Monday, April 14, 2008

More Bittergate
Disdain for the Non-Coastal

O.k., I realize that Bittergate is a tempest in a teapot. Mostly what it's done is confirm my belief that HRC really is committed to a scorched earth campaign strategy. This is gotcha politics at just about its worst.

However, I have to say that I do find Obama's statement just a little bit irksome and worrisome. No, it wasn't very important, no I don't think it's an accurate representation of what he thinks, no I don't think it deserves much attention, no I don't think that the Clinton campaign's criticisms are at all sincere. But...well, I grew up on a farm in the Southernmost bit of Jefferson County, MO. That's in the Northeast quadrant of the Southeast quadrant of the state, right on the edge of the Ozark plateau. It's not the most rural part of the country by far, but urban and cosmopolitan it ain't. From pretty early in my life I was aware that a large percentage of the representations of people like us and places like that weren't too flattering. Now, I don't really know what most people with backgrounds like mine think about the way they're represented in movies and so forth. But--and let me stress that I'm just about unoffendable--I can say that comments like Obama's come pretty close to kind of touching a wee bit of a sore spot with me. There's no doubt that there are certain groups of people in this country who view rural Southerners and Midwesterners as if they were some kind of cargo cult.In fact, I know some people like that. They basically think that, because they live in New York or California, they are inherently smarter than, more knowledgeable than, and in all ways more admirable than, anyone who lives in any state in between. It's a really ignorant, creepy and annoying delusion.

Now, I've already (coupla posts back) taken a whack at explaining why Obama's comment can be seen as condescending. To put the same point in a slightly different way, to attribute someone's beliefs to their economic situation is to employ an externalist explanation that basically treats them as being irrational. It's rather like saying that theists believe in God because they had bad relationships with their fathers, or that someone believes something because of peer pressure. So, when somebody deploys this kind of explanation to explain something about the beliefs or actions of rural or small-town folks--and especially when the beliefs or actions in question are ones that are important to them, this can really strike a nerve, even if what is actually said is said more-or-less off-handedly. The real problem is that the groundwork has already been laid by people who actually are contemptuous of rural and small-town non-coastal types. Given this backdrop, even small slip-ups can be cringeworthy.

Now add to the picture two candidates and two campaigns intent on pushing the worst possible interpretation of everything Obama says, and, well, you can see how things like this will go.

Anyway, though this has all been blown way out of proportion, there's a kernel of something at least semi-serious buried in it.


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

In fairness to Barack Obama, I sincerely believe that by "religion" he was explicitly referring to opposition to gay marriage, and politically, to the GOP's demagoguing of it in Ohio '04.

From his remarks today:

"So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns, and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage..."

Oh, the irony of restricting yourself to listening only to your side of the aisle, WS. I had such hope for us.

8:21 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I find this to be somewhat of an issue in religious studies. It seems as though the current trend is to explain religious behavior with sociology and such rather than as a result of doctrinal understanding.

I guess the real question is: When, and to what degree, is it appropriate to ascribe external explanations to behavior?

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In answer to your question, Mystic, when the behavior is mine: ;)

1:42 PM  

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