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Is Obama Out of Touch with Pennsylvanians?

A bitter comment is stirring some controversy for The One

Senator Obama

While speaking to contributors in California Senator Obama made the following comments about Pennsylvanians that seem to have offended some and given his opponents something to sink their teeth into for the moment:

“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 twenty-five 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. And it’s not surprising then 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.”

This story (and brewing controversy) is getting major play (supporting build-up) across news outlets, but that’s not why I’m commenting on it.

I wanted to comment on this because I live in Pennsylvania. I’m from Pittsburgh, which isn’t really small town Pennsylvania, but for anyone who knows the Pittsburgh region you know that this medium size city is actually more like a bunch of small towns located next to one another than it is a metropolitan city.

I also have family and friends who live in small, one horse towns across this state and spend a good deal of time each year visiting, camping and hiking in an area around one of the smallest of small towns in Pennsylvania; where the population sign is an actual chalkboard on the wall of the lone filling station–hanging right above the aquarium with the two-headed rattle snake. The chalkboard population sign is a standing joke of the townspeople on their own size.

I believe I’m qualified to summarize why some of my fellow Pennsylvanians may take issue with what the Senator said.

Here in Pennsylvania, residents have faced unstable and more often than not retarded economic times since the 1970′s when steel and manufacturing began draining away. Nothing, and no-one, has been able to completely correct the effects of those losses. We’ve had some modest gains and made great strides towards rebuilding our foundations on a different kind of future, shifting our focus from factories to cubicles. Changing our “strong back” mentality towards one of developing strong minds.

But it’s a work in progress. It’s hard work, and it’s taking longer than we would like it to, but we know that nothing good ever comes fast or easy. As our history of steel, iron, coal, river transportation and manufacturing shows, Pennsylvanians approach hard work with determination and pride in knowing it will be a job well done in the end.

So, when some outsider politician speaking to another group of outsiders comments that we’re bitter it can rub our pride the wrong way. Pennsylvanians, for the most part, don’t want free rides, hand-outs nor sympathy from anyone. We don’t want our stories to be used for political gain or fund raising. Pennsylvanians basically want honest pay for an honest day of work, and fair opportunities to compete.

If you’re going to comment on Pennsylvanians, then you’d be better off to simply recognize the determination and faith we possess that bands us together and keeps us trenching through the hardships and set-backs, always working towards the proverbial job well done.

Sure, there is some bitterness to be found here, but outside of a few vocal-yocal goobers like myself most of us will keep it to ourselves. It’s our way. Just as we’ll bitch and moan with coworkers during lunch but never complain to our boss over the workloads, we share our frustrations and bitter feelings with each other and let everyone else to their own.

You see, while Senator Obama’s bitterness comment was almost accurate, it was something some Pennsylvanians will feel he had no business to be saying. Especially before a crowd of Californians. Because these feelings and experiences, accurate or not, are ours and not his to be used.

That touches on his statement of our bitterness. The rest of his comments, describing our thoughts on guns, religion, prejudices and trade…well, those comments just show a clear lack of connection or understanding with the people of Pennsylvania.

Most of us won’t hold that against the Senator though, we know he’s not one of us and don’t expect him to really get it.

We’ve embraced guns and hunting as a way of life since this Commonwealth was formed. During the lowest periods and the highest of times, this has never changed.

As for religion, William Penn chartered this state to be a safe haven in the New World for anyone persecuted for their religious beliefs. America’s “freedom of religion” began with Pennsylvania.

So we don’t cling to guns or faith out of frustrations. They are our heritage and culture. We’re born and raised into them just as we are the traditions of eating turkey on Thanksgiving and singing the National Anthem at baseball games. They are a part of the Pennsylvania brand.

On our prejudices, it’s not that we don’t like certain people…we don’t like anybody–including each other. Strange as that may sound, it again is something that we’re born and raised into. Using Pittsburgh as an example, while this is a growing and forward thinking city right now, the fact is if you look at the demographics we’re a very segregated population along ethnic lines.

