Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Michelle Obama's North Carolina Primary Speech

I was listening to Michelle Obama’s speech before a North Carolina group on Friday and, while there was nothing I could take issue with, there was also nothing I could take with me either. It was mediocre, humdrum, clichéd.

The one thing loud and clear in Michelle’s speech was that it was about “struggle.” Struggle can mean anything though. After all, who doesn’t believe they are struggling? Which explains the line “We must unite in our struggle.”… That may translate to: “We must unite in our struggle to make Barack Obama president.”

Mrs. Obama seemed to interpose two meanings for “struggle”: personal struggle and collective struggle. While speaking of collective struggle, she sounded a little bit like Reverend Wright or Barack Obama. Most likely, she meant struggle in a quasi- religious-political sense. That would be “struggle you can xerox.”
Stalin xeroxed struggle, and so did Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. When struggle is spoken of from the pulpit and couched in religious terms, as do the people who co-opt religion and turn it to their own political purposes, you can be sure that mass graves are sure to follow.

Michelle Obama described her own struggles as the child of a Democratic Party precinct captain and city water plant worker. Michelle Obama told the small crowd she lived in a Chicago South Shore city apartment with her parents and brother. Wikipedia describes the neighborhood as predominantly white, and recently becoming more “diverse.” She said she was exposed to a lot of things like dance and music at the local YMCA. Michelle said her father earned enough to put two kids through Princeton. It impressed me a great deal that a city water plant worker could save enough money to spend $35,000 per year for each of his two children at Princeton. That is certainly “struggle’—four years at $35 K per year comes to $280,000.00.

“You could do that back then,” said Michelle.

Really? Michelle Obama kept talking about the “high bar” which you can read as an extra impediment posed to African-Americans. I’d heard that phrase many times before. The analogy was that other Americans were subject to a suddenly imposed “high bar and how it was “almost impossible to raise a family on a single salary.”

I don’t agree with Mrs. Obama that life has gotten harder “since then.” I think that life has gotten significantly easier for each passing generation. I think I could easily best Mrs. Obama in telling tales of childhood poverty, if that is her point. Yet, I know that I had things much easier than my father’s generation.

During Michelle’s speech, I got a call from my widowed Aunt Sadie, 94 years old, and living alone. I’m fascinated by history. I like to talk to the old doll (my aunt) about life in the “old days” ; I am the unofficial keeper of the family history. Yesterday, I dropped off at her house a couple of tomato plants and basil. Yes, she’d got them into the ground with no trouble. While I’m talking to Aunt Sadie, I hear Michelle Obama in the background talking about her “struggle” and her “college loans” and Obama’s“community work” and how tough they had to be to accomplish all that.

At the same time, my aunt began to talk about her mother-in-law who had also been widowed and the five children she’d raised alone. Her husband and three other men had been blown up by dynamite in a slate quarry where they worked for about 50 cents a day. They’d set the dynamite charge to loosen a slate wall and didn’t make it out of the hole in time.

Another tragedy occurred to her soon after when the war came and her oldest son was blown up by a land mine in the Pacific just three days before he was due to be discharged. Angelina got a one-time payment from the VA because her oldest son was the chief part of her support system. She also got a job on a farm five miles a day picking fruits and vegetables. At the end of a days work, the farmer would give her some food to take home. In addition, she got a hundred pounds of flour each month from a government food program for war widows. I wonder if that qualifies as “struggle”? And I wondered did old Angelina complain to anyone that the “bar was raised” against her?

My grandfather worked on the railroad. He drove spikes and walked the tracks for miles each day and night. His brother-in-law, my great uncle Carmelo, was cut in half by a train at a railway crossing in the dead of a foggy night at a place called Forge Cut. My grandfather had to go himself in the middle of the night to pick up his remains and bring him home. He was proud he passed the naturalization exam and that he could write his name in English, something he’d do on a scrap of paper to amuse himself on a Sunday afternoon in summer.

My uncle Joe, who died last month, served in the Pacific during the same war. When set to come home, he narrowly missed the flight he was to take back to the states and that turned out to be a good thing. The plane crashed and everyone was killed. He spent his whole life in the Army and retired a Lieutenant Colonel. I remember my Uncle Joe for saying many things but one of the things I heard him say was:

“I never realized we were poor until I was thirty years old.”

Uncle Joe was the first of our family on either side to graduate from college. No one repeated that great endeavor until my own generation. My father left school after the 6th grade; my mother never graduated from high school either. Yet, my four siblings and I all graduated from college just one generation later. It’s the same with my cousins, all college graduates. Was that because we were “white” and had the advantage of a “low bar?” Perhaps it was because we didn’t have to struggle. Those terrible cold winter days when my brother and I had to pick coal off the railroad tracks to heat our hovel were probably just a figment of my imagination.

I guess you might have guessed that I’m not voting for Obama. It’s not because I’m “bitter” and it’s not because I cling to my guns and my bible. It’s not even that I don’t like Senator Obama and his wife. It’s just that I don’t believe them, not even for a little bit, nor in the things they say.

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