Help! I'm a snob like Obama!

A mostly political Weblog.
April 20 2008 3:45 PM

Help! I'm A Snob Like Obama!

We Marxists think we know better.

Help! I'm A Snob Like Obama! Greg Mitchell ridicules Bill Kristol for insinuating that Barack Obama was a Marxist for saying that residents of economically depressed small towns "cling to guns or religion ...  as a way to explain their [economic] frustrations." But of course it was a Marxist thing to say, wasn't it? If Democrats had delivered on the economy, Obama suggests, all those GOP cultural "wedge" issues would lose traction. This idea--that the economy trumps culture--isn't new. It's "materialism."  The economic "base," Marxists would argue, determines the cultural "superstructure." If the economy changes (i.e. if small town Pennsylvanians get well-paying jobs) then the superstructure will change (Pennsylvanians will feel less intensely about their religion).

Actually this isn't simply Marxism--it's what, when I was in college at least, was called Vulgar Marxism. More sophisticated Marxists hypothesized various ways the cultural "superstructure" could interact with the economy or take on a life of its own. Less supple Marxists (Engels, if I remember) hew to the crude base/superstructure idea--with feudalism you get feudal beliefs, which give way to bourgeois beliefs once capitalism takes over.

I've sniped at Obama for the condescension implicit in his argument that Pennsylvanians will stop their 'clinging' once Democrats like him start delivering jobs from Washington. But this condescension is inherent in any Vulgar Marxist explanation, isn't it? European peasants thought they were loyal to divine monarchs in a well-ordered hierarchical universe. Comes the industrial revolution and they look like fools. "All that is sacred ...."

The problem for me is that I'm a Vulgar Marxist too. I've always believed that people need to eat, and want to get ahead and prosper. If you give them an avenue that lets them do that, they aren't going to let their religion, their music, their sexual habits, their families or their educational system stand in their way for long. The two most obvious contemporary applications of this economic determinism are 1) China (when the Chinese have a capitalist economy they won't be able to have a Communist government, Vulgar Marxists would say) and 2) the Muslim world (if Islam needs a Reformation in order to prosper in a global market, then Islam will eventually get a Reformation). I agree with both of those propositions.

Does that mean I'm condescending too? It's hard to avoid the charge. If a Chinese Communist Party Official somehow came to me and declared that, no, China would out-compete the West while maintaining Mao-era control over free inquiry, I'd think 'You poor deluded fool. Just wait.'  I support Western policies of bringing China into the global marketplace in large part because I think that means Chinese Communism will collapse even if the Chinese Communists don't realize it. Same with fundamentalist Muslims--e.g. Pakistan, when prosperous, will no longer be such a breeding ground of jihadist fanatics. They'll be too busy making money to blow up the world. My attitude toward Pakistan is roughly parallel to Obama's attitude toward rural Pennsylvanians: if the economy really delivered for them, they'd stop clinging to their God. And their guns.

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I'm especially appalled by the possibility that I'm as much of a snob as Obama because I've made a big deal about social equality--how treating people as equals, rather than redistributing income, is the essential goal of liberal politics. Condescension, needless to say, is not treating people like equals. (Obama himself seemed to be quite aware of the problem, in his 2004 Charlie Rose interview, when trotting out his "What's the Matter With Kansas" homilies:

"If we don't have plausible answers on the economic front, and we appear to be condescending towards those traditions that are giving their lives some stability, then they're gonna opt for at least that party that seems to be speaking to the things that are giving--that still provide them some solace." [E.A.]

Of course, he sounded a bit condescending when saying that.  .....

Seeking a way out of the Condescension Conundrum, I asked my friend Robert Wright, another Vulgar Marxist, for guidance. He wasn't much help! What he said was ... well, you can see what he said here.

Is there an answer? I'm not sure. I suppose the short response is that you worry about condescending to Muslims when you are running for office in a Muslim country, you worry about condescending to Pennsylvanians when you are running in Pennsylvania. But it's not really an answer; 1) Nobody likes to be condescended to, and nobody's likely to be convinced when they feel belittled; and 2) in my view of the world, at least, condescension--social inequality--is a grave political sin in itself whenever it's practiced.

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