Merrill Lynch is laying off 4,000 employees because the firm lost billions of dollars last quarter. My husband joked, "Maybe those stock brokers will be bitter," referring to Barack Obama's comment about rural people clinging to guns or religion.
What Obama actually said was, "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."
My thoughts jumped back to when Enron ripped off consumers and then collapsed. An electrical engineer we know worked for PGE in Portland. When Enron bought the company, employees were required to put at least part of their retirement portfolios in Enron stock. When Enron failed, our friend's retirement fund lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Was he embittered? I couldn't tell, partly because he got out to become an independent consultant just as Enron was coming apart at the seams, but still had his retirement tied up in their stock. Our friend was also religious, active in his mainstream Protestant church and an ecumenical coalition working on renewable energy and efficiency for congregations. This well-educated, urban man survived a major economic setback partly because of his faith - not just in God, but in his own ability to create a job for himself. The difference between him and the people Obama referred to is that he had more options: He was skilled and lived in an urban area with a fairly diverse economy. He was able to modify his work somewhat and sell his services to people whose jobs and salaries were still secure.
The problem for those of us living in rural areas is that our economies aren't that diverse. Sometimes it's just one industry that supports a community. Look at the Santiam Canyon running up Willamette National Forest in Oregon or the former redwood logging towns along Highway 101 in northern California. These are one-industry towns where thorough clear-cutting of surrounding hills and the failure to retool mills mean good paying jobs are gone.
Our friend in Portland didn't have to choose between having a job and continuing to live in the community and landscape that he'd known all his adult life. Facing that dilemma - a job versus staying with all that is familiar - could lead one to ask "Why me?" It isn't a big leap to blame environmental laws and the people behind them or corporate cut and run policies and perhaps become bitter.
When faced with stressful situations, most of us try to control what we can, turning to the constants in our lives that provide comfort and security. For me, it's the simple task of doing laundry ... a skill I mastered early in life that always helps me feel better. I chuckle when I notice myself searching for things to wash and realize I've been worried or exasperated. Religion or firearms are not my shtick, but laundry is.
We're not all bitter in the hinterlands, but some undoubtedly are. The difference is that some of us are clear that we've made a choice to live here and we'll live frugally if necessary to keep the benefits of small town life. We don't feel trapped or powerless, but I learned early that the difference between someone from the blue-collar world and the upper middle class isn't necessarily smarts, insight, or hard work, but merely good luck.
Like me, Obama is a "straddler" ... a person born and raised in the working class and catapulted out of it by doing well in school and getting a top-notch college education. We "straddlers" have a bad habit of speaking a bit too frankly. Obama hit the nail on the head, acknowledging that there are classes in America with different amounts of wealth, power and choice - belying the American myth that we're a classless society - and people accustomed to having a lot of money and control become uncomfortable when reminded of their privileges.
Back in '86, a warehouse worker told me he didn't bother to vote because the people running for office didn't care about people like him. Was he embittered? Maybe. Was he cynical? Definitely.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer from a family supported by logging and commercial fishing, who then went on to acquire degrees from major universities and sometimes speaks too frankly.