Sunday, October 9, 2011

Brown vs. Warren and the Innuendo of Class Privilege

While I find Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown's casually sexist response to rival candidate Elizabeth Warren unacceptable, there's something else in Brown's response and additional defensive moves that I dislike even more.

Background: Brown helped pay his way through law school by posing nude in Cosmopolitan. Last week, Warren was asked about that in the first senatorial debate of the Massachusetts race. Questioner: "Your opponent posed in Cosmo to help pay for college. How did you pay for school?" Warren: "Well, I kept my clothes on." (Audience laughter.) Warren then continued to explain that she went to a public university, took out loans, and had a job. The next day, Brown was on Boston radio station WZLX, on a show that sounds like it's a typical morning drive-time zoo. The host asked him, "Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren’s comment about how she didn’t take her clothes off?" Brown laughed and then said, "Thank God."

I've heard that radio exchange described as fraternity humor, which seems like a pretty good way to characterize it. But Brown then went on to say, "You know what, listen, bottom line is I didn’t go to Harvard. You know, I went to the school of hard knocks and I did whatever I had to do to pay for school."

These words imply that Warren (who until the last few years was teaching at Harvard) attended Harvard, and with that carry the meaning that she is part of a privileged elite, while poor old Scott is part of the regular people.

While doing damage control after his attempt at humor, Brown drummed up defensive statements from two women senators, Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, who criticized Warren for "mocking" or "belittling" Brown over the choices he made to pay for school. I know it's a question of personal taste, but I didn't find Warren's repartee particularly mocking or at all belittling -- just lighthearted, which seems like a bit of grace under pressure during a debate -- while Brown's clearly was both belittling and mean-spirited.

But worse, again, were the class and privilege innuendos in a statement by Brown's campaign manager, Jim Barnett: "It's elitist of Professor Warren to look down at the decisions Scott Brown made to put himself through college and rise above the circumstances of his life. Scott has fought and scraped for everything he's got."

Everything about Barnett's statement implies that Warren is the opposite of Brown -- she's a professor (and he's a regular guy), she has no idea what it is to rise about the circumstances of your life, she never had to fight to get where she is.

For the record:

  • Elizabeth Warren is from Oklahoma City. Her father had a heart attack when she was 12, which led to large medical bills and the loss of their car. Her mother went back to work answering phones and the teen-aged Elizabeth worked as a waitress. She went to the University of Houston, a public four-year school while also getting married at 19 and having a child not long after. She went to Rutgers University Law School (the public university of the state of New Jersey). She started teaching law at Rutgers a few years after graduating when she was asked to come back and teach as an adjunct. She worked her way "up" to Harvard Law School in the classic sense of the American meritocracy.
  • Scott Brown had a tough early life, with a lot of divorces, family upheaval and abuse followed by teenaged run-ins with the law. His father was a city councilman in his home town, while his mother is said to have "received welfare" at some point. He joined the National Guard and then the ROTC, graduating from Tufts University for undergraduate study (private) and Boston College Law School (private).
  • Susan Collins (R-Me.) comes from a family that has operated a lumber business in the town of Caribou in northern Maine, since 1844. Both her parents have been mayor of the town and her father served in both houses of the Maine legislature. She went to St. Lawrence University (private).
  • Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) went to Penn State University for undergraduate (public) and Villanova University School of Law (private).
  • Jim Barnett (who is, by the way, a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity), went to American University (private).
So who are the ones who went to elitist academic institutions? Who are the ones attacking a candidate whose life story represents the American dream of success based on your merits and hard work? Why can't Scott Brown and his campaign manager just promote Brown's life story and hard work without knocking Elizabeth Warren's?


Unemployed Dragon said...

DN3: I would urge you to send this as a letter to the Editor at the Boston Globe! Very well said!

peppery said...

Nicely said.

Peter Hoh said...

Third paragraph, 2dn line -- did you mean Brown where you wrote Walker?

Daughter Number Three said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Ms. Dragon.

Peter -- thanks for catching that. When I first wrote it, the whole thing came out with "Walker" instead of "Brown," but I thought I had caught and changed them all.

Isn't that a funny error, though?

Peter Hoh said...

I think you might have Scott Walker on the brain.