“They”? Who in the hell is “they”?
– Lyle Gorch in The Wild Bunch
Recently Barack Obama got into trouble by explaining to an affluent San Francisco audience why the cash-strapped, mostly white, working classes in Pennsylvania and the Midwest do not logically vote for his brand of economic populism, but instead cling to issues that sophisticates can see are extraneous to their economic plight.
And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
That sentence has been analyzed to death. But a single word struck me — who are Obama’s distant they?
Are they basically decent people, without a lot of education, who turn to religious and national superstitions like guns and church, or to primordial passions like racism and xenophobia, in lieu of Obama’s nostrum of “hope” and “change”? “They,” then, turn out to be the nice, but deluded folk — and yet sometimes dangerous people when riled by immigrants and other races that don’t look like them?
But the bitter, they can’t be the same they that Obama also said are jacking up the cost of his condiments in the store?
“Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula? I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff.”
Perhaps this nebulous and ever changing they evokes the same forces that Michelle Obama says are now thwarting her husband’s phenomenally successful campaign. Sometime they seem to be politicos, or media pundits, or hostile rule keepers who do all they can to sabotage the Obamas: “They tell you to raise money, you raise money. “They tell you to build an organization, and you build an organization.”
But at other times they for Michelle Obama can apparently also mean faceless government officials who likewise conspire against the American public as soon as it makes any progress — perhaps like achieving the Obama’s 2007 $4 million annual income, or $1.6 million home: “We live in a nation where they set the bar and you try to get over the bar and they move the bar.”
On rarer occasions, Michelle Obama becomes somewhat more specific with her they, and so names them as “folks.” But who and where these folks are, we are never told: “Folks set the bar, and then you work hard and you reach the bar — sometimes you surpass the bar — and then they move the bar!”
The multifarious use of they tells us a great deal about the Obamas. In one of the many manifestations of they, there is a sort of resentment here, the evocation of someone or something to blame when it is time to buy high-priced arugula or send the kids to summer camp or explain why you will lose Pennsylvania. This whiny they serves a psychological need, and relieves them of any introspection like, “Buy lettuce at Safeway instead of arugula at Whole Foods.” Or “Try harder to appeal to the working classes of Iowa and Pennsylvania by spending more time out of, rather than in, Whole Foods and San Francisco mansions.”
There is, as has been pointed out, also condescension aplenty. The unsympathetic hoi polloi they is not the powerful, but the impotent — not those who know everything about the arugula price-gougers that thwart the fast-rising Obamas, but those who know nothing and ignore the Obamas’ wisdom. Or as Michelle puts it, “The question is not whether Barack Obama is ready. The question is, are we ready for him?”
There is also a closely related conspiratorial they. If the Obama campaign hits a rough patch, they changed the rules. If the Obamas find that their own appetites have increased with their incomes, and the higher they live, the greater the debt they accrue, then someone or something — more powerful, more wealthy — has surely changed the rules of finance and economics to do in the Obamas.
The conspiratorial they is far more worrisome than the elite liberal’s condescending they or the nouveau riche’s whiny they, since it seems to evoke the dark forces that Rev. Wright articulated, the “white folks’ greed” that is responsible for everything from bombs on poor Japanese and weapons that target Arabs and blacks to planting AIDs viruses and holding the black man down by three-strikes laws.
The Obamas are not that crude in the Wright sense (“typical white person” is not quite “rich white people”). But when they talk of a self-serving, paranoid Middle American as they, or an all-powerful government as they, or manipulative financial forces as they, then the Obamas evoke the same sense of conspiratorial resentment and scapegoating as does a Wright.
From time to time, all Americans, of course, blame they who raised the price of gas, or started a war, or jacked up their taxes, or ruined their schools and neighborhoods.
But the next stage in the public evolution of the use of they is critical: The demagogue takes they up even more promiscuously to fire the passions of the crowd, thereby alleviating it of any responsibility for its own unhappiness. To the hothouse intellectual they are either the unwashed, or the more evil and powerful that only the learned and sophisticated can understand and mock, but ultimately navigate around.
Yet for the true statesman, they is rarely used, since the interest is not in finding generic culprits for the past problem, but in offering specifics for the future solution — requiring the use of the now rare “we” and “us.”