Obama: New Yorkers Cling to Style and Fashion Because they are Bitter at Their Superficial, Vacuous Lives

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET
  • Adam Hanft Political Columnist, CEO of Hanft Projects

Okay, Obama didn't actually say that. But had he uttered that sentiment, which is as accurate as what he said about small-town America, he would have been celebrated. Praised by urban sophisticates, always primed for self-loathing and up for being psychoanalyzed. And by the Applebee's consuming, buckshot buying, church going residents of America's rustbelt.

That's because in our culture, it's perfectly okay to mock sophistication and cosmopolitanism, but unacceptable to question the fantasy and the mythology of small-town America as promulgated by Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra.

That's because cities have long been seen as teeming breeders of iniquity, immorality and dangerous ideas, free-thinkers and...Jews. The industrial revolution started all this - remember Blake's "dark Satanic mills?" And it was fueled by the attraction that cities held for both immigrants and those trapped souls desperate to flee the suffocating countryside for the seductive and dangerous allures of the conurbation.

As Auden wrote in his poem "The Capital"

But the sky you illumine, your glow is visible far
Into the dark countryside, enormous and frozen,
Where, hinting at the forbidden like a wicked uncle,
Night after night to the farmer's children you beckon.

By contrast, rural life has been stubbornly fixed in our collective imaginations for a long time, from Jefferson to Thoreau to even Hemingway, an American expression of the Edenic, pre-lapsarian state. Why do you think Jimmy Carter talked endlessly about Plains and Bill's handlers squeezed everything they could from Hope? And that humble, rail-spilitter branding certainly helped our 16th president. (Did you ever hear Bob Newhart's comedy routine where Abe Lincoln talks to his handlers before Gettysburg? Here you go.)

And of course there is Edgar Lee Masters, who prefigured Obama's tsouris in the early part of the last century. He wrote Spoon River Anthology in 1915 - a book-length poem about a mythical small town that was named after the eponymous river where Masters had lived. The poem, which told the story of Spoon River through its citizens, offered an unvarnished, often unflattering look at small-time life in all its its pettiness and hypocrisy. So much so, in fact, that Masters supposedly could not settle in either Lewiston or Petersburg Illinois, where he grew up.

My point is that Obama ran up against a hoary American mythology that runs deep in our psyche. One that even his emergent personal mythology was, sadly, unable to overcome. Because although you can always speak truth to power when that power rests in Washington (the amoral Beltway) or New York (unscrupulous financial manipulators) or Los Angeles (pop culture profiteering slime) you can't speak truth to the Rotary Club or Agway.