As recent images of voters in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky have demonstrated, rural white Americans are often racist, xenophobic, ignorant people. Many are not, but as we are repeatedly told, many are.
What we are not repeatedly told is that many older Jewish Americans hold similar views.
As I’ve written before, Americans have been steered away from understanding and sympathizing with the problems of the white working class, and encouraged instead to either laugh at or heap contempt on them. On the other hand, when we hear about elderly Jewish Americans, we often receive other helpful, explanatory information, about such things as their traumatizing connection to the Holocaust and their fondness for Israel.
As a result of the different frameworks in which discussion of these two groups of people are commonly presented—one decontextualized, the other contextualized—we tend to hold the former up for contempt and ridicule as ignorant inbreds, and the latter for admiration and sympathy as the noble, stalwart victims of a horrifically traumatizing collective experience.
But as James Pence explains in the following minute or so, rural whites, along with other Americans, have been traumatized as well. Or “terrorized”--that might be a good word too:
Because it’s an election season, and because Hillary Clinton has been making open appeals to rural and working-class white voters, many selectively edited interviews of rural white people have been circulating online, over email, and in the corporate media. “I’m not a racist,” such interviewees often say, looking away from the staring camera. “But I’ll never vote for Obama, because he’s, you know, not one of us. Not white. If we’re not careful, next thing you know, we’ll be sitting in the back of the bus.”
Again, contempt and ridicule usually motivate the sender, poster, or TV pundit who's asking us to watch these people express their views, and the expected response is more contempt and ridicule. Rarely are we asked to understand the increasingly oppressive economic and educational conditions that help to explain such views.
Now that both Democratic candidates are campaigning heavily in Florida, I wonder if the response to the similarly racist and ignorant views of many elderly Jewish American voters will receive similar circulation, and similar scorn and ridicule. If so—if, that is, ridicule and scorn is okay for one group, but not for the other—then why is that the case?
Today’s New York Times offers an article full of potential fodder for emails, video postings, and TV interviews about the ignorance of many elderly Jewish American voters. In her article, reporter Jodi Kantor summarizes her recent interviews with such voters in Florida. As Kantor candidly reveals, many of the views they express are remarkably similar to those expressed by rural white voters. They’re also just as remarkably ignorant.
As Kantor writes, the following beliefs are common in this voting block:
Mr. Obama is Arab, Jack Stern’s friends told him in Aventura. (He’s not.)
He is a part of Chicago’s large Palestinian community, suspects Mindy Chotiner of Delray. (Wrong again.)
Mr. Wright is the godfather of Mr. Obama’s children, asserted Violet Darling in Boca Raton. (No, he’s not.)
Al Qeada is backing him, said Helena Lefkowicz of Fort Lauderdale (Incorrect.)
Michelle Obama has proven so hostile and argumentative that the campaign is keeping her silent, said Joyce Rozen of Pompano Beach. (Mrs. Obama campaigns frequently, drawing crowds in her own right.)
Mr. Obama might fill his administration with followers of Louis Farrakhan, worried Sherry Ziegler. (Extremely unlikely, given his denunciation of Mr. Farrakhan.)
It’s important to note that just prior to offering this list, Kantor tempers its evidence of blatant ignorance with some explanation for why such beliefs exist: “Because of a dispute over moving the date of the state’s primary, Mr. Obama and the other Democratic candidates did not campaign in Florida. In his absence, novel and exotic rumors about Mr. Obama have flourished.”
Had Obama campaigned in the state, Kantor suggests, he would have readily dispelled such misconceptions about himself. This suggestion begs a question—do a large percentage of older Jewish people in other parts of the country hold similar views?
For me, though, the issue here is not whether elderly Jewish American voters are as ignorant about a black candidate as rural white voters are. Rather, it's the disparate handlings of two similar voting blocks. I don’t think either group should be held up for scorn and ridicule because of their views, but one usually is, and the other is usually not. We also usually receive tempering explanations for the views of one group, but little such contextualization for those of the other.
Most elderly Jewish people are worlds apart from most rural white people, but both communities traditionally vote Democratic, and both harbor many uninformed views about a black presidential candidate. Including a common unwillingness to vote for him simply because he's black.
On this last point, Kantor also writes the following:
"The people here, liberal people, will not vote for Obama because of his attitude towards Israel," Ms. Weitz, 83, said, lingering over brunch.
"They're going to vote for McCain," she said.
Ms. Grossman, 80, agreed with her friend's conclusion, but not her reasoning.
"They'll pick on the minister thing, they'll pick on the wife, but the major issue is color," she said, quietly fingering a coffee cup. Ms. Grossman said she was thinking of voting for Mr. Obama, who is leading in the delegate count for the nomination, as was Ms. Weitz.
But Ms. Grossman does not tell the neighbors. "I keep my mouth shut," she said. . . .
Some of the resistance to Mr. Obama's candidacy seems just as rooted in anxiety about race as in anxiety about Israel. At brunch in Boynton Beach, Bob Welstein, who said he was in his 80s, said so bluntly. "Am I semi-racist? Yes," he said.
Decades earlier, on the west side of Chicago, his mother was mugged and beaten by a black assailant, he said. It was "a beautiful Jewish neighborhood" -- until black residents moved in, he said.. . .
Jack Stern, 85, sitting alone at an outdoor café in Aventura on Sunday, said he was no racist. When he was liberated from a concentration camp in 1945, black American soldiers were kinder than white ones, handing out food to the emaciated Jews, he said.
Years later, after he opened a bakery in Brooklyn, "I got disgusted, because they killed Jews," he said, citing neighborhood crimes committed by African-Americans. "I shouldn't say it, but it is what it is," said Mr. Stern, who vowed not to vote for Mr. Obama.
Some analysts see the widespread, stereotyping, scornful laughter commonly aimed at rural white folks as the last acceptable form of racism. This may be an accurate label, but since this laughter and scorn is not directed at all white people, but rather at a downtrodden class of people, a more accurate label is “classism.”
In fact, while I usually like Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show," I think “classist” is an accurate label for his participation, in the first two minutes or so of the following clip, in more of the same tired, decontextualized ridicule and contempt for rural white voters.
Here, then, is what I’m finally wondering. Since many elderly Jewish voters hold similarly uninformed views—views which, like those of rural white voters, could be accounted for by a more contextualizing framework for such stories—will Stewart and others hold them up for ridicule and scorn as well?* If not, why not? If one is okay, why isn’t the other?
*Of course, Stewart himself is quite openly Jewish, so he might be less likely than others to hold up Jewish elders for ridicule and scorn. Again, though, I don’t expect any other media outlets to do so either. And to be perfectly clear, I hope they don’t. I just wish they also wouldn’t do so with rural white voters.
[dnA at Too Sense responds to a video-report on rural white voters in Kentucky that appeared on Al Jazeera. As dnA notes, that network offers a somewhat more sympathetic, contextualizing understanding of the roots of white rural fear of a black president. And via Season of the Bitch, an article by Howard Salter from a month or so ago on the ironic spread of misinformation among Jewish Americans.]
UPDATE (9/30/08): Sarah Silverman opines (in her usual NSFWish way) on this topic: