Let’s be clear: if Barack Obama really believes the things he said in California last week, he’s wrong. People “cling” to gun rights, religion, and anti-trade sentiment because those are things they believe in, not because they’re bitter or angry. I suspect Obama knows as much, although his tortured and politically foolish phrasing and word choice might suggest otherwise. But there is more at stake here than what the mainstream media likes to refer to as a “gaffe.” Because like every other manufactured controversy that’s based on something someone said rather than something someone did (like, say, torture people), there’s a double standard at work here.
The truth is that the right wing pronounces and the media repeats, with regularity, stupid, stereotypical slurs about large parts of American society, and no one blinks an eye. Trial lawyers, academics in their ivory towers, job-stealing illegal immigrants (with leprosy!), effete wine-drinking liberals, suburban soccer moms, granola-crunching environmentalists, and just about anyone within spitting range of “San Francisco values,” are totally in-bounds for any sort of mockery the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world can cook up. But god forbid someone slur “Middle America.”
Stereotyping bicoastal city-dwellers is totally fine. That’s acceptable discourse. You can be “out of touch” with the 80 percent of the American population that lives in metro areas and their surrounding suburbs (PDF). In fact, it actually qualifies you to run for office. You’re down-to-earth, “real,” and an “everyday guy” (or gal). Some casual stereotyping of and contempt for city dwellers and suburbanites is always welcomed. Their values and lifestyle choices and beliefs can and should be attacked. But while it’s perfectly okay to hold and repeat outrageously offensive views about city folk and the values they hold dear, a city-born-and-bred man apparently can’t reveal that he may hold some silly or stereotypical opinions about why small-town Americans believe what they believe. At least not if he wants to be president.
The truth is that our backgrounds and upbringings create biases. White people make assumptions about black people. Jews make assumptions about Christians. And small-town folks make assumptions about city folks and visa versa. And anyone who tells you they’re free of bias is lying. The challenge is to overcome those biases that are hammered into us by the circumstances of our upbringing, and to not let those biases change how we treat others. Barack Obama has previously demonstrated the ability to empathize with people who aren’t like him by noting in his speech on race the frustration that many middle-class white people have with affirmative action. He’ll have to try to recapture that sense of empathy in the future. But honest people will admit that it’s a constant struggle to fight the assumptions we make about people who are different from us — at least Obama has opened a discussion on the topic over the course of the campaign, which is more than any other politician has done recently.
John McCain has pounced on Obama’s comments, trying to draw a contrast between himself as a “man of the people” and Obama as some “out-of-touch elite” character. This is a silly but mysteriously effective strategy. Republican presidential candidates always run this kind of campaign. They focus on some ridiculous narrative about class and down-to-earthness, despite the fact that every Democratic and Republican nominee for president is, by definition, a member of the elite, and almost all are fantastically wealthy. Obama certainly played right into McCain’s hands with his comments about small-town America. But he has shown his skill as a politician by using his mistake to segue into a discussion about why people are frustrated with the government and the status quo in Washington. And here’s the dirty little secret that no one talks about: Americans overwhelmingly agree with Barack Obama on the issues. They don’t want the federal government to do nothing about the housing crisis, they do want more transparency in Washington, and they don’t want to keep fighting the war in Iraq. They even want universal health care.
This so-called story (“Presidential candidate may in fact hold biases like everyone else”) is a story only because it supports the classic narrative of American elections, where the Democrat is the contemptuous elitist and the Republican is the down-to-earth man of the people. That story works because the media is driven by narrative, and manufactured outrage and the politics of grievance make great television. Cable news and the mainstream media is a world where what matters most is what people say, not what they do. It’s a profoundly crooked world, where being offended at something someone said (whether it was a Lefty with a intolerant rant about Middle America or a Righty with some “Bible-based” homophobic diatribe) is somehow more legitimate and more interesting than being outraged by something someone did (like, say, torturing people). Yes, words matter, and they can hurt. But I’m going to go ahead and bet that there isn’t one word in any language that hurts as much as torture.
In any just world, the lead story of the past four days would be the confirmation of what many already suspected: that George Bush and the principal figures in his administration knew about and authorized the torture of terrorist “detainees”. I have a poster on my wall from World War II. It reads, “Torture is the method of the enemy. We fight for a free world.” What’s John McCain’s recent record on torture? Well, today he took the bold stand that we should never torture “any American.” And then there’s this: “In February, McCain voted against a bill banning the CIA from using torture, specifically including waterboarding. When the bill passed, McCain encouraged Bush to veto it — effectively supporting the CIA’s use of “stress positions, hypothermia, threats to the detainee and his family, severe sleep deprivation, and severe sensory deprivation.” It would be great if we paid more attention to the fact that many members of a major political party in the United States now believe it’s okay to torture people in the name of freedom. But instead the airwaves are plastered from sea to shining see with Barack Obama’s stupid comments about Middle America. That’s enough to make anyone bitter.