech: the supposed condescension of liberals towards ordinary folks.

Of course, the irony is that Obama is African-American, but since giving the speech he's been turned into an honorary white-liberal-elitist by his detractors. Here's Michael Weiss, for example, glossing the candidate's comments (which I reproduced in full here):

Thus in one fell swoop does Barack Obama label a good portion of the electorate (those “small towns” are not confined to Pennsylvania) resentful, racist, gun-toting Bible nuts—misguided souls in need of someone like himself to shepherd them out of their miserable condition.

Drawing on a famous phrase of E.P.Thompson's, Weiss accuses Obama of 'enormous condescension' towards voters. As I said in my previous post on this topic, I believe Obama's comments were poorly chosen, but I think Michael is guilty of over-interpretation here. I don't see how any commentator who considers Obama's comments in the context of his whole campaign, not to mention the context of the whole speech, can come to the conclusion that he's an elitist. The point was well made yesterday by that icon of blue-collar America, Bruce Springsteen, who has endorsed Obama:

At the moment, critics have tried to diminish Senator Obama through the exaggeration of certain of his comments and relationships. While these matters are worthy of some discussion, they have been ripped out of the context and fabric of the man's life and vision, so well described in his excellent book, Dreams of My Father, often in order to distract us from discussing the real issues: war and peace, the fight for economic and racial justice, reaffirming our Constitution, and the protection and enhancement of our environment.

Weiss broadens his critique to include writers like Thomas Frank, on whose analysis of working-class voting habits Obama's comments were clearly based:

Implicit in this theory, of course, is that the proles are too benighted to know their own interests, and that ultimately unelected left-leaning politicians have these always in mind.

Whether or not you agree with Frank's conclusions, it's surely a mistake to dismiss all such left-wing attempts to understand working-class conservatism as inherently patronising. To be sure, there's plenty of condescension towards the working class to be found in sections of the Left, particular among those whom Weiss has elsewhere described as 'poseur leftists' or 'faux-cialists' who are impatient with the proletariat for not fulfilling their historic role. But to me, there's a world of difference between the crude elitism of the 'false consciousness' brigade, and the more nuanced, empathetic - dare I say Gramscian? - attempts by a Frank or an Obama to understand why poor voters support parties that act against their interests. It's not all that different from Thompson's own analysis of 19th century Methodism, in which he is able to see both positive and negative elements.

Part of the problem is that Obama's sentence (and it was only one sentence, after all) rather clumsily ran together a number of very different kinds of things that people take refuge in when times are hard. There's a world of difference between religion (which Obama himself 'clings' to), gun ownership (about which he, and his detractors, are more ambivalent) and anti-immigrant sentiment (which most people find distasteful).

Even so, as I said before, I find Obama's clumsy honesty more attractive than the fake hands-thrown-up-in-horror reactions of his political opponents, who probably share his thinking but are careful not to air their thoughts in public. Eugene Robinson captures this well:

Clinton spent the weekend bashing Barack Obama for not seeming to be enough of a regular guy -- not for any actual deficit of regular-guyness, mind you, but for giving the impression that such a deficit might exist.


This whole sideshow began when Obama committed what she portrayed as the apparently unforgivable sin of trying to describe the resentment felt by some working-class Americans, venturing that "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."
This seemed "elitist . . . and, frankly, patronizing," Clinton charged. Never mind whether it actually was elitist, patronizing or, for that matter, inaccurate. No, the eagle-eyed Clinton took dead aim at a different target: the impression Obama might have given.

Robinson concludes:

Clinton's argument assumes that "regular" is a synonym for "unsophisticated" -- that to communicate with voters who have not attained a certain income or education level, a candidate has to put on an elaborate disguise and speak in words of one syllable.

So tell me: Who's being patronizing?

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