Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Year of Smears or Barack Obama is a Muslim and Al Franken Laughs at the Disabled

This election year was, at one time and like so many others, filled with promises of a "clean" race from the candidates, both presidential and congressional. But it seems that the races across the nation have unraveled at an alarming rate. McCain's campaign has started to take their ads and appearances in the media as opportunities to instill fear in voters. The persistance of their attempts to make Obama look "Un-American" (see Michelle Bachmann for more on what it takes to be "Un-American"). Their continued push to convince voters that Obama is an Anti-Semite along with the enduring effort by the far right to make Obama a Muslim in the public's eyes (and make that a thing to be feared) are enough to make any critical thinking American, of any persuasion, wonder what the values of this campaign really are (excluded from the list of values would be religious freedom, honesty, and tolerance).

Of course, you can create an argument why any politician should not be trusted. But the premise of these attacks underscores what would be most frightening about a McCain presidency. These type of attacks are being seen throughout the Republican party, likely due to a certain degree of fear within the party about the potential they have to lose power at all levels in the upcoming election.

The major issue here shouldn't even be that they are outright lying to voters, or that they are trying to use fear tactics in the election, these, unfortunately, are pretty commonplace in elections across the globe. But this is especially frightening in a election year were issues of race have been at the forefront of the political discussion. It goes beyond most of the race issues that have typically been at hand this year. This dialogue is feeding a fear of Middle-Eastern men, which obviously has it's roots in the panic following 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq among other assorted incidents that have sought to promote this view. It also acts as though "Middle-Eastern men" are one race, and not an umbrella term for many different groups of people in one, very large, region of the globe. A fear that is truly unjustifiable, especially in a country, and an election, where the leaders constantly expound upon the importance of diversity, tolerance, and "American" values of freedom. Though this, of course, is out of one side of their collective mouth, while their actions only bolster a transient racism that is being revealed to be a crucial part of the political game.

My interest in the portrayal of Obama as a Muslim was piqued again this past weekend. I assumed that this story had been pretty much smothered as a transparent smear tactic (which shouldn't really be a smear, but that's not the reality of America at this point, nor is it the point of this article). But, over the weekend, two friends brought up stories that rekindled my interest in the topic. I was told of a child a friend saw on the train being told by her mother that Obama is a Muslim when he asked who they are going to vote for, as though the statement contained the answer. The second story came from another friend who had spoke with her mother over the weekend about a party the mother attended. The mother, who I will call Sally, walked out of a party with their neighbors when the neighbors began to berate Sally and her husband for their intentions to vote for a Muslim (this is a shortened version of the story). It even went a step further than that, as the neighbor's five-year-old child told Sally that Barack Obama wants to kill babies.

Now, this is frightening in more than one respect. The initial outrage is that a man's religion is being used as a reason you should not vote for someone, and we are talking religion, it's not a cult like Heaven's Gate here, nor is it a terrorist organization, it is a religion (think what you will of organized religion this is a differentiation to be drawn). But in both instances the parents were instilling fear in their children, teaching them that you can't trust a Muslim, that it's a religion to be feared, that it's a word to be feared, that a Muslim man who wants to kill babies could potentially run your country. They are lying to a child, teaching them to fear, when they can't even take part in the political process, much less begin to comprehend the ramifications of this stance.

Since hearing about this (which clearly reveals I live a certain type of life and am out of touch with people of a certain disposition, yes, that I concede) I began consulting stories from the early summer trying to understand how I had assumed that everyone had accepted this as a shallow, transparent lie that was being used to instill fear in the electorate. It is at this point that I realized the issue was still as prevalent as it was when I had first heard mention of it. This message is still condoned and widely believed. A poll, released Wednesday, found that 23% of Texans believe that Obama is a Muslim. In terms of the electoral college, this is irrelevant, Texas will always swing Republican, but that is not what is important in this study (which was actually a part of an election poll). The 2007 census estimate of Texas' population was 23,904,380. That means that approximately 5,498,007 people, in Texas alone, have bought the lie. Which, in itself, reveals the reason a party, or individual, would want to spread a lie that is even as transparent as this. You can instill millions of people with fear through a couple of words, whether they are true or not, whether "facts" and statements are later retracted or not. The article where the findings are released, from The Houston Chronicle, claims that in the most recent national polls 5-10% of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim. If these statistics are to be trusted, even at the most conservative estimate, an excess of 17 million people in America believe this to be true.

This same premise is seen in Michael Goldfarb's (the McCain Campaign’s National Spokesman) smug remarks on his recent appearance on CNN. Goldfarb asserts that he believes Obama to be Un-American and, more particularly, that he surrounds himself with Anti-Semites and terrorists. Yet, when probed for names of the Anti-Semites Obama pals around with he refused to provide names. It is not necessary to use facts to make facts. Even with an accredited journalist like Rick Sanchez doing his job (asking questions) next to him, Goldfarb knew that he just needed to continue saying that Obama is an Anti-Semite, even if he doesn't have real proof, because if it is heard, people will believe it.

This is the premise that seems to be behind many of the Republican ads this year (though the Democrats are not completely innocent either). There is an ad that was released this past week that was particularly demonstrative