Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bitter Herbs

But -- so the questions you're most likely to get about me, 'Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What's the concrete thing?' What they wanna hear is -- so, we'll give you talking points about what we're proposing -- close tax loopholes, roll back, you know, the tax cuts for the top 1 percent. Obama's gonna give tax breaks to middle-class folks and we're gonna provide health care for every American. So we'll go down a series of talking points.

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that 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.
- Barack Obama, April 6, 2008, said in response to a question about why he is not connecting to working class voters in Pennsylvania
Even in context, this is a very unpretty comment.

An Open Letter To Barack Obama

Let's look at these people you so off-handedly poo-poo as "bitter" and unable to see progress, Senator.

First, they genuinely like the Clintons, because under the Clintons, they saw real progress. They saw their communities improve, their lives lift, their salaries start to climb. They felt more in touch with their government than at any point in the past 40 years, as if someone was listening. They saw progress: less crime, less teen pregnancy, more education, more intelligent governance. The Feds worked with communities to provide more, all while cutting spending and trying to shift the tax burden back on those who have gotten the most out of the bounty that is America.

I'm more fixed on the people themselves, because frankly, everyone did better under the Clintons than under the Bush I and Reagan administrations. Who are these folks? Who are these "bitter" people?

Their names are Ed, Flo, Sally, Herb, Jack, Red. They are the farmers that actually drive a tractor. They work the third shift at the cheese factory. They are the nurse practitioners at the local hospital. They ring your sale up at Wal-Mart.

That's if they're lucky enough to have regular jobs. Sometimes, they run the ski lifts in winter, then rush off to another job serving coffee at the Gas-N-Go so you can make it home awake from the mountain, or serve beer at the local tavern, Duffy's, to the visitors staying behind. In the summer, they pick up your trash at the mountain lake. They do odd jobs to make a few bucks here and there, and might hold a few part time jobs packing groceries or painting houses in the off-seasons.

They bowl, too, and while they chuckle that you bowled a 37...I mean, come on! If you throw a straight ball down the middle of an alley, you can't score less than 50!...they get that bowling isn't big where you grew up.

But it is for them. See, it's about community. Bowling brings the neighbors together.

So does church. Maybe not everyone attends every Sunday, but I'd lay long odds that the church is pretty full by 11, and that these folks still bother to get a bit dressed up in their "Sunday Finest".

They don't see religion as a crutch, as if religion was some drug you take when things get tough. If you truly believe that, one has to question your own "religion on a sleeve," your seemingly sincere protestations during the Rev. Wright debacle about him nearly being family. How troubled, then, was your adult life, Senator, that you needed that church and that reverend so often and so close by?

These folks view religion for what it is, a tie that binds their community: the church picnic, the ice cream social, the Christmas party. A place to celebrate births, weddings, and mourn those who pass from their midsts, whose loss truly is a painful subtraction from their community.

They pay the lion's share of taxes to this great and proud nation, and all they ask in return is a fair deal, a fair shake, an assurance that they won't get left behind because someone else gets ahead on their sweat and pain.

Those taxes paid for your education, Senator. They paid for enforcing the laws that allowed a man born of a white mother and a black father to be treated as equals to his white friends. They ask little in return, just your gratitude, and a highway without potholes.

Oh. And a fair chance at making a life for themselves, and leaving one for their kids. The same education that you got, give or take. The promise that the government will try to make their kids' lives better than their own.

They raise their flags on the Fourth, on Memorial Day, on Labor Day, and yes, on flag day, because they know that the flag represents something greater than just a bunch of fabric sewed together made of pretty colours. It means community. It means opportunity. It means all those myths that you find so quaint sitting in your drawing room in Chicago, sipping a brandy while listening to Shostakovich.

They believe in them and they wonder if you do, since you refuse to show even the smallest bit of respect for those myths.

And when things get tough for them, when the factory closes down or a fire or flood devastates their homes, they don't tuck tail and run, like some Senators I can think of, hiding behind a wall and sniping jibes at anyone who points out what a bonehead he was for saying what he said.

They dig a little deeper. They dig deeper into their hearts and their wallets and they make a path for themselves, and their neighbors. Do they get bitter looking around and seeing the CEO of ____________________ (fill in the blank) getting off with a slap on the wrist and a $100 million golden parachute for screwing with the law and a company's books?

Maybe a little, but they figure that's none of their business, that the government will take care of that problem and fix it.

Do they get frustrated when it happens again and again? Sure. But they aren't whipping out their Remingtons and polishing them on the porch like some metallic masturbatory orgy that somehow calms them. Those guns in small towns aren't for show.

Or rather, they are hoped to be for show, but when your 911 call is answered in the county seat, thirty or forty or a hundred miles away, you learn to make the call then do what you can for yourself until help arrives.

These folks are the volunteer fire department, donating what precious little free time, after stringing together a few part time jobs on top of the third shift at the factory, to training "just in case" and sadly "just in case" happens frequently enough.

Why do they do this? Because that's what neighbors do. Neighbors talk to each other and they learn to care about each other and that forms a community. Yes, they talk about guns, and they talk about NASCAR, and football and they talk about who's moved in, and are they nice, and they may get a little anxious when a stranger passes through, but they suck it up and go out of their way to welcome him or her in, and learn about that person. And if it turns out he or she fits in, they give the shirts off their backs.

I know this, because I was that stranger once. I've never seen this in the big city.

One final thing I'd like to point out, Senator. It's a biggie.

You claim to oppose the invasion of Iraq, even if you have never ever cast a single vote against funding the war or in favor of withdrawing one single solitary soldier.

Those soldiers, Senator, come from these folks. These families are, as Michael Moore puts it, "the very people forced to live in the worst parts of town, go to the worst schools, and who have it the hardest are always the first to step up to defend us. They serve so that we don't have to. They offer to give up their lives so that we can be free. It is remarkably their gift to us."

Forget the guns, forget the church, forget the taxes, forget the bowling. Forget the Presidency, Senator. You owe these people a lot more than your condescension, contempt, and contumelies.

You owe these folks your freedom, because even in a war that no one truly understands, they sent their kids off to fight, to try to win, to protect America in whatever sense this invasion serves that purpose.

For that alone, sir, your comments paint you an ungrateful bastard.