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One Elitist's Attempt To Understand The Real America

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Eli Saslow's finely reported and dutifully balanced Washington Post front page piece on Findlay, Ohio has gotten a lot of comment in the blogosphere (see Jason, below). Over on some conservative blogs like The Corner (see here and here), there seems to be general anger at the story, which the right sees as another sign of liberal media elitism.

Saslow spent some time in Findlay with Jim Peterman, a retiree and military veteran who is unsure whether he should vote for Obama, or McCain, or not at all. The problem, at least if you are a Democrat, is that Peterman keeps hearing all these strange rumors about Obama, and so even though he thinks the Illinois Senator will rightly end the war in Iraq, he is concerned that casting a Democratic vote will have other negative consequences. The juiciest parts of Saslow's piece are these:

But on the Internet, in his grocery store, at his neighbor's house, at
his son's auto shop, Peterman has also absorbed another version of the
Democratic candidate's background, one that is entirely false: Barack
Obama, born in Africa, is a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to
recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

As the years passed, Peterman and his neighbors approached one another
to share in their skepticism about the unknown. What was the story
behind the handful of African Americans who had moved into a town that
is 93 percent white? Why were Japanese businessmen coming in to run the
local manufacturing plants? Who in the world was this Obama character,
running for president with that funny-sounding last name?

... 

"I think Obama would be a disaster, and there's a lot of reasons,"
said Pollard, explaining the rumors he had heard about the candidate
from friends he goes camping with. "I understand he's from Africa, and
that the first thing he's going to do if he gets into office is bring
his family over here, illegally. He's got that racist [pastor] who
practically raised him, and then there's the Muslim thing. He's just
not presidential material, if you ask me."

Said Jeanette Collins, a
77-year-old who lives across the street: "All I know for sure about
Obama is that we're not ready for him."

Peterman is conflicted...

Does he choose to trust a TV commercial in which Obama talks about
his "love of country"? Or his neighbor of 40 years, Don LeMaster, a
Navy veteran who heard from a friend in Toledo that Obama refuses to
wear an American-flag pin?Does he trust a local newspaper
article that details Obama's Christian faith? Or his friend Leroy
Pollard, a devoted family man so convinced Obama is a radical Muslim
that he threatened to stop talking to his daughter when he heard she
might vote for him?

"I'll admit that I probably don't follow all
of the election news like maybe I should," Peterman said. "I haven't
read his books or studied up more than a little bit. But it's hard to
ignore what you hear when everybody you know is saying it. These are
good people, smart people, so can they really all be wrong? It's like you're hearing about two different men with nothing in
common," Peterman said. "It makes it impossible to figure out what's
true, or what you can believe."

What exactly is one to conclude from this article? When asking a question like this about a story straight out of the heartland, a few answers are immediately off-limits. Liberals--and particularly liberal journalists--are not allowed to hint that many of the people in Findlay do not appear to be particularly intelligent. In fact, even an allusion to intelligence just exposes the liberal reader as a typical big-city elitist. Okay then: Perhaps it shows that racism in small-town America--even Flag City USA, as Findlay is known--is much more prevalent than one otherwise might have thought. No, no, no--you cannot say that either. Not only does this show the same form of elitism, but it also misunderstands the good people of Findlay. These citizens are not racist: Rather, as Saslow points out, they just do not like change:

"People in Findlay are kind of funny about change," said Republican
Mayor Pete Sehnert, a retired police officer who ran for the office on
a whim last year. "They always want things the way they were, and any
kind of development is always viewed as making things worse, a bad
thing."

So, then, where does that leave us? Put another way, what is the conservative upshot of this story? I eagerly and desperately want to understand the confused citizens of Findlay but I do not want to fall into the trap of appearing to be a liberal, over-educated elitist. Help, please.

--Isaac Chotiner 

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