Monday, April 14, 2008

The sting of 'cling'

The political problem with Barack Obama's characterization of small-town Pennsylvanians is not that he finds them to be bitter. The problem is that he sees them as self-deceived:
"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."
On Sunday night, Obama tried to put a positive spin on 'cling':
"Scripture talks about clinging to what’s good," he says. "This is something I’ve talked about before, I’ve talked about in my own life. Which is that religion is a bulwark, it’s a foundation, when things aren’t going well."
("Clinging in a good way," Ben Smith, Politico).

The obvious follow-up question -- not posed to Senator Obama -- was to ask why, if he meant to say something positive about religion, he included racism and xenophobia as lumped within the tight grip of those under-employed, allegedly bitter and frustrated individuals, stuck in the backwaters of the Keystone State. Mickey Kaus ("What's the Matter with Obama? The Four Sins of "Cling", Slate) identifies this lumping as one of four distinct problems with Obama's "cling" gaffe. The other three problems Kaus cites are the accusation of racism, the contradiction with his own alleged -- though dubiously sincere -- positions on trade and guns, and the condescension of seeing the views of those in small towns as a mere byproduct of economic stagnation.

Within this alleged problem of condescension lies a deeper problem. To see individuals as clinging to their religious and political beliefs as a result of economic circumstance is to deny them the perspective one takes on one's own beliefs. For it is to see other individuals as coming to their views, not as the result of reason, but as a mere effect of external and contingent factors. That is a perspective no one can transparently adopt toward one's own positions and views.

So, fundamentally, the problem is not that Obama does not see his own views from a similar perspective. No one could. It is not elitist to think that one has come by one's own positions for good reason. To see one's own commitments in a less flattering light is to have abandoned them already.

Instead, the problem Obama faces with this clinging charge is that it is, at base, deeply alienating. Sympathetic downscale voters can concede that they are bitter and politically disconnected. They cannot, however, join Obama and say that they are self-deceived. They cannot say that they hold to their views only because they are reacting to their economic misfortune. Obama can say that when these voters are brought back to prosperity they will see things in a different light. Yet, this is not a case he can make to these voters themselves.

There is irony here. For in the same breath in which Obama separates himself from racism and xenophobia, he puts distance between himself and white working class Rustbelters, when he talks behind their back -- and supposedly off-the-record -- in upscale San Francisco.

Immanuel Kant saw the fundamental respect all members of humanity deserve as deriving from their capacity to respond to reason. It is a lesson that Obama may still need to learn.

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|| headland, 9:42 AM

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