The Nation's Pulse

Misreading “The Deer Hunter”

Senator Obama's social and moral imagination are found wanting.

By 4.14.08

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I confess that I viewed Senator Barack Obama as a winning personality and, notwithstanding his left-wing politics, potentially a historic figure in American history who could bridge the nation's racial fault lines. As a native of St. Louis, a racially bipolar community, I felt this would be a remarkable accomplishment.

I was even willing to give him a pass on his controversial pastor and his militant wife.

But the Senator really stepped in it with his recent inane remarks at a fundraiser in Marin County, California, patronizing small-town people in Pennsylvania for resorting to the fix of God and guns to overcome hard economic times.

Pennsylvania is one of the top outdoor sporting states in the Union, up there with Texas and Michigan in terms of the number of hunters. The hunting tradition there goes way back, long before globalization and outsourcing struck the industrial heartland.

Maybe the Senator has seen, but drawn the wrong conclusions from, The Deer Hunter (1978), starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep, which tells the tale of steelworkers in Clairton, PA, a Monongahela River town south of Pittsburgh, during the Vietnam era. It is a very political, i.e., anti-war, movie. The picture painted of those people is not always pretty. But the characters do portray serious people who, despite their failings, treasure faith, family, and friends. The movie ends with the cast singing God Bless America after the funeral of their friend whose body was just brought back from Vietnam after a suicide. There is lots of pathos in that scene, but not much bitterness as I recall.

Michigan has had its share of economic problems. That state issues something in the neighborhood of 700,000 firearm deer licenses every fall, more men (and some women) under arms than the combined forces of NATO. They have been doing that for decades. There are very few accidents since most Michiganders are indoctrinated in hunting safety instruction from, well, the moment of conception.

As impressive as those numbers are, in my wife's home state of Wisconsin, with maybe half the population of Michigan, they issue some 600,000 firearm deer licenses (I am recalling these numbers from memory, but I know I am right within an order of magnitude). In this state, just as in Michigan and parts of Pennsylvania I am sure, the work force is decimated by absenteeism once the fall hunt begins. Mysteriously, many kids get sick and cannot attend school.

The point is this: people who own guns, especially in small-town America, do not "cling" to them out of desperation. They enjoy the sport, the outdoors, the fellowship and good eating that comes with hunting. And personal protection is an additional bonus if the need arises.

SENATOR OBAMA'S DISPARAGING remarks about religious people in small towns is really a puzzler, given his own testimony to his journey of faith. His own experience is counter-factual to his view of religious belief as a mere psychological response to bitterness in small towns.

In some cases it may be that embittering experience leads a person to faith, but that experience usually helps a person lance the boil of bitterness through faith, hope and charity. If religion is an important part of a person's life, it hopefully remains so in good times and bad, transforming one's being through his or her relationship with God.

Pennsylvania and other manufacturing states suffering hard times are regions that have always had large communities of religious people and very diverse ethnic populations. Again, this was the case long before the current economic downturn of the last two decades.

What has failed Senator Obama is his social and moral imagination with respect to people in other walks of life, far removed from his own. We all have this failing to some degree. But given the Senator's self-evident social skills and his self-professed goal of unity or changing our politics, his comments in San Francisco were truly stunning -- and disappointing.

Talking about unity and change is one thing, but the contradiction in Senator Obama's program is that he fails to grasp the importance of traditional modes of living for folks outside the hot house of far-left Democratic politics. He cannot even sound sympathetic when abortion or the right to life comes up on the campaign trail, which even Hillary Clinton tries to do from time to time.

Senator Obama very much needs to discover his moral intuition on social and cultural issues to rival his keen sense of racial matters.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.