EPISTEMIC ENCLOSURES: A slight condescension!

THURSDAY, AUGUST 29, 2013

Interlude—What’s in a word: We’d be inclined to question one word in President Obama’s remarks.

Some will think we’re picking nits. We think they are wrong.

Yesterday, Obama began by describing the people who marched in 1963. We’d be inclined to challenge one word late in this passage:
OBAMA (8/28/13): On a hot summer day, they assembled here, in our nation's capital, under the shadow of the great emancipator, to offer testimony of injustice, to petition their government for redress and to awaken America's long-slumbering conscience.

We rightly and best remember Dr. King's soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.

But we would do well to recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV.
Did the day belong to “ordinary people” too? We’d rethink that first word!

It’s certainly true that Dr. King’s army was full of regular people—individuals “whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV.”

But they were among the least ordinary people we’ve ever seen described. This is the way Obama continued:

“Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, had lived in towns where they couldn't vote, in cities where their votes didn't matter. There were couples in love who couldn't marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire-hosed.”

It’s true! Some of the people at the march had gone to (legally) segregated schools. They had been denied the chance to buy lunch, even the right to vote.

Some of them had in fact “seen loved ones beaten and children fire-hosed.” This might include children they knew, children from their own families.

Within the American context, people subjected to these experiences can’t really be said to be “ordinary.” And as we noted yesterday, the evidence suggests that Dr. King’s army contained some of the most extraordinary people in this nation’s long, varied history.

As he continued, Obama described what we mean. Thanks in part to their strong leadership, the people Obama is describing were highly advanced and evolved:
OBAMA: They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire-hosed. And they had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.

And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence.
Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us.
The contrast is clear when we compare those people to the peacocks of today. To the people who “get on TV.”

Again and again, the people who supported Dr. King were light-years beyond extraordinary. Nothing like that can be said of the people who “get on TV” today, where they are paid to be fatuous.

In our view, progressives shouldn’t obscure this important distinction. Of course, we also think progressives should identify and applaud the improved values found in regular people of the other tribe, improved values which are all around us, if we are willing to see them.

(It’s also true that those people are often quite foolish. Our tribe is catching up fast!)

Before we cite a very good point Obama made in yesterday’s speech, let’s complain about one other framework he offered. He described the way those “ordinary” people persevered through horrendous events. But gack!

In our view, progressives should possibly bristle a bit at this sort of presentation:
OBAMA: And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else's laundry or shining somebody else's shoes.

(Applause.)
“Washing somebody else's laundry” is real work too. So is tending someone’s yard or cleaning someone’s house.

Such work is being done by many people today. We don’t know why a progressive would dismiss such work in the way Obama did, occasioning the inevitable (Applause).

Obama, who is a good decent person, speaks from within the cocoon of modern wealth, a land where condescension and incomprehension can grow. We thought we heard that condescension at times yesterday, right from the somewhat condescending start of his address.

Dr. King didn’t get rich; he tended to give his money away. As part of that package, he may have had a wider understanding of the people who stood before him whenever he spoke:
KING (2/4/68): Everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve.

You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.

You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
If we might apply Dr. King’s insight, people who wash somebody else's laundry can be great.

In our view, people like Obama should start with the assumption that those “ordinary people” knew and understood as much, or more, in various ways than he and his advisers do today. Having said that, we thought the president made a very good point early on:
OBAMA: Because they marched, America became more free and more fair.

[...]

To dismiss the magnitude of this progress—to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed—that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years.
In the past month or so, we’ve seen quite a few people “suggesting that little has changed.” We've seen it in comment threads. We've seen it from the peacocks.

Some of the peacocks may do that to get you riled, thus improving their ratings and paydays.

Back in 1963, the leadership was quite strong. But the movement was full of extraordinary people—people who had been forced to develop unusual moral understanding. Given the way our modern world works, it’s galling to see multimillionaires slip-sliding around that fact.

You might file this under “pet peeve.” Except a great deal turns on that first slip-step, in which we assume that the people with the wealth and the fame, the ones on TV, must be the ones with the good ideas.

It’s very hard to shake that idea. It’s lodged in the things we all hear.

Tomorrow: Our horrible leaders

Strongly recommended: We’ve only read six chapters so far. But with each chapter, we’re more surprised by the point of view advanced in Mark Leibovich’s book, This Town.

We expect to review it after back-to-school week. But the darn thing just keeps getting stronger.

Did the mainstream reviews understate this book’s bite? We’ll have to go back and reread them!

34 comments:

  1. <quote>
    “Washing somebody else's laundry” is real work too. So is tending someone’s yard or cleaning someone’s house.

    Such work is being done by many people today. We don’t know why a progressive would dismiss such work in the way Obama did, ....
    </quote>

    Where's P^3 (Prodigious Puller of the Pud) when we need him? TDH is so concerned with advancing his narrative of disdainfully elite liberals that he tortures Obama's words into a denigration of honest physical labor.

    But Obama isn't dismissing humble physical labor from his lofty perch of wealth and power. He's noting that the toilers marched in the civil rights movement to ensure that their children weren't restricted as they were.

