Saturday, April 12, 2008

Those Obama remarks

Indeed they are strange, one strange aspect being their socio-economic determinism (which was also evident in his Philadelphia speech about Rev. Wright): that a broad range of behaviour and opinion can be traced back to a class grievance. Here's the key section --

But the truth is, is that, 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. So 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.

But the charge of "elitist" is also strange. Obama's remarks about religion are within the range of theories that have been around for quite a while. In particular, there is an echo of Nietzsche and his notion of Ressentiment, which gets into the philosophy of religion. About which we know very little.

Consider though the "outrage" of the right that someone might trace religious adherence to a sense of grievance. That's precisely the Right's analysis of Islam, although they'll sometimes allow an -ism at the end to blunt the indictment of the entire group. For example, Bernard Lewis's influential post 9/11 New Yorker article and various writings by Roger Scruton, and one particular rant by Andrew Sullivan (who showed his own philosophy chops with the Nietzsche reference).

So Obama was bringing some strange baggage to his theories of small-town Pennsylvania. But it's baggage that others have too.

UPDATE: See Mickey Kaus for more on the college sociology aspects of Obama's thinking.

FINAL UPDATE: A couple of closing thoughts on this. Obama's critics are focused on the echoes of Marx in his thinking. Of course that's the obvious, if unintended, allusion. But Marx was operating within a 19th century German tradition of which Nietzsche was an important part. And, to his credit, Andrew Sullivan does an extended post noting that the neocon analysis of Islamism (and his own) is not that different methodologically from what Obama said.

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