Desperate Clinging

Dan Schnur worked as John McCain’s communications director in the 2000 campaign.

Given my own work and background, I have a soft spot for the communications folks: they often have the ability to elucidate what’s going on more effectively than others. This is due, in part, to the fact that to communicate something effectively, you have to understand it fully. And too, communications people often grasp the nuances of words and understand the importance of a single word.

Dan’s article in yesterday’s New York Times “Right Fight, Wrong Word” is precisely the sort of key insight that a thoughtful communications person can provide.

In his article, Schnur zeros in on the fact that the key to understanding the sentiment and tone in Obama’s recent comments about voters in Pennsylvania (and by extension presumably, the rest of the rust belt and Appalachia) is one word: “cling”.

 Schnur notes how this one word indicates a fundamental devaluing of the worldview, outlook, and conclusions the people Obama is speaking of hold.

Of course, we’re many days into this now and the question goes back and forth about whether the comments are elitist. Interestingly, I have a unique background for the matter and have my own views because of it. I grew up for thirteen years just across the Ohio River from western Pennsylvania and the panhandle of West Virginia. The jobs that he talks about disappearing 25 years ago: I remember those jobs. And, I eventually worked my way to San Francisco by way of a Liberal liberal arts school (Oberlin College). So, I know the culture and people Obama is talking about. I also know the culture and people he was talking to and who support him so strongly.

And, I can report to you, dear reader, that about the condescension and paternalism that people say is behind this remark:it’s really there. At Oberlin, I saw people who were self-avowed liberals who claimed to care about “the poor” treat the working-class staff at school with rudeness and condescension. The working-class folks around the college were “the help”, make no mistake about that.

It was always hard for me because I had a shared background with those folks….it’s just that I was able to try and move into what I’d been told was a better world: the world of those very people who were treating people I might have grown up with like sub-humans before my very eyes.

At the end of the day, there is no doubt that the comments are inappropriate. Abstract the circumstances and you have a classic situation I saw many of those same self-avowed liberals arguing about: how it was inappropriate for an outsider to presume to analyze and interpret the actions, thoughts and beliefs of a different culture and minimize or explain away something(s) which that culture holds dear.

Put it this way, if this were Huckabee explaining away the support for gay rights in San Francisco as being the sad consequence of that city not finding God, you can imagine the firestorm that would errupt over that. It would be wrong of Huckabee to do that. And, it’s wrong for Obama to do it here.

No, Schnur is right: the key to understanding is “cling”. And, unfortunately, this is another instance where we sadly find that those who extol the virtues of tolerance and diversity are, at heart, hypocrites who fail to truly live up to the ideals they claim as central. They are, disappointingly, like those they claim to be better than for the same faults they claim those others suffer from: intolerance and a lack of respect for diversity.

In the end, it’s clear, that it’s a very easy (and sad thing) that humans cling to old habits and patterns of thought.