The Different Sorts of “Other”

It’s more than likely that the next twenty-four hours of news coverage will be about how Michelle Obama didn’t just “humanize” her husband during her DNC speech, she went on the offensive. It was an outstanding speech with the potential to reshape the argument currently at the core of the campaign. But hey, you don’t have to take my word for it—the snap reactions online were unanimous.

Andrew Sullivan wrote:

Stunning, brilliant, moving, passionate and right. Flawless. That was a speech a presidential nominee would be proud to have given. The best speech of the conventions so far. There was an emotional arc and steel to this that was as suffused with patriotism as it was with love. Yes, I’m gushing. But gushing is what I feel. And this is live-blogging. So sue me. I’ve never heard a speech from a First Lady anywhere close to this.

…and Grist‘s David Roberts:

…and The American Prospect‘s Jamelle Bouie:

Pare away Twitter’s typical pyrogenicity and you’ll find that the speech presses directly on a really elemental part of the 2012 conservative argument against the president. To put it another way, it wasn’t just an argument contrasting Barack Obama’s path to wealth and power with Mitt Romney’s—it hit at one of the ugly beliefs holding the conservative electoral coalition together.

Yes, the First Lady did a compelling job of contrasting the president’s humble background with Romney’s socioeconomic (and political) head start. There was always something weirdly hollow about Mitt Romney—a guy whose success came with a massive boost from unearned personal, racial, social, etc advantages—brandishing his bootstraps in defense of business owners who “DID build that, dammit!” Jane Credit Union, typical American, recognizes Barack Obama’s early career much more than Romney’s:

You see, even though back then Barack was a Senator and a presidential candidate…to me, he was still the guy who’d picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door…he was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half a size too small.

Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it…and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.

But to see this as just an economic kinship thing is a mistake. Don’t feel too bad. It’s the very mistake that Fox News commentators Brit Hume and Charles Krauthammer stumbled over each other to make in their post-speech analysis. Both complained that (paraphrasing here) whining about humble beginnings is tedious and boring and unproductive unless it comes from Marco Rubio. Both, in other words, only saw the economic inequality story: Romney was and is still rich and Obama suffered in poverty before becoming wealthy. Barack Obama’s economic story is a recognizable, defensible path to the American Dream.

And that is pretty pedestrian, since everyone pretty much knew that already about the two guys. But—big surprise here—it’s easy to find important things boring if you take a myopic, inflexible view of them. That strategy, I submit, is a necessary part of all successful mass punditry, and nowhere is it more on display than Fox. Etc.

Forgive me, for I’m in danger of straying too far afield.

The real genius of Michelle Obama’s speech is more elemental. From the beginning of his political career, Barack Hussein Obama has faced persistent attempts to define him as “other” than American. You know all the faltering, inconsistent, evidence-free labels. He is Kenyan or Indonesian, but certainly NOT a “real” American. He is a Muslim or a Black Nationalist Christian or a godless atheist. He has residual anti-colonial instincts fueling his fascism, socialism, and/or amorphous Europhilia. He pals around with terrorists and is either too black or not black enough. Whatever he is, he’s not us. He’s nothing you’ve heard—he’s NOT you.

In other words, Barack Obama’s political opponents have been uniquely interested in painting him out of the American tradition (Why? There are complicated reasons, and there are simpler ones, but those don’t matter for the point I’m making. For the record, it looks like racism to me.). This often surges forth when leftists ask why conservatives weren’t excised by the Bush Administration’s deficit spending. “Well, it’s just that Obama’s got an un-American Marxist agenda, for Pete’s sake!” These critics offer him no leeway because he is not part of their country, as they understand it.

His wife’s speech at the DNC was an attempt—not the Administration’s first, though perhaps its best—to combat that ugliness. It was a speech that demanded the president’s recognition as one of ours. It insisted that Barack Obama’s personal story is also a recognizable, defensible way to live as an American. It was a speech about a man who lives the virtues that Americans hold dear. This was a speech about a devoted husband and father whose deeply American past guides his vision of a better American future.

Only a fool—Cf. certain of Twitter’s left-leaning area codes—would call an election on the basis of one convention speech. Months remain. But if this speech seems to attract outsize attention in the days and weeks to come, it will be in part because it was such a firmly decent, kind, and positive response to bitter oppositional rancor.

Image Credit HERE.


Conor P. Williams on Twitter, Facebook, and in much greater detail

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60 thoughts on “The Different Sorts of “Other”

  1. So, the left thinks her speech was great, and the right doesn’t. It repudiates nothing, it simply tells us that you already decided who to vote for.

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    • Even some folks on the right were able to put away their blinders and give the First Lady props (e.g. Jonah Goldberg). Ann Romney’s speech was good, but it paled when compared to Michelle Obama’s. There was far more detail, far more personalization. Romney’s speech essentially boiled down to “trust me,” whereas Obama’s provided the rationale for middle-class voters to identify with her and her husband.

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  2. The aspect of this speech that impressed me most was the pivot from “Barack achieved success from humble beginnings” to “Barack knows better than Mitt how to help the middle class.”

    It’s interesting how the Republican economic ethos differs from Romney’s economic pitch. “I’m a successful businessman who knows how to make jobs for you” strikes a more paternalistic note than Michelle’s “Our family made it, and we’ll make sure we keep the door open for your success, too.” This brilliance at using conservative campaign rhetoric to liberal advantage always struck me as the prime asset of the Obama team. I guess they haven’t lost their touch.

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    • Good point Robert, this campaign is a mirror image of Bush/Gore; with Romney/Gore message of “Trust me, I’m a smart guy who knows how to get things done” versus the Obama/Bush message of “Trust me, I am like you and I know how you feel”.

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      • With the exception that Obama has actually accomplished things — like universal health care, repealing DADT and ending the Iraq war — as opposed to passing disastrous, debt-fueling tax cuts and starting pointless, self-defeating, off-ledger wars. It seems to me Obama is more saying, “Trust me, I’m a smart guy who knows how to get things done, and I am like you and I know how you feel.”

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  3. I should have added to my first graf:

    This pivot is very useful because it’s a plausible connection between Obama’s personality and the success of his policies. It seems the Obama campaign was trying to float his job performance rating higher by tethering it to his personal likability. Smart.

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  4. Michelle Obama spoke of her concerns about the presidency changing her husband; tied the narrative her her speech to that.

    For many women, and I suspect for many men, it resonated. Marriage is a voyage, and there are always unexpected side paths — opportunities that one partner wants, opportunities that mean significant change in the family, from moving to long hours to soul-draining work. It’s so common for the other partner to fear the change, but to whole-heartedly support it out of love, out of hope. It’s the essence of hope and change within a family.

    She touched a lot of people on that level; touched them with something that feels real instead of the political tripe we’re so often fed. And because of that, I believe her policy messages will be remembered, become part of the evaluation process for voters who listened as the election nears and they make their decision to go and vote, their decision who to support with that vote.

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  5. A fine post, Conor. Few things irritate me more than the view that being other is bad. Regrettably, when someone is cast as other, the response has to be an argument that this person is the same in a relevant way. I wish we could get to a point where otherness is typically celebrated rather than shunned.

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      • Eh, the first instinct of most people when confronted by a lie is to repudiate the lie — not the reason they’re lying. (Or, chartiably, the reason they were lied to and believe the lie to be true).

        Because the lie is right there in your face — an incorrect fact waving it’s grubby little hands to get your attention. Who put it there, or why, is generally not so front and center.

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  6. What I thought was remarkable about the speech is the way she combined what you’re seeing – this warm, kind, decent approach to humanizing her husband – with what Dave Roberts saw – an absolutely stone cold evisceration of the Romneys. It was masterful both rhetorically and politically, which is pretty cool.

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    • Do you think she (and her speech writers) intended to eviscerate the Romney’s or that it was an inadvertent impact of the speech.

      While I thought Ann Romney did a good job, especially given the material she had to work with (it’s hard to humanize a droid), her talk of the struggles she and Mitt faced struck me as forced. Why couldn’t she simply acknowledge that they’d been dealt a good hand in life and built on it from there? It would have been far more honest an effective.

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      • Oh, I think it’s hard to misread “the truth matters” and a few other phrases she fired off.

        As for the second part, I agree. Along with my response to Kyle right above, I don’t honestly know why the first reaction everyone has is to try to fit a pre-designed mold of what an “American” is like. (I mean, I do know why, but I don’t like it at all.) It seems to me the Romneys could have deflected almost all of this by playing to the aspirations of Americans. Yeah, we got a good hand, because we were lucky enough to come from a country where working hard, becoming successful, and passing that on to your kids is a realistic goal for everyone. Maybe it’s more communitarian than the GOP really wants to be, but it’s a much stronger message, and it really resonates with this John Adams quote that I’ve always loved.

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      • Why couldn’t she simply acknowledge that they’d been dealt a good hand in life and built on it from there?

        There’s an argument that showed up fairly often in the discussions regarding inequality. You know, the whole “Heritage argument” that people have clean water and indoor toilets and refrigerators and two televisions and from a standpoint of absolute poverty, they’ve actually got a pretty sweet setup.

        I’m sure that you are familiar with the counter-arguments to this argument. There are important parts of poverty that are relational to the society in general, after all. There are important parts of poverty that are existential.

        Hey, I know that the Romneys had it easy. I look back at my first apartment and my early marriage and I think “man, that was soooooo hard” while, at the same time, “man, we were so lucky and so well off compared to everybody else in the same apartment complex”.

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        • You know, the whole “Heritage argument”…

          The counter-argument I’m familiar with is that poor people who have toilets and refrigerators still don’t have financial security (or food/shelter/health-care security) and that insecurity is the existential aspect of poverty which is important. The Romney’s, regardless of how luxurious or spartan their life-style, never had to experience that kind of insecurity which is why a lot of their appeals to poverty ring hollow. And while the insecurity argument is blatantly classist and so may not appeal on it’s own, it does provide a narrative in which Romney’s emphasis on health-care “Repeal” rather than “Replace” (for example) is both bad policy and cruel ignorance. Why couldn’t she simply acknowledge that they’d been dealt a good hand in life and built on it from there? Because once you’ve acknowledged the fact that you always had a private safety net made of your father’s stock, there’s nowhere to build to.

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          • insecurity is the existential aspect of poverty which is important

            Saying “you don’t know how good you have it, don’t complain, look at these other people over here” is something that you get to say, sure… but it comes off as sort of hollow when you argue that other people don’t get to say it.

            That’s the wacky thing about existential aspects. They’re all one-a-piece.

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            • To clarify, insecurity is important because it actually forms the difference between poverty and scarcity. Romney was trying to portray lack of *stuff* as lack of *security* but I see a qualitative difference between the two. Choosing to live in a cruddy environment to save money (and knowing you can always move out) is qualitatively different than being forced to live in that environment because you have no money.

              More than just classism, that difference manifests itself in the Repeal/Replace policy argument: when you have financial security you can concern yourself with with idealist causes like repealing a messy & imperfect law, but when you don’t have that security it matters a lot more what that law will be replaced with.

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              • See, this is where “feeling” comes into it. I’d be willing to bet that most of us felt insecure when we lived in Our First Apartment in Our First Apartment Complex when we all of our furniture excepting the mattress was pre-owned and we got by with our spouses the best way we knew how.

                You know what? I’ve no doubt that Maribou and I were the most privileged people in that complex. I’ve no doubt that, 15 years later, we are better off than every single one of those neighbors that we had. Without exception.

                We had no idea how good we had it. When we felt insecure, we were insecure in the same way that a beautiful adolescent feels insecure when he or she looks in the mirror.

                Being told “you were perfectly safe, you have no idea how other people live” is something that I’m sure that most folks wouldn’t feel bad telling us to our face if they saw us sitting on our porch in front of our house on our side of town today. Heck, they might even be right.

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          • Because once you’ve acknowledged the fact that you always had a private safety net made of your father’s stock, there’s nowhere to build to.

            True enough, but when everybody already knows how well off you were, what’s the point of pretending otherwise. Ann Romney, whatever her virtues, is not like most of us and even her target audience knows it. Which is why her appeal to anyone beyond the base fell flat.

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  7. Good post. I think some folks are going way overboard in immediately declaring this an historically important and magnificent piece (see, e.g., CNN).

    But it was surely a very, very good speech, and indeed the sort of speech you’d be very happy to hear from the candidate himself.

    The Wife and I kept asking ourselves “this is the woman that the folks on the Right keep trying to paint as an angry, white-hating, race-baiting extremist? Really? She seems a lot more like a long lost college friend, except more beautiful*.” I’m pretty sure the speech’s portrayal of the President had the effect of moving my Republican-until-2008 wife out of the “Romney scares me, but I don’t think Obama deserves re-election, so I’ll probably vote third-party” camp into the “I’m pretty ok with another 4 years of Obama” camp.**

    One annoying nitpick, though: I was not a huge fan of the timing of the “FOUR MORE YEARS!” chant, Democrats. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that this chant needed to be made at some point last night. But wait until the lady is finished, or at least for when she’s talking about some sort of positive accomplishment; don’t do it in the middle of her story about how the President understands that times are tough – it comes across as “we want four more years of times being tough.” This was several orders of magnitude less off-putting than the “USA! USA!” chants at the Republican convention, which really did just come across as “we’re the real Americans, and the President is unAmerican.”

