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The World's Most Boring Overnight Camp!

8:23 AM, May 13, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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You've heard about Obama's Atlantic interview. You've witnessed some House Republicans' painfully lame effort to distort his "sore" comment. But here's a nugget that I haven't seen commented on anywhere else. Quoth the presumptive nominee:

"You know, when I think about the Zionist idea, I think about how my feelings about Israel were shaped as a young man -- as a child, in fact. I had a camp counselor when I was in sixth grade who was Jewish-American but who had spent time in Israel, and during the course of this two-week camp he shared with me the idea of returning to a homeland and what that meant for people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home."

As I was raised in a Skinnerian box until the age of 24, I never got the opportunity to attend overnight camp. Still, I do have a mental image of what overnight camp must have been like, especially overnight camp in Hawaii. And, I must confess, my mental image doesn't involve having soulful conversations about Zionism as a pre-teen. And, unlike Obama, I'm Jewish (or rather a Jewish-American as I henceforth will think of myself). Obviously this wasn't one of those camps where they played capture the flag, huh? This little anecdote does nothing to dispel the growing perception of Obama as a pointy-headed elitist.

Now, to be a mite serious for a moment, I spent 14 years teaching "gifted and talented" sixth graders on Saturdays at a Boston area prep school (that I won't embarrass by naming). There's something about this anecdote that doesn't ring true - namely everything. Even the most precocious 6th grader would have trouble absorbing complex ideas like culture preservation in the Diaspora. Quite frankly, it's also difficult to imagine a teenage counselor even considering such an idea let alone holding forth on it to an 11 year-old unless of course it was one of those specialty camps that existed for just such a purpose.

As with the likely apocryphal reminisces about Obama's drug use in "Dreams from My Father," there's something a little too convenient about this story. Obama often uses the writer's technique of making larger points via anecdote. Think of "Betty No-Health-Insurance came up to me at a rally in Des Moines…"

In our era, all politicians speak this way. Still, it's a fundamentally disingenuous way to argue. It elevates anecdotes over analysis, and seeks to manipulate the listener's emotions rather than to persuade the listener with logic. Sure, it's swell to imagine 11 year-old Barack Obama having his "feelings about Israel shaped as a child" by a "Jewish-American" camp counselor "who had spent time in Israel." But really now - who cares? As the Kennedys often say, it's not where you come from but where you stand.

In other words, as a supporter of Israel, I'd much rather know the candidate's concrete plans for dealing with Israel's hostile neighborhood than hear misty-water colored memories from his youth.