Monday, April 21, 2008

Is Obama Like Me?

On Friday, major pundit and New York Times columnist David Brooks assessed the impact of Obama’s “bitterness” remark, on PBS’s The News Hour. Brooks said that the tin-eared remark was damaging because it made people step back from the candidate and wonder if he really is like the “plain folks” he is trying to appeal to in Pennsylvania, or if he is condescending to them. And, Brooks concludes, throwing in the Reverend Wright episode for good measure, when that assessment is made, the plain folks will conclude, “he is not like me.”

This is treacherous ground for Brooks, or any commentator to tread, for “not like me” is the heart of xenophobia, which is the core of racism. Racism today is no longer about hooded sheets and a noose. It is about the intellectual and emotional capacity, or lack of it, to get past one’s discomfort with the unfamiliar to understand that the other person is, in fact, “like me.”

People do differ in their socialization history and demographic status, and that does produce variations in point of view. I have no doubt that Obama is more educated, more self-aware, and more articulate than most of the Pennsylvania voters he courts. He is indeed, “different” from them in those ways and that makes his campaign a tricky business.

Obama’s political mistake was in the word “cling,” which implies a desperate helplessness and lack of dignity. That implication is indeed demeaning (even if true) and he should have retracted it. Instead, he blindly spun his use of “bitterness,” which is defensible and even could be construed as a compassionate attribution. Nobody in his camp seems to have gotten the social phenomenology of his remark right.

But why should a minor discourse error be elevated to the existential question, “Is he like me?” What is the logic that gets you from “I am offended by your remark,” to “You are alien to all people like me”? It is the logic of class difference, xenophobia, and the logic of racism.

Hilary Clinton is not at all like me in social class, education or even gender. I do not want to have a beer with her. In fact I am offended by her shameless, inauthentic pandering. But I would still vote for her on the basis of her social values and perceived competence to govern. That’s all Obama asks for himself, but the racial issue lurks just beneath the surface ready to trip him up. A smart guy like Brooks should be more aware of that particular tiger pit.

We should generously assume Brooks was speaking for the Pennsylvania rural voter, not for himself, when he concludes that Obama is "not like me." And in that assessment, Brooks might be correct. But he did not qualify his comments carefully, so missed an opportunity to raise the quality of political discourse in this country. Pity that.

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