Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bitterness: From Without or Within?

Much has been made of the statement made by Presidential candidate Barack Obama about people in small towns who have lost their jobs.

"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," he said.

Obama has come under a lot of fire for this statement. People have called him elitist and accused him of putting down guns or religion (as if those things are above criticism).

The truth hurts.

For there is no doubt that there is bitterness in small towns across America, especially those towns where industries have gone and left nothing to replace them.

I worked for a brief time as a welfare caseworker in such a town—McKeesport, Pa. McKeesport was one of many thriving steel towns in Western Pennsylvania until the Pennsylvania steel industry shut down in the early 1980s. The town has yet to recover.

The people I encountered in McKeesport were beyond bitter. I could look in their eyes and see that many have given up. But they do not fit Obama’s example. None struck me as being terribly interested in guns (barring any criminal activity that they kept outside the office) or religion, and none cared about immigrants one way or the other. Hell, some of them are immigrants, although not as many as Faux News would have you believe.

You may call them lazy. You may say that they’ve made bad lifestyle choices. I can tell you this much—I didn’t meet one person in that office who wanted to be there.

Obama’s words reminded me more of a different demographic—the people I met while writing for a community newspaper in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The paper covered a town that defines the American suburb. It is not rich, but neither will anybody confuse it with McKeesport. Nobody in this town is wanting for a dime. To steal a riff from Garrison Keillor, all the children are rosy-cheeked and above average. Their parents are prosperous, proud, proper—and bitter.

The residents of this town have been taking solace in the things Obama’s talking about for a long time, and their financial status has nothing to do with it.

Guns? My first episode of culture shock in this town occurred when my paper published a cartoon criticizing the National Rifle Association. Little did we know that the mayor of the town, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, many of our advertisers, and, most embarrassing of all, the owner of the paper, were all NRA members. This town is the NRA! It was all the paper could do to stave off a major ad boycott.

Religion? The spires of fundamentalist churches form a philosophical Maginot Line along the outskirts of town, designed to keep out any progressive influences. During my stay at the paper, conservative influences became more prevalent, until there were actually editorial columns asking for more media censorship.

Anti-immigrant sentiment? Please! These people would call me an outsider because I graduated from a rival high school. I can’t imagine what they say about immigrants.

Perhaps Obama was just trying to pull diverse groups of people into his tent. And, let’s face it—“Give me your tired, your poor, your bitter assholes who won’t listen to reason” just won’t make it as a campaign slogan.

Then again, Obama might want to save his breath. One more thing about the folks in Bitter City—most of them would vote for a trained monkey if he had an R by his name. And they did.

No comments: