Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How About 'Pissed Off' Workers?

Truckers Protest Fuel Costs
on PA Turnpike, Interstates

Of Bitterness
and Boilermakers

By Barbara Ehrenreich

I spent an hour yesterday trying to persuade Tom Frank, author of 'What's the Matter with Kansas?' and the apparent intellectual source of Obama's remark on white working class "bitterness," to weigh in with an op-ed somewhere. Unfortunately, he'd already had 20 calls before mine on the same theme, so our conversation moved on quickly to the Disney Princess Cult and its pernicious influence on 3-year-olds. Although all this was off the record, I do not think I am betraying a confidence by revealing that Frank judged Bittergate to be "silly."

Because, of course, a lot of people, and not only in the white working class, are bitter, though "pissed off" might have been a better choice of words. Real wages have been stagnant or falling for years; fuel and now food prices are going through the roof; the repo guy is picking at the locks. Sticking to that most exotic of all demographics—white working-class men—and drawing entirely on my own circle of relatives and friends, I can confirm Obama's observation.

There's my old friend Trice, for example, a flight attendant who's bitter that his company's top executives are about to pamper themselves with fresh bonuses while he's taken a 30 percent pay cut in recent years. There's my nephew Shannon, a former delivery-truck driver who's bitter because he's discovered that his recently acquired college education in computer networking gets him only low-paid, short-term, contract work. And then there are the owner-operator truck drivers I've just gotten to know in the course of interviewing them about their nationwide slowdowns to protest $4-a-gallon diesel oil. Actually, they're not "bitter" so much as righteously up in arms because they, and so many other people, can no longer make ends meet.

Where both Obama and Clinton have gone wrong is in their stereotypes of white working class men-involving guns, religion, and now, in Clinton's case, boilermakers. There is no known correlation between the size of one's arsenal and the degree of one's bitterness; and the same goes for religiosity. It should be noted, in fact, that both the Christian Right and the sport of hunting are in precipitous decline. For what it's worth, the most heavily armed white guy I know is a vegan and animal-rights crusader who's always on my case about cheeseburgers.

As for boilermakers: The drink apparently originated among the copper miners of my native city of Butte, Mont., and it is by no means universal, as I discovered when I ordered one a couple of years ago in a Holiday Inn lounge in rural Ohio. I did not order it for purposes of pandering to the construction workers at the bar, but because I'd had a long, hard day at the podium. It turned out that my bar-mates found my choice of beverage so fascinating that I could not drink in peace. They'd never heard of the drink, so I had to explain, with increasing clarity as the drink went down, that where I come from, boilermakers are a comfort food.

When they either pander to or attempt to analyze white working-class men, the candidates risk tripping over some nasty stereotypes—as in, hard-drinking, white-bread-eating, gun-bearing bigots. When I blogged about the truck drivers' protests last week, I got comments complaining about my sympathy for "rednecks." This is class prejudice, and it is just as ugly as misogyny or racism.

The only thing you can say for sure about the white—or black or brown—working class is that it is being driven ever further down into poverty. Other than that, no generalizations, please—either from the $10-million-a-year Clinton or from the merely upper-middle-class Obama.

[Barbara Ehrenreich is an activist and writer, author of Nickel and Dimed, For Her Own Good: 200 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (with Deirdre English), The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Kipper’s Game (a science fiction novel), and Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War.]

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