April 14, 2008
The Mask Slips
By WILLIAM KRISTOL
I haven’t read much Karl Marx since the early 1980s, when I taught political philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Still, it didn’t take me long this weekend to find my copy of “The Marx-Engels Reader,” edited by Robert C. Tucker — a book that was assigned in thousands of college courses in the 1970s and 80s, and that now must lie, unopened and un-remarked upon, on an awful lot of rec-room bookshelves.
My occasion for spending a little time once again with the old Communist was Barack Obama’s now-famous comment at an April 6 San Francisco fund-raiser. Obama was explaining his trouble winning over small-town, working-class voters: “It’s not surprising then that 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.”
This sent me to Marx’s famous statement about religion in the introduction to his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”:
“Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of a soulless condition. It is the opium of the people.”
Or, more succinctly, and in the original German in which Marx somehow always sounds better: “Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes.”
Now, this is a point of view with a long intellectual pedigree prior to Marx, and many vocal adherents continuing into the 21st century. I don’t believe the claim is true, but it’s certainly worth considering, in college classrooms and beyond.
But it’s one thing for a German thinker to assert that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature.” It’s another thing for an American presidential candidate to claim that we “cling to ... religion” out of economic frustration.
And it’s a particularly odd claim for Barack Obama to make. After all, in his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, he emphasized with pride that blue-state Americans, too, “worship an awesome God.”
What’s more, he’s written eloquently in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” of his own religious awakening upon hearing the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “Audacity of Hope” sermon, and of the complexity of his religious commitment. You’d think he’d do other believers the courtesy of assuming they’ve also thought about their religious beliefs.
But Obama in San Francisco does no courtesy to his fellow Americans. Look at the other claims he makes about those small-town voters.
Obama ascribes their anti-trade sentiment to economic frustration — as if there are no respectable arguments against more free-trade agreements. This is particularly cynical, since he himself has been making those arguments, exploiting and fanning this sentiment that he decries. Aren’t we then entitled to assume Obama’s opposition to Nafta and the Colombian trade pact is merely cynical pandering to frustrated Americans?
Then there’s what Obama calls “anti-immigrant sentiment.” Has Obama done anything to address it? It was John McCain, not Obama, who took political risks to try to resolve the issue of illegal immigration by putting his weight behind an attempt at immigration reform.
Furthermore, some concerns about unchecked and unmonitored illegal immigration are surely legitimate. Obama voted in 2006 (to take just one example) for the Secure Fence Act, which was intended to control the Mexican border through various means, including hundreds of miles of border fence. Was Obama then just accommodating bigotry?
As for small-town Americans’ alleged “antipathy to people who aren’t like them”: During what Obama considers the terrible Clinton-Bush years of economic frustration, by any measurement of public opinion polling or observed behavior, Americans have become far more tolerant and respectful of minorities who are not “like them.” Surely Obama knows this. Was he simply flattering his wealthy San Francisco donors by casting aspersions on the idiocy of small-town life?
That leaves us with guns. Gun ownership has been around for an awfully long time. And people may have good reasons to, and in any case have a constitutional right to, own guns — as Obama himself has been acknowledging on the campaign trail, when he presents himself as more sympathetic to gun owners than a typical Democrat.
What does this mean for Obama’s presidential prospects? He’s disdainful of small-town America — one might say, of bourgeois America. He’s usually good at disguising this. But in San Francisco the mask slipped. And it’s not so easy to get elected by a citizenry you patronize.
And what are the grounds for his supercilious disdain? If he were a war hero, if he had a career of remarkable civic achievement or public service — then he could perhaps be excused an unattractive but in a sense understandable hauteur. But what has Barack Obama accomplished that entitles him to look down on his fellow Americans?
Hat tip to Ace of Spades, follow the link and read his commentary and the comments of his readers, I found it laugh out loud funny.