e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


sour grapes and class manipulation

For the first time since the presidential race began, Barack Obama has begun to get attacked. Until now, Bill Clinton has been the only prominent voice lobbing ad hominems in Obama's direction. Now I scan a.m. talk radio during my commute and hear the scorn of pundits who loathe the thought of an activist or community organizer in the White House. Those words--"activist" and "community organizer"--are said with abhorrence and a dramatic pause afterward, as if the criticisms are self-evident. The McCain camp now impugns Obama for being a gifted orator, as if speaking well signifies poor character.

A noteworthy anti-Obama tirade took place in my hometown--Youngstown, Ohio--the other night (see here and here). Introducing Hillary Clinton, Machinist Union President Thomas Buffenbarger launched bizarre personal attacks on Clinton's rival and actively encouraged the crowd to boo not only Obama but also Obama's supporters. So insulted is the Clinton camp by Obama's refusal to canonize Bill Clinton's legacy, they let surrogates resort to name-calling. So sour are the grapes as Obama pulls into the lead, they risk splintering the party's base.

What did Buffenbarger say about Obama? With the same disgust in his voice that the right-wing radio hosts use when they call Obama a "community organizer," Buffenbarger questioned why anyone would want "the editor of Harvard Law Review" as their president. Because, I guess, you don't want someone smart in the White House? Or you don't want someone with a law degree from the ivy league? Such anti-intellectualism seems bizarre in the context of a Hillary Clinton--who is not only smart, but also in posession of a J.D. from Yale--rally. Buffenbarger also said:
The Barack show is playing to rave reviews sold out at college campus after college campus. Standing room only crowds to hear his silver-tounged orations. Hope, change, yes we can? Give me a break! I’ve got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak. This guy won’t last a round against the Republican attack machine. He’s a poet, not a fighter.
Um, I don't drink lattes, drive a Prius, wear sandals, or have a trust fund, and I back Obama. Discrediting a candidate for being elite is an old, and often effective, trick of course. Our current president--a third-generation millionaire and ivy league legacy admit--successfully played this game of class manipulation first against Al Gore, and then against John Kerry.

What bothers me is that Buffenbarger perpetuates an anemic, limited-and-limiting stereotype of the working class and organized labor: they all distrust lawyers, environmentalists, peace activists, and people who drink lattes. A union president should know better than to make such generalizations. When I was volunteering on the Kerry campaign in Ohio four years ago, I went to events at union halls that had coffee stations with choices that put the university's coffee stand to shame! My father-in-law (a janitor who was active in his union for decades) is the person who encouraged my wife to become a lawyer. Does Buffenbarger really think he or his rank-and-file benefit from divisive rhetoric and the reproduction of stereotypes?

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