From the start immigrants coming here from various parts of the world simply gathered and lived around their own kind, and even though we’re beginning to see a little more mobility in very recent years, our segregated communities are still easy to trace on a map. In fact, I have relatives in 4 different homes that are all within 3 blocks of my own right now. That’s just the way our population has formed and stayed over time. The same is pretty true outside of Pittsburgh as well.

We’re also not very fond of political correctness overall, tending more towards a blunt and shoot-from-the-hip style. It isn’t a mean or spiteful approach, but rather an honest, open acknowledgment of our diversities.

Now, I can understand how an outsider might look upon us briefly and come away thinking he understands our divides or antipathies, but I’m pretty sure that he probably doesn’t. We make distinctions between openly acknowledging one another’s differences on social levels from discrimination based upon differences in non-social arenas. On the surface this may seem like an oxymoron, but like most important things there’s far more than what you see on the surface that needs to be understood before passing judgment.

As I said, we don’t like anybody, not even each other, but we also don’t hate anybody either. Growing up in Pennsylvania I used to believe we had to be one of the worst places for prejudices in America. The media, our political leaders and Hollywood all told me that we’re supposed to treat everyone the same, never pointing out the elephants in the room–and since few did that here I felt we must be pretty bad people.

But then I got a little older and realized that the very idea of treating everyone the same is directly opposed to one of our greatest strengths, our diversity. We’re not all the same. And when folks around here treat someone who’s a little different than themselves differently, it’s because they are. It’s not malicious from most–even though I’ve been the butt of enough Irish jokes for one lifetime–but rather it’s in recognition of our differences. And we expect the same in return.

What’s really funny to me–and I’ve lived here all my life so I’m sure it’s ludicrous to outsiders–is that despite the fact that there’s such a strong tendency among Pennsylvanians to stick with their own kind and point out the differences in others, if you look over our history you’ll find that time and again we drop all of the divisions and band together like family when a neighbor is down.

Race, ethnic heritage, culture, religion…it all goes out the door when someone needs a hand. Yet, the minute everything is back to normal we’re poking fun at Kawaski’s Kielbasa farts or Flannigan’s one-gulp Martini lunches. It’s just another part of the Pennsylvania brand.

Finally, here’s the thing on trade, we got screwed big-time by trade deals our political leaders made over the last 33 years. A hard working, very proud state full of people were almost all negatively affected by one-way and unfair trade deals that have shattered millions of lives and completely changed the employment landscape twice on us in a single generation.

We haven’t cried, we haven’t given up…but we also haven’t forgotten or forgiven. There’s a loss of trust in our government’s willingness and ability to protect us in trade dealings that may never be regained, and at the very least will take a long, long time to rebuild.

We’re not the only state to have taken hits from stupid trade policies, but as I said we haven’t been crying over the hits either. We’ve been trenching through them as best we can, working towards a better tomorrow and another eventual job well done.

We’re not “anti-trade” in Pennsylvania, we’re anti-more bad trade deals being made by politicians.

In a single working life span we’ve gone from max-capacity manufacturing and production to abandoned factories and mills. We replaced those abandoned plants with call centers and entry level technology offices, retrained ourselves for these new fields only to begin seeing those jobs moving away again from more bad policies. You can’t blame us for the lack of trust and faith in politicians to protect our jobs, and it’s not in your best political interest to call us out on it either. Using us as anecdotes at political fund raisers when it’s your kind (politicians) we blame for the bad deals is a sure-fire way to alienate us fast.

It’s no secret to anyone who reads my blog that I’ve been a Clinton supporter all along, but this posting isn’t intended to be an attack on Obama by any means.

There’s a very good chance that Senator Obama will be the Democratic nominee in the upcoming Presidential race, and as I’ve written before I believe Pennsylvania could swing to McCain if that happens.

What I’ve pointed out in this posting as Senator Obama being out of touch with Pennsylvanians is exactly why I believe Pennsylvania could go red this November. It’s a lack of understanding between Senator Obama and average Joe Pennsylvania.

It would be wiser for all politicians to use their time spent here on gaining a real understanding by talking with us rather than at us–and never about us when their perceptions might be wrong.

Image source: New York Times

Technorati Tags: Obama, Pennsylvania

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