Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hitchens Misses the Point

Christopher Hitchens is an interesting guy, to the extent that every vituperative, besotted British writer is an inherently interesting guy. I can't say I "like" him, per se, since his is the kind of reflexive contrarianism I find annoying. Add in the fact that I disagree with him on most important issues, and the fact that he seems to actually believe that Bill Clinton is a member of a sub-human, reptilian species, well, there's a lot there I find distasteful.

But he's a good writer, and I like reading good writers. He almost always raises at least a couple of interesting points and brings it "unique" perspective to issues.

So I found his column on the furor surrounding John McCain's 2,915 houses (linked above) rather disappointing. He has two main points:

1. McCain was almost certainly joking with the Politico reporter.
2. This is tiresome class warfare and demagoguery.

The first point is rather weak; if McCain was joking someone with the campaign would have gone to a reporter and said, "Dude, the Senator was joking. Obviously he knows the number of houses he owns" once the interview became an issue.

Hitchens' second point is more compelling. A man who possesses wealth may still possess empathy. The fact that McCain has seven houses doesn't mean he's callous or uncaring. As others, including Paul Krugman, have pointed out, Franklin Roosevelt was a fabulously rich man and he tried everything in his power to help Americans devastated by the Great Depression. (Whether he succeeded or not is left to the reader to decide; within the context of this post, all that matters is that he did care about the poor)

However, Hitchens ignores the reason this is a legitimate issue: the McCain camp started the "elitist" attacks long before the brouhaha over their candidate's properties. They weren't talking about houses, to be sure, but Steve Schmidt and others in the campaign have been trying to portray Obama as an out-of-touch celebrity for months. (To be fair to Hitchens, he does criticize McCain's people for retaliating by going after Obama's questionable real estate deal with Tony Rezko.)

Look, McCain's houses and various rental properties were not the issues around which I wanted this campaign to revolve. It's a stupid controversy, and I hate that we're talking about things like this.

But if McCain's embarrassed by this discussion, by the idea that his wife owns so many houses that he doesn't even bother to keep track, he needs to look in the mirror. McCain has spent months arguing that Barack Obama, an African-American raised by a single mother who occasionally resorted to food stamps to feed her son, is a "pointy-headed, arugula-eating professor type." I put those words in quotation marks because they are, verbatim, the words a McCain spokesman used to describe Obama.

If you're going to argue that Obama is unable to connect with the Average Joe (TM) because of his relatively new-found wealth and celebrity, you make the "elitist card" available for anyone to play. Don't unsheathe a double-edged sword and complain when it cuts you too.

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