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Michael Winship: Why Shouldn't We Be Bitter?

Why Shouldn't We Be Bitter?

By Michael Winship
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Having grown up in a small town, I'm always struck at how rarely movies and television shows and other art forms capture the quality of life there. The false notes are thumped as discordantly as the "Moonlight Sonata" on a badly tuned spinet; the citizens portrayed as homicidal mouth breathers, amusing rubes or country sages with an unsullied rustic wisdom that astonishes visiting city slickers.

Some get it right. A weekend attending a conference in Columbus, Ohio, ended Sunday at the small, Victorian boyhood home of one of my literary heroes, James Thurber. In his short stories and reminiscences, it was his "sure grasp of confusion," as a magazine once put it, his understanding of small town, family dynamics and foibles that instantly won my heart, even at an early age.

And though Thurber, like me and so many others, wound up in Manhattan, exploring the anguishes and delights of the big city, he himself wrote, "My books prove that I am never very far away from Ohio in my thoughts, and that the clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus."

So, it was with a mixture of bemusement, bewilderment and vexation that I've been watching the furor around Barack Obama's remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser, the ones that have led to accusations of elitism and belittling folks from small towns.

With the critical Pennsylvania primary a week away, this is the Obama sentence that, as Thurber would say, has torn up the peapatch: "It's not surprising then that they [small town people] 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."

The response to this by the media and the attempts to exploit Obama's words by Senators Clinton and McCain have been mind shattering in their hypocrisy and cynicism. As political operative Bob Shrum wrote in The Huffington Post, "Ironically, Obama's the one raised by a single mother. He's the one who only recently finished paying off his student loans. He doesn't know what it's like to have $100 million. The opponents who are attacking him are the ones who inhabit that financial neighborhood."

First, place Senator Obama's words in greater context. Here is more of what he ACTUALLY said, ending with the sentence in question: "Here's how it is. In a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, they feel so betrayed by government that when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it.

"... Our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And 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."

Different, huh? Especially, as's Joan Walsh pointed out, when you consider what Obama added after the spittle hit the fan. "They're frustrated and for good reason," he said. "Because for the last 25 years they've seen jobs shipped overseas. They've seen their economies collapse. They have lost their jobs. They have lost their pensions. They have lost their healthcare.

"And for 25, 30 years Democrats and Republicans have come before them and said we're going to make your community better. We're going to make it right and nothing ever happens. And, of course, they're bitter. Of course they're frustrated. You would be, too. In fact many of you are."

Most of the punditocracy that analyzes the political scene with the avidity of a high school biology teacher dissecting a dead frog is as tin-eared and condescending as the movie and TV producers when it comes to the realities of small town life. Such places are in the "flyover zone" between the urban centers of the East and West Coasts and the media know little about what it's like to live there or how the residents think. A few weeks in primary and caucus states every four years doth not a Middle America expert make.

Most small town people with whom I've spoken aren't as put off by Obama's words as they are by the depths to which this presidential campaign now has sunk (and it's only April!). Rather, as fellow small town boy John Baer wrote in his Philadelphia Daily News column on Monday, "Despite carping from Hillary Clinton and annoying yapping from her surrogates (really, it's like turning on the lights at night in a puppy farm), I take no offense.

"What's offensive to me is suggesting that small-town, working-class, gun-toting and/or religious Pennsylvanians are somehow injured by a politician's words. Are you kidding me? They're injured all right, but the injury is long-term and from lots more than 'just words.' They've been injured from decades of neglect by political cultures in Washington and Harrisburg driven by special interests."

The Campaign for America's Future reports 31 percent of those polled by the Gallup organization say they're worse off than they were five years ago - that's the highest since the mid-1960's. The Census Bureau reports the median household income, $48,201, is lower - adjusted for inflation - than it was in 1999. At the same time, the tax contribution of American corporations has dropped from 50 percent in 1940 to 14 percent today. The majority pays no taxes at all.

Toward the end of his life, physical blindness and other afflictions frequently made James Thurber a bitter man, yet he still reveled in his dreams and memories of the clocks of Columbus. With time, we, too, can shake off a bitterness that is not just a small town malaise, but endemic to a country that has had enough. The clock is ticking toward November. With luck, hope takes the upper hand and bitter will yield to the ballot.


Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York. This article has been previously published in the Messenger Post Newspapers.

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