    *Seriously. The other question The Wife always asks about Michelle Obama is why she never competed in any beauty pageants.

    **I’m still firmly in the quixotic “Vote for Gary Johnson” camp, FWIW, and don’t anticipate moving from it.

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    • If that is indeed your wife’s actual reaction, she and I had very similar ones. The entire convention last night had the effect of making me far more positively disposed toward the Democratic Party than I had thought possible. I guess that’s a sign of something effective.

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      • I think that’s interesting, knowing your political predilections as compared to The Wife’s. By that I mean that you’re coming at it from the perspective of one with very strong political beliefs and a generally left-wing worldview; my wife is coming from the perspective of fairly weak political beliefs and a vaguely centrist point of view. She’s sort of the classic swing voter, whereas you’re probably more of the classic disenchanted ideologically passionate voter. For a speech to appeal equally to both perspectives strikes me as fairly remarkable.

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    • except more beautiful

      She is pretty, isn’t she? She kind of reminds me of Sigourney Weaver for some reason.

      I’m still firmly in the quixotic “Vote for Gary Johnson” camp, FWIW, and don’t anticipate moving from it.

      Yeah, me too. If someone held a gun to my head and made me choose Obama or Romney, I’d probably go Obama, because at least he’s got a few real accomplishments under his belt as President that I like (like getting rid of DADT, coming out belatedly for SSM; plus, the man got Bin Laden and some Somali pirates – that has *got* to count for something) and he strikes me as a guy who is trying to do the right thing.

      That said, though I originally thought Jason K. was overstating the ‘surveillance state’ thing, I am slowly coming round to his POV on that, and the ‘kill list’ for American citizens is deeply, deeply wrong for all sorts of reasons. Judicial review and due process are out the window, and Obama shows no signs of slowing that down, nor the Drug War insanity. Not that Romney’d be any better, plus he’d add some bluenose censorship of the ‘Net while he was at it. Either one of ’em is likely to bankrupt us, just via different expenses.

      So asking me to vote for Romney or Obama is like asking me if I’d rather get eaten by a shark or a bear. Sure, the bear is a mammal, and cares for its young, who are very cute, so I feel more kinship to the bear; so if you *make* me choose, I’d go for the bear, but…

      To hopeless causes! Vote Johnson!

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  8. Some of the President’s opponents think he’s an “other,” most think he’s just a bad president. And even among those who worry he’s an other, many simply think his background is relevant, and a little troubling. This is a legitimate line of attack. Indeed, one of the DNC speakers last night even said “show me with whom you walk and I’ll tell you who you are.” Many of the President’s critics were and still are concerned, justifiably, I think, about many of his mentors and colleagues. Moreover, Harry Reid said “trust comes from transparency.” Obama was not transparent about his school records, but whatever — more importantly, within just the last 6 months he’s hiding the Fast & Furious documents under an assertion of privilege everyone seems to agree is bogus. We’ll disagree about the weight of those sorts of things, but it’s something else to say that they don’t count, and it’s all just a cover for “fear of a black president.”

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    • People on the left have similar concerns about Obama’s civil rights records and the lack of transparency he promised. These concerns are legitimate but, sadly don’t seem to motivate large swathes of the right. I’m pretty sure Romney will continue the policies of his most recent predecessors should he win, if not double down on them.

      Why the concern for Obama’s college transcripts? Do you want to see Romney’s as well? Or know who he pals around with and who influenced him? I don’t recall any other candidates releasing those grade records. We found out about Bush’s and Gore’s college grades and SAT scores only because some reporter managed to dig them up.

      And what about Romney’s obstinacy about releasing his tax returns? He hasn’t even come close to living up to the example his father set. What’s he trying to hide?

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    • “Some of the President’s opponents think he’s an “other,” most think he’s just a bad president.”

      I think this is 100% correct.

      I also think that the people in charge of the opposition, who largely fall into the latter category, were more than happy for four years to ride the tiger of that smaller but louder first group. And when you ride a tiger, there’s always the chance that it will bite you before you get to where you were hoping to be taken.

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  9. The assumption that because one comes from humbler beginnings they as a politician deeply care about those still struggling (versus those with enough money to attend their big time fundraisers) begs for more evidence than has commonly been offered.

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  10. My soul cascades with satisfaction after experiencing the beauty and cogency of each word spoken by this Goddess of Light, Decency and Compassion. There could be a speech more pitch perfect and fine but not in this world, not at this time. My words to describe the ethereal and soaring magnificience of this speech are like birds with broken wings — I can only gurgle my praise as my mind is drenched in a sea of superlatives.

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