The Danger of Obama’s Current High—a lesson from Harper Lee

July 25, 2008 | By | 1 Reply More

Consider this comment regarding Barack Obama by Joan Walsh of Salon.com:

The only downside I can see right now is Obama being depicted as enjoying the adulation a little too much. After the speech, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he spoke with Obama this morning, and that “he seemed very up, very confident … He was bragging a little bit about sinking eight out of 10 three-pointers when he was with the troops this week. He even said he felt a little sorry for John McCain this week.” Alter is an Obama admirer, and presumably meant the Democratic nominee no harm, but I winced as I listened.

I was startled when I read this quote. Did Obama really say that he “felt a little sorry for John McCain? I know that Obama was speaking frankly. A lot of us who know that Obama would be a much better President have also felt a little sorry for John McCain, who is working the system hard in a rather pathetic way. Almost daily, he is making factual mistakes indicating that he is way too ignorant about how the world works to function as a leader. His approach would be to impose his limited view of the world upon the governed. It would be world-view largely unsupported by evidence, quite similar to what we’ve had for the past eight years.

Back to Obama’s quote, however. Daring to feel sorry for a white man is a battle cry for many bigots. I’m afraid that Obama’s comment is going to stir up a lot of people. Hearing it reminded me of a key line from the trial portrayed in the movie version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It was during that trial that Tom Robinson (a kind and decent black man who was being tried for rape and assault) had blurted out that he “felt a little sorry for his accuser, Mayella Ewell a young woman who had been beaten by her drunk father, who had transparently set up Mayella to lie in court to deflect blame from him to the innocent Tom.

Here’s an excerpt from the screenplay. The scene is (the innocent) Tom Robinson being, having just denied his involvement, being cross-examined by the state prosecutor:

Prosecutor: How come you so all fired anxious to do that woman’s chores?

Tom: Looks like she, she didn’t have nobody to help her. Like I said, she…

Prosecutor: With Mr. Ewell and seven children on the place? You did all this choppin’ and work out of sheer goodness, boy? You’re a mighty good fella, it seems. Did all that for not one penny?

Tom: Yes, sir. I felt right sorry for her. – She seemed…

Prosecutor: You felt sorry for her? A white woman? You felt sorry for her?

Led by the conniving prosecutor, Tom’s heart-felt comment instantly inflamed the jury of twelve white men. How dare a black man think of himself as so uppity that he dared to feel sorry for a beaten, poor, desperate white woman! After a brilliant argument by Atticus Finch on behalf of Tom, the jury nonetheless found Tom guilty, but it wasn’t on the basis of any evidence.

I hope American has moved on and that Barack Obama’s comment doesn’t inflame the far right (any more than it is already inflamed). Then again, it sometimes it doesn’t seem as though a lot of America has grown up much since the 1930’s. Based on some right-wing comments I’ve heard over the past year, there are only a few things bigoted people hate more than a black man, and one of those things is an uppity black man, one who dares to feel sorry for them, even when it is heartfelt.

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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. In order to be able to judge the situation properly you would have to watch when he makes the comment or you would need a good idea of his character. If his comment had been delivered with condescension then he would deserve the criticism regardless of his skin color.

    I had a friend who once told me that he pitied me. He probably didn't mean to be condescending, but given the context it still made him an asshole. That's when I started understanding why people don't want to be pitied.

    I don't think you can automatically derive from the superficial similarity between these two situation the conclusion that the phrase "I feel sorry for x" had been uttered with the same intention or compassion.

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