Obama as a Toni Morrison Character

Toni Morrison

Regular readers of this blog know that I am an Obama supporter who has been confused by the intensity of the attacks directed against him. A recent Washington Post article about conservative voters conjured up a Toni Morrison passage that is helping me make a little more sense of the antipathy.

The Post has a very useful “5 Myths” series where common misunderstandings about various issues are debunked. In “5 Myths about Conservative Voters,” conservative pollster Frank Luntz aims to debunk the myth that “conservatives worship Wall Street”:

Conservatives respect the role that businesses large and small have played in spurring America’s long-term economic success. But most agree with moderates and liberals that things on Wall Street have gotten out of hand. They believe that those who abuse the system should be held accountable and that those who work hard and play by the rules should be free to advance.

And while big names such as Rush Limbaugh and Larry Kudlow may defend “capitalism,” my polling indicates that conservatives would rather embrace “economic freedom.” The former represents big business and Wall Street; the latter evokes small business and Main Street.

I’ll talk in a moment about how, by Luntz’s criteria, I myself, a self-proclaimed liberal, am closer to being a conservative than Mitt Romney and many of the GOP politicians. But first to Obama and Toni Morrison. When Barack Obama stepped into the presidency, I can see how some would see him, not as coming to clean up the Wall Street mess but to join the Wall Streeters. Maybe Main Street conservatives hate him because he seems like just another CEO out to screw them. Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas thinks this is why Democrats in general, not just Obama, have lost a natural constituency–they seem no less hand-in-hand with big money than are the Republicans and then are socially liberal to boot.

That thought reminded me of a scene from Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

In the novel the protagonist, Milkman Dead, at one point finds himself actually hitting his tyrannical father to protect his much-abused mother. Think of this as Obama seeming to stand up for the rights of minorities after years of oppression.

Only Milkman’s sister Magdalena isn’t impressed. In a scene where she unloads years of pent up frustration against her brother, she talks about how he has been the privileged one in the household, how everything has revolved around him while she and her sister were expected to cater to him.

When he stands up to defend their mother, she says, what she sees is a new tyrant walking in to take over from the old tyrant. Or as she puts it:

You are exactly like him [their father]. Exactly. I didn’t go to college because of him. Because I was afraid of what he might do to Mama. You think because you hit him once that we all believe you were protecting her. Taking her side. It’s a lie. You were taking over, letting us know you had the right to tell her and all of us what to do.”

So do white working class voters, those that Obama has the hardest time reaching, see him as just ignoring them as he steps into power? By this reasoning, Obama would have aroused less resentment if he had gone after the banks and financiers a lot harder than he did.

Then again, maybe they would have been angry regardless because he’s a black man who succeeded while their lives are crap. Luckily for him, he’s not running against someone who has a special affinity with working class voters. There is no doubt that his opponent worships Wall Street.

Returning to Frank Luntz’s description of conservative voters as Main Street populists who don’t really want to (here Luntz attempts to deflate the myths) deport immigrants or shrink the size of government or slash Medicare and Social Security or turn a blind eye to inequality—if what Luntz says is true, then there’s an enormous gap between what their candidates are saying and what they themselves believe. As Luntz describes them, his conservative voters would not approve of the Paul Ryan budget that the Republican House voted for and that Romney has endorsed, a budget that radically shrinks the size of government and slashes social welfare programs while further lowering taxes on the wealthy. Luntz’s voters would not agree with Romney’s endorsement of making life so tough for illegal immigrants that they “self deport.”

So what I want to say to Luntz is what John Wilmot, the 17th century author of “Satyr on Reason and Mankind,” says to an interlocutor who is trying to defend humans. In his biting poem, Rochester has been claiming that humans are animal-like–indeed, sometimes worse than animals–but he  is willing to grant that there are a few exceptions. He imagines one exemplary man but then concludes,

If such there be, yet grant me this at least:
Man differs more from man, than man from beast.

Or to put it in our terms, conservatives may differ more from conservatives than conservatives from liberals.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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