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Politics of ignorance

by Archives October 21, 2008

“I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not . . . he’s an Arab,” said the elderly woman to Senator John McCain. “No ma’am,” replied the Senator. “He’s a decent family man.”
McCain was praised in the media and by Barack Obama’s campaign for correcting the woman without hesitation. But what no one seems to have picked up on was what an insult McCain’s wording was to anyone of Arabic descent. The answer should have been “No ma’am, but even if he were it wouldn’t matter.”
Quick wording during a rally is not grounds for accusing McCain of bigotry, but this kind of subtle prejudice can still have a powerful effect on an impressionable public. It also reveals how American political dialogue, even at the highest levels of a presidential campaign, often tolerates racism, xenophobia and narrow-mindedness without being fully conscious of it.
On the issue of race, the official strategy is to bill Obama as a politician who transcends it. His unofficial strategy has been to highlight his Kansan half and downplay his African half. Obama speaks of his single mother and the role she played in his upbringing, and of his World War II veteran grandfather.
There have been many Americans who have expressed a fear that it would be unwise to elect Obama because he would be assassinated by remnants of the Ku Klux Klan before his inauguration. There have been more that have openly opposed Obama’s candidacy due to his race.
There are also widespread fears that even more Americans who won’t admit their racism to pollsters, or the media, will express it in the privacy of the ballot box. This should be distinguished from the Bradley effect, which is when white voters tell pollsters they support the black candidate because of a fear of being perceived as racist, even though they plan to vote for the white candidate on non-racial grounds.
One voter was even quoted as saying they would not vote for a black president, so they planned to vote for Obama’s white half. But, to the question of Obama’s race, the answer should not be “he’s actually half white,” but “what’s wrong with a black president?”
On the issue of religion, a year’s worth of mysterious e-mails being circulated all over the United States claimed proof that Obama is not only connected to terrorist organizations in Africa, but is also a Muslim. On the campaign trail, Obama has repeatedly had to convince voters of his Christian faith and deny any significant connection to Islam. But the larger issue, which has gone unnoticed, is the demonizing of Islam itself that results from such a dialogue.
In the years since Sept. 11, knowledgeable leaders, scholars, and journalists have worked to help the world understand the difference between moderate Islam and Islamic extremism. In this campaign, the words Islam and Arab have become synonymous with terrorism and evil; allowing the idea of a Muslim president to incite fear in voters.
Hillary Clinton earned some votes during the primaries because of that fear. The official Clinton response was always that Obama was a Christian, but the American public would have been better served by the idea that a president’s religion shouldn’t be relevant, provided they honored the separation of church and state.
The McCain campaign, with the help of friendly 527s, Political Action Committees (PACs) and media like Fox News, is also stoking the fires. Although Senator McCain himself is not contributing to it, the message coming from his side has attacked Obama’s patriotism, connected him to terrorism, and generally promoted his “otherness.”
Likely a symptom of such campaigning, a couple of peaceful Obama supporters who attended a recent rally for Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin to have their voices heard were promptly assaulted physically and verbally by McCain-Palin supporters. The two young men were called “traitors” and “anti-American,” and were physically attacked by a horde of seniors, according to the Boston Globe.
Racism and xenophobia, even of the subtle or subconscious kind, is incredibly dangerous when expressed by a candidate for the highest office in the free world. Both campaigns would be well served to distance themselves from the rhetoric of cultural ignorance.
Perhaps then the ignorant would finally see that the black man with a scary middle name, and a childhood in the predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia, isn’t the boogieman they’ve been reading about.

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