April 11, 2008

"Bitter" condescension

obama.jpgPolitics is amazing. A single word spoken in the wrong context or a single word poorly chosen can damage all the good will that a politician has sought to build. In recent years, using the word "niggardly" has put one politician in the hot spot, and politicians continue to hammer one another over word usage. Some might say that the media's and politicians' fixation on words is excessive, but I would disagree. Politicians fight with words. They push their agendas with words. They debate with words, and they write laws composed of words. Words are the sharpest weapons in their arsenal, and it therefore behooves them to choose words carefully.

In the latest word battle, both Clinton and McCain are attacking Obama over his usage of the word "bitter" in a speech to Pennsylvanians. According to the Washington Post,
"Our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives," Obama told the group. "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 25 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."

Hillary the Pit Bull responded:
"It's being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who face hard times are bitter," Clinton said during a campaign event in Philadelphia. "Well that's not my experience. As I travel around Pennsylvania. I meet people who are resilient, optimist positive who are rolling up their sleeves."

McCain, who is all but guaranteed the Republican nomination and who is taking the opportunity to take shots at the Democrats, joined in with Hillary:
McCain's campaign also criticized the comment Friday. "It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking," said Steve Schmidt, a senior advisor to McCain. "It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."

While I'm an Obama supporter, I agree with both Clinton and McCain in that Obama chose the wrong word to use. As an Asian American male, we hear the word "bitter" used against us all the time, and rather than reflecting a simply damaged attitude, as Obama probably intended, the word reflects a kind of defeatism that both Clinton and McCain correctly identified. When a Person A describes Person B as bitter, there is undoubtedly a connotation of elitism, condescension, and general disdain. The word "angry" denotes a visceral reaction to a situation gone wrong or unsettling, but "bitter" denotes a loss of control, the kind of feeling that only losers feel. It is similar to the word "jealousy" in that there is a value judgment contained within it.

My point is that words make a big difference. While Clinton is just playing desperation politics and McCain is just having fun in Romney's absence, they are correct to attack Obama's choice of words. The lesson for Asian Americans is this: Don't let anyone call you "bitter" unless you really are.

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