I started mentally writing this post as I watched Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama expound on their views about faith and religion on CNN’s “Compassion Forum” last night. Apart from the points relating to inter-faith dialogue in the global arena brought in by Obama, it was mainly a domestic affair and, to be honest, faith and religion discussions, particularly in the American context, is not something I’d normally engage in. However, there was an angle to it that surely caught everybody’s interest, including mine, namely the new line of fire launched by Hillary (and McCain, but he was not present at yesterday’s forum) on Obama for saying, a few days ago, that “decades of lost jobs and unfulfilled promises from Washington have left some Pennsylvanians ‘bitter’ and clinging 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."
For these, by his own admission, ‘clumsy’ words, Obama is now being painted by his opponents as “out of touch with ordinary, particularly blue collar, Americans”, “patronising”, “contemptuous”, “condescending”, in short, an “elitist”! He did his best to dismiss the deliberate misconstruction of what he really meant but, of course, because it is all politically motivated, it will be milked till the last drop. Well, let me say this: though it is bound to cost him some votes in the upcoming election in Pennsylvania, I don’t think that this will cost him the possible nomination by the Democratic Party and will eventually fade away much easier than the Reverend Wright debacle (hopefully helped by the upcoming Pope’s visit to the US).
However, there is a dimension to this issue that touches me on a personal level. I explain: in my life experience, particularly in most recent years, I’ve been observing this interesting, but disturbing, phenomenon, whereby – be it in contests for power at any level, or simply in the trivial course of people trying to assert themselves in any sort of social relationships – some will make a point of going out of their way to invert the terms of a particular equation, e.g. the true elitist will do all s/he can to accuse the other of elitism, the true racist will try anything to portray the other as racist, the gender-insensitive will willy-nilly paint the other as a misogynist, the unsure about their African roots and/or identity, or totally lacking any, will relentlessly play the “more African than thou” game against the true African (yes, there is such a thing!)... The examples could go on and on.
So, here we have a Barack Obama, who was the son of an absent father, raised, at times on food stamps, by a single mother and not exactly rich grandparents, who financed his studies with student loans, whose professional career was mostly developed within working class communities, who is a practicing religious man and, not totally irrelevant to this entire discussion, who is an African-American with all the adversities the ‘condition’ entails in the US and virtually anywhere in the world, being pitched to the public exclusively as a ‘Harvard graduate’, therefore an ‘elitist’, by those who were born in privilege and raised by the rules of the true American elite for generations… And, not only that, have been widely known for notorious elitist statements and behaviour.
I mean, how much must someone lack in elitism (… racism? I wouldn’t even go there…) to despise the American Civil Rights Movement to the point of opposing the institution of a holiday in memory of Martin Luther King Jr., as McCain did? Of course, he expressly went to Memphis to apologise for it on the recently marked 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, but… Or, how closely ‘in touch’ with the feelings of ordinary people can someone be to say on TV that “I’m not seating here like some little woman 'stand by your man' like Tammy Wynette” – when that’s effectively what she was doing – as Hillary did to save her husband from impeachment over a certain sexual scandal in the White House?
Played, as it is in this case, at the highest level of the political arena, this game can be either inconsequential, or utterly destructive, depending on the correlation of forces at presence in one particular moment. And as these stand right now, it will most probably be of relatively minor consequence for Obama’s chances in the current American primaries. He can regret the effect of his words, as he did, but eventually laugh it all off with just something like “shame on you Hillary, you should know better!”, as he also did.
However, when the same game is played, as it often is in my experience, against more vulnerable people, who – exclusively by virtue of their strenuous effort at making the most of the opportunities they fought for and their determination to succeed against all odds, when they could have chosen much easier paths in life – come to be perceived as part of an elite born with a silver spoon in their mouth and, as a result of that, ostracised and antagonised by all sorts of opportunist, jealous, envious, manipulative and populist ‘warriors’ and 'young turks' so prevalent in certain ‘influential’ African or African-minded quarters, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, it can only be destructive. And sad, very sad indeed. And, as always, it’s good old Mamma Africa that ends up paying the price of all such utter nonsense…