Way back in the winter of 1982 I took Sociology 101 at Beloit College. The professor was a kindly, somewhat detached fellow who spent the first few weeks of the course talking about an obscure Anabaptist sect called the Hutterites, describing their social structure, mores, religious beliefs and history. We learned a lot about the Hutterites during those few weeks, but what the professor was really doing was teaching us how social scientists, especially sociologists, look at groups of people. The presentation he gave was dispassionate, even clinical.
Like many college freshmen, it didn't immediately occur to me that perhaps something was missing in the presentation I was receiving in that lecture hall. When I went home for the summer, outside of the academic bubble, I thought more about what I'd learned and started to realize that something was missing. What was missing? The actual voice of the Hutterites themselves. What would a Hutterite say about what I'd learned? Did I understand their history, their world-view, their prospects as well as I thought? Or was I missing something?
As I've tried to make sense of the furor involving Barack Obama's now-famous statements about blue-collar Pennsylvanians, I've been thinking about the Hutterites. It's long been clear that Sen. Obama tends to affect a professorial style; of all the politicians who have recently trod the national stage, he has been the most didactic. I get the impression that he's always in teaching mode. I think this is one reason why he has been so wildly popular in certain highly educated circles.
Obama's presentation of the matter, like what I heard in that lecture hall, hangs together pretty well as long as you accept the central premise - that by looking at the data that social scientists consider, you can understand large groups of people. And certainly there's a lot of truth in that. While we are all individuals, as we aggregate together we tend to follow certain patterns. Sociologists, demographers and pollsters understand these things quite well and I sense that Sen. Obama's circle contains many people who view the world that way.
As anyone who has spent much time analyzing data comes to understand, the big question is the simple one: do the data really mean what they appear to mean? Or do we tend to put filters on the data and come up with false conclusions?
My sense is that Sen. Obama hasn't really heard the voices of the people he so clinically described in his San Francisco remarks. If he really understood the way blue collar Pennsylvanians live their lives, he wouldn't have said anything like what came out of his mouth that day.
I've seen Obama described as arrogant, hubristic, patronizing, disdainful and elitist in recent days. All of those things may be true. But what I really sense is this: while Obama's knowledge and intelligence may be vast, his understanding is not. Just as Hillary Clinton is famous for undertaking listening tours where she does all the talking, Obama may have listened to the voices of the people he purports to explain and hopes to serve. But I don't think he's really heard them. If he really hears the people his campaign may survive. But if he continues to view people in the same detailed yet ultimately unsatisfactory way that I was taught to think about the Hutterites, he won't. Nor will he deserve to.
Cross-posted at True North