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Common Folk

In her New York Times column on 4 May 2008 (This Bud’s For You) Maureen Dowd wondered “Why does Obama, the one with the bumpy background and mixed racial heritage, the one raised by a single mother who was on food stamps, seem so forced when he mingles with the common folk?” This was my answer to her. I sent it to her through the Times e-mail system as a personal note not for publication. I was not really asking for a reply and I was not pleaseantly suprised by one.

4 May 2008

Why does Barack Obama seem uncomfortable with “common folk”?

A couple of possibilities that seem to have escaped the notice (or the imagination) of the chattering classes:

    1) In my experience (and it is first hand), it is often those who have arisen from the working class and transcended it that are the most uncomfortable going back for a visit. Those born to the upper class live by upper class values and norms because they’ve never done otherwise. It’s a matter of circumstance, not choice, and they have no personal emotional stake in a contest over whether their values are better or worse than anyone else’s. But those born to the lower class that are now living by upper class values and norms have made a conscious choice to do so. In a sense, they have repudiated their roots, declared by their actions that the way they live now is better than the way they lived then. And believe me, those on the other side of that divide are aware of the choice and feel it as a challenge. When you’ve actively chosen one way over another, it’s hard to make the argument, even to yourself, that the choice was merely between two equivalents rather than between a better and a worse.
    2) Liberals in particular seem not to distinguish between economic classes and social/intellectual classes. They seem to have imbibed the elixir of Marx, that all is economic. Obama was raised by a single mother on food stamps — he grew up “poor”. Therefore he was just like all those working poor kids everywhere else and should share their values and understand their behavior. However, Obama’s mother may have been poor but she was neither ignorant nor plebian. She was well-educated and, I would bet, embraced upper-class rather than lower-class values and norms of behavior. I would bet that Barack Obama grew up not as a working-class or lower-class kid but rather as an upper-class kid, with upper class tastes and upper class ambitions, that happened to be temporarily poor. And, as in (1) above, when you grow up in that circumstance, surrounded, perhaps, by people who embrace a different set of values and cultural standards, you end up acutely aware of the fact that you have chosen between the cultures and decided that one is superior to the other. It’s hard, then, to pretend that you value the one you have rejected.

(C) Copyright 2008, Augustus P. Lowell

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