    There's nothing wrong with washing laundry. Such work is being done by many people today! But there's something wrong with washing laundry when you want to be say, a chemical engineer, and the University won't admit people like you.

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    1. I was right behind you, tapping my keys, my departed rodent friend . Let me add, for fear of consescending, there is nothing wrong with being a rat. It is a life, albeit hard which you may have enjoyed (we can't be sure) before entering your current lifeless state.

      And for the record, while I enjoyed being called Poo, PPP, and other things based on the title I previously adopted for my work here, I imagined (without marching) a title of my own choosing since the title of my work was aimed at the some of the quality of offerings by the host of this establishment. So call me Emperor Daibazaal, grasper of the Tusk! from now on, or Emperor B, in reference to Zarkon, a far planet where Doris K. Goodwin gropes tusks. Heck deadrat, you can even call me just plain old B. I am, after all, just an ordinary commenter who has never been on TV.

      B

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    2. Deadrat, I'm glad that your desire for accuracy kept you from putting "prodigious" before pud.

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    3. CeceliaMc,

      In the case of P^3 (or whatever nym he's adopted now), the exertions always seemed to me far larger than the point exerted upon. Thus the placement of the adjective.

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  2. OMB (We've changed the Headline)

    Since you are "questioning" one word, we will be so bold as to suggest you "disappeared" one word: BEYOND

    Let's try and "imagine" the world of these extraordinary people whose like once walked the earth, a place, which, though better than before according to BOB, is filled with haters boxed in by limits that make them no better than, or at least becoming like, the people they hate.

    "Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else's laundry or shining somebody else's shoes."

    We imagine a world where the most common employment opportunties afforded to many people of high intellect were limited to the bottom end of the service rung. (In fact. some of us do not have to imagine it, we lived in it.) And then we think of of a world where there are limits BEYOND
    that for our children.

    We think, for example, of our friend, Rodney Ellis, an investment banker and State Senator
    from Houston, Texas who is the African American son of a maid and a yard man, the two occupations in which most condescending whites encountered people of color at the time of King's speech.

    You are the one gripped by condescension, Mr. S.
    Fortunately, in the stage of the cocoon, one does not recognize, much less acknowledge, swimming in one's own waste. We doubt one even imagines the better life of a moth butterfly.

    Emperor Daibazaal, grasper of the Tusk!

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    1. Amazing, isn't it? Of course, Bob isn't "nit picking" is he?

      Here's a thought. Sometimes, very "ordinary" people do extraordinary things in extraordinary times.

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  3. Until people with the appropriate advanced degrees perfect robot technology, somebody's gonna have to do the dirty work. How many slaves did it take to keep one Roman senator in leisure?

    Soon enough, when robot technology gives us that Jetson Utopia H.G. Wells envisioned before the Great War, the robots will have all the glamorous jobs, too. (Yes, some day they'll have robots better looking than Megyn Kelly.)

    So while they'll still let us change bedsheets, mow lawns, flip burgers, and pick fruit, the least they can do for the sake a consumer-based economy is pay such grunt positions as if they were the old manufacturing jobs the robots will soon be taking away from those expensive little Asian children.

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  4. My Norwegian grandmother did other people's laundry in order to raise 11 kids during the Depression and afterward. My aunt cleaned other people's houses and I wore the cast-off clothing of their children, all the way through high school. I went to my prom without a prom dress. My parents did not pay for college even if I were to be admitted somewhere. I had to consciously learn to mimic the speech and behavior of the middle class in order to get a job, be included socially and to provide a better life for my children.

    We forget that some of the barriers faced by African Americans are not race-based but are shared with those who are white but poor. Doors are as firmly closed, prejudices as entrenched, and life is as difficult for those at the bottom in immigrant communities as well.

    Today, things have changed to the extent that poverty and its customs determine outcomes for African American children, more surely than skin color. There might be common cause to fight poverty if it were not that identity politics prevents any kind of unity. Back in the late 50s and throughout the 60s, African Americans pursuing civil rights firmly rejected any comparisons between the situation they were in and that of women. Yesterday's speakers claimed that civil rights for women, gays, Latinos and Asians were advanced because of this movement, and to some extent I'm sure they were, but not because of any alliances. In Chicago, African Americans competed against other minorities for crumbs doled out by those in power. One group was seen to lose if another advanced. That leaves me with a jaundiced view of identity politics, including civil rights movements.

    I would like to see us take more seriously the impact of the way our economy works on those at the bottom so that we can ensure a living wage (or stipend) to those not fortunate enough to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by civil rights advances, MOOCs or the college-for-everyone movement. I'm glad African Americans are having better lives, but they are still only 12% of a very large population full of people with needs that must be addressed as well, regardless of skin color or shared heritage of slavery instead of indentured servitude.

    On some other blogs yesterday, the comments were full of discussion of white privilege, the obliviousness of those who are white to their innate advantages in society, and their responsibility to others. It bothered me that those posting seem to believe that everyone white, by virtue of being white, shares the same advantages. Life just doesn't work that way.

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  5. I cringed when he belittled certain workers. Tone deaf and out of touch. Sickening!

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    1. I cringed when you wrote that you cringed because you misinterpreted Obama's words. Go back and read them again. Sound out the big words if you have to. Then think hard about it before you publish your apology here.

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  6. Try working for 10 bucks an hour as a nursing assistant doing all the dirty work while the nurses get at least 30 for less difficult work. I see your point Deadrat, but Obama is everybody's president and many people who work in undervalued, underpaid, yet invaluable menial service work can not help but take his remarks as the standard putdown of menial labor as a sign of failure to achieve.

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    1. Dead rat engages in absurd sophistry. Obama insulted hard working people.

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    2. Yep, those damned RN's. And damn any ordinary nursing assistant who works for systemic change to make it possible for her child to imagine becoming an RN even though her Momma had what it takes to be an MD.

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    3. MC,

      I'm sure we call all feel the love pouring over you from all those who work in "undervalued, underpaid, yet invaluable menial service." Just as a matter of curiosity, who appointed you their spokesman and Presidential interpreter?

      Try talking to CNAs doing all the dirty work in nursing homes for 10 bucks an hour. In my experience, most of them take pride in doing their invaluable work. I doubt any of them are insulted by the President's suggestion that even so they might want expanded opportunities for their children, perhaps as RNs and MDs.

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    4. I doubt any of them AREN'T insulted by Obama's words. The great orator has again demonstrated his unmatched ability to make people feel worse about their existence.

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    5. Really? Talked to any of them?

      I thought not.

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    6. As always, I am speaking from my own experience, deadrat.


      "In my experience, most of them take pride in doing their invaluable work." Did you ever talk to any of them about their wages? The point is that society does not show such people the proper respect by honoring their work with a decent wage. Anyone who has actually been a CNA understands this. I know plenty of nurses who shudder at the thought of having to go back to CNA work. To just stand back and tell the CNAs that they should just aim higher next generation and not complain about the disrespect is so very wonderfully condescending of you, deadrat.

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    7. Besides the disrespect reflected in low wages, they have to suffer the insults of their president saying that the work is beneath the dignity of anyone and that anyone still doing it must have limited imaginations. Millions will always be doing this work. There are only so many slots for movie stars and surgeons and politicians. Obama appears not to know this.

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    8. MC,

      Experience: yeah, me too. And if the President actually denigrated the valuable work done by low-paid people or "stood back" to tell them they shouldn't complain about their exploitation in the market, then you might have a point. But you don't, since nobody, including the President or me, is saying any such thing.

      The condescension is yours in telling people to impute insult to words that carry no insult. As though these poor, undervalued members of the lumpen proletariat need your help to guide them through the complicated thicket of Obama's speech:

      Sure, he said that he applauded a generation that sought wider opportunity for their children, but what he meant was that you are worthless and your work is contemptible.

      Yeah, you're a light unto the downtrodden. In your own mind, anyway.

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    9. Anonymous @ 7:30P,

      The President didn't say that the work of the lowly-paid is beneath the dignity of anyone. In fact he says the opposite: "... no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us.

      How embarrassing for you to misunderstand something so simple.

      What the President is celebrating is the battle of people to ensure that low-wage work isn't the only opportunity for their children. Nothing to do with the disrespecting the societal value of work, no matter how undervalued it may be in the market.

      Clear now?

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    10. How embarrassing for you to attempt to argue something so ridiculous, but predictable, deadrat. It's what you do.

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    11. Anonymouis @11:19:

      You're half right. I actually look at the evidence. It's what I do.

      You, not so much.

      Delete
  7. Bob,
    "Ordinary people" vs "regular people". Of course, Obama wrong.
    Bob! Bob! Bob!

    Of course all work is honorable!

    But when Sonia Satomayor's mom saw her nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States it sure as shit beat seeing her daughter washing clothes or cleaning houses.

    Come back to us Bob. Come back.

    Condescension? Look within yourself.

    LG

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    1. That must make the people who are washing clothes and cleaning houses feel great.

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    2. Well, not "great" actually, my ankle has been hurting a mite, but pretty damn good, thanks.

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  8. Words and condescending attitudes like Obama's are what justifies people like Tim Russert to move from the honorable garbage collection work of his father to the garbage distribution work of Jack Welch. This is why the thousands still in sanitation resent the millions looted by those in broadcast journalism and take serious offense at the words of their President. What an elitist celebrity. And, I might add, an unqualified colored man.

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  9. Look within yourself.

    LG

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  10. I watched Bill Moyers this past Sunday on PBS who's guest was Mark Leibovich discussing his book This Town, so I'm looking forward to your limning it as well. It's a topic made for you.

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  11. I await Ceceilia's inevitable post explaining what Bob really, really, really meant.

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    1. Oh, good.

      What Bob REALLY means is ...Please be extremely careful not to give the impression that some work is less than dignified.

      Personally, I would have added "President Precious", just to mitigate any chance of someone nitpicking.

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    2. Which would, of course, require disappearing the word "beyond" and deconstructing Obama's phrase in its worst possible light so you assign whatever meaning you want to it and argue against it.

      Ah yes, for those good ol' days when an entire race of people were limited to such dignified jobs.

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  12. You talking to me?

    LG

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    1. Only if you're Travis Bickel.

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