26 December 2008

S. J. Wurzelbacher: Man of the Year?

Time magazine was correct to name the President-elect as its Man of the Year. For once, it's consistent with the weekly's original criterion; Obama is the man who most influenced the news in 2008, for the same reason that most men who win the presidential election win this honor. But something in Patricial J. Williams's column in the newest issue of The Nation reminded me that the campaign also brought a sort of representative American to the fore in an unexpected way. She writes:

When Samuel Wurzelbacher, dba Joe the Plumber, availed himself of the opportunity to ask candidate Barack Obama about taxes, he premised his question on a scenario that had nothing to do with his actual life circumstances. He was supposedly a plumber -- although he was not licensed in any state as such. He was supposedly going to buy a business worth $250,000 -- although he had liens against him for back taxes and medical bills and earned $40,000. Joe the Plumber, an aspirational but entirely fictive reverie, was so powerful an American persona that vast swaths of the public, as well as Wurzelbacher himself, were able to dis-identify with the actual, living, breathing struggling man. "Joe" is a hard-working man of means; Sam is a hard-working person who is barely making it. The inability to reconcile the vision and the reality creates a split, a chasm in which dissatisfaction festers, leaks, then seeks a target, longs for a scapegoat.

"Joe" is Williams's textbook example of Americans' unwillingness to identify themselves as or with "the poor." Wurzelbacher seemed more interested in defending the interests of the class to which he aspired than those of the class to which he belonged. I suspect he'd reject such an analysis, since for me or Williams to write of class at all, to minds like his, is to wage "class warfare." Even the poor can be possessed by ideology. The poor in modern media-saturated America may be even more vulnerable than those who only have their own experiences and their own immediate environment for reference. They idealize the rich, or that specific sub-group called the entrepreneurs. It's not that they think the entrepreneurs are better than the rest of us, but that they appear to believe sincerely that the entrepreneur is the ideal if not the typical American, and that America was made for and ought to be governed in the interests of entrepreneurs above all. Thus, to these people and their self-appointed spokesmen, the claims of the poor always have less legitimacy and appear to be an unfair burden upon the "real" Americans, that class to which you, too, can belong, if only in your mind, if you only believe. The Obama years have potential apart from the potential of Obama himself in the likelihood that hard times may finally wake people like Wurzelbacher from their peculiarly American dreams so that they realize that they won't, and sometimes can't be what they dreamed, but are still Americans.