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Going for the Comfort Zone

Eytan Kobre

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

GOING FOR THE COMFORT ZONE I look at the vote totals for Washington, D.C. — a nearly all-black city in which approximately 125,000 residents cast their ballots for Barack Obama and about 17,000 for his opponent — and scratch my head. Surely they’re aware of his resolute opposition to their city’s voucher program, which has given thousands of poor black kids, with a waiting list of thousands more, a chance to escape the sinkhole that is the DC public school system and work toward a successful future. It is championed by Republicans in Congress, and is fought tooth-and-nail by Democrats like Messrs. Obama and Biden, whose children and grandchildren, respectively, attend the tony Friends School located far, far away from the grimy warehouses of public education in that town. Friends, indeed.

But the DC electorate is merely a reflection of the stratospheric percentage of votes the president received in blackAmericaas a whole. Why? Can they be unaware of what his time in office has meant for black — and especially black youth — unemployment?

I know a lot about this man, Barack Obama. But for all that I know of his history, his influences, his record, if I had to choose one item from out of his past to make my case about him, it would have to be the speech he gave on June 5, 2007 at Hampton University, which, like so much else about him, has only now come to light. In the video of the talk, Senator Obama is seen speaking to a predominantly black audience in the faux-ghetto accent that he puts on exclusively before black crowds.

This is post-Katrina, and he’s speaking about the Stafford Act, which requires local governments in communities receiving federal disaster relief to contribute ten percent as much as the federal government does. Obama points out that this requirement was waived for disasters inNew YorkandFloridabecause the people there were considered to be “part of the American family.” But, he continued, the people in predominantly blackNew Orleans“they don’t care about as much.”


I’ll let the eminent economist Thomas Sowell continue the tale:

Why is the date of this speech important? Because, less than two weeks earlier, on May 24, 2007, the United States Senate had in fact voted 80-14 to waive the Stafford Act requirement for New Orleans, as it had waived that requirement for New York and Florida. More federal money was spent rebuildingNew Orleansthan was spent inNew Yorkafter 9/11 and inFloridaafter Hurricane Andrew, combined.…

Unlike Jeremiah Wright’s church, the US Senate keeps a record of who was there on a given day. The Congressional Record for May 24, 2007 shows Senator Barack Obama present that day and voting on the bill that waived the Stafford Act requirement. Moreover, he was one of just 14 Senators who voted against — repeat, AGAINST — the legislation which included the waiver.

The combination of manipulation and condescension, of racism and raw dishonesty which this little video clip reveals, is simply stunning; personally, I found it chilling to view. But it also tells us a great deal about how much this man cares about or has done for the black community. The 90-plus percent of blacks who voted for Obama doesn’t only include the permanent inner-city underclass that stands to gain from another four years of government largesse. It also encompasses the black middle-class, business owners, professionals, people who know from experience that individual initiative and free markets lead to success. So how to explain their votes?

But in reality, the illogic of the black community’s electoral choices is just an exaggerated reflection of the equally senseless voting patterns of the country as a whole.Americamay not have voted for Obama 91% to 7%, but that is a difference in degree, not in kind. Americans did decide to rehire someone whom none of them would have rehired were he an employee of their business, their dry cleaner, or their electrician. A majority of citizens say the country is headed in the wrong direction, yet they’ve returned to office the fellow who’s leading them there — from behind, as he always does. How can that possibly be?

How can it not be? Human beings’ decisions on most things in life, not just politics, issue forth from the gut and the heart, from the subconscious seat of emotion and vested interest, far more than from the brain. And so, the logical faculties of blacks, at least many of them, may tell them this president is bad for their careers, their families, and their community. But the emotion of ethnic pride is impervious to logical argument. And the notion of a still-racistAmerica continues to exert an emotional pull even on blacks who have experienced the boundless opportunity offered them in this great land, because it absolves responsibility for one’s success or failure. 

The same dynamic is at play for the broader public, and there isn’t even a neat brain-heart dichotomy. Their brains know that big government stifles growth and stunts innovation, that unchecked entitlements will drag a nation into the abyss. And even their hearts know how fulfilling it is to earn one’s keep rather than receive handouts, to build things with one’s own head and hands. But it’s just so comfortable to keep the good times rolling while ignoring the costs. Financial austerity and living within one’s means entails pain, and the one thing we humans are desperate to avoid at all costs is pain — at least until it becomes too painful to do so.

These understandings of what drives people’s decisions and the love-hate relationship they have with hard work, responsibility, and consequences, are, of course, something we Jews immediately recognize. They are life truths, but they come from Torah. The entire study of mussar is built on Rav Yisroel Salanter’s teaching that the greatest distance in the world is that between what our minds know and what our hearts feel. And when Rav Noach Weinberg would teach that the very definition of decadence is the erroneous belief that pain is the opposite of pleasure, when, in truth, pain is the price one pays to get pleasure, he was simply encapsulating what our fundamental literature teaches about the very purpose of our being in this world.

Some time ago, City Journal’s Michael Knox Beran observed:

The dream of a painless world is the great illusion of modern liberalism … which regards suffering not as something inherent in the very nature of life but as an anomaly to be eradicated by reason and science and social legislation…. The old Western conception of suffering as a necessary and intrinsic part of the human condition is remote from the modern liberal’s belief that it is a freakish deviation from the rightful order of things. Nowhere is the callowness of the liberal philosophy more evident than in its tendency to look upon ever-larger swaths of human suffering as grievances from which people have a “right” to be exempt.

This is just another manifestation of the utopianism and detachment from the world as we know it — of a maturity deficit, really — that defines contemporary liberalism. It is also yet another area that helps explain why Torah Jews gravitate more naturally toward conservative, than to liberal, politics.

Opinion columnist Mona Charen gets it right when she says that the “Republican message of free enterprise, self-reliance, and individual initiative is a harder sell than the Democratic message of ‘let government take care of you.’…. A good, paying job is far superior to even the most lavish welfare benefits. That message has the advantage of being true — but it just may require a bit of political genius to sell it effectively.”

 Just as it takes all our genius to sell ourselves on the idea of exalting seichel over dimyon, of opting for slow, steady progress toward worthwhile goals over that which is sweet for the moment.

So we can be amazed at how the black vote turned out, but, then, we ought to be not much less amazed at the overall vote — or at ourselves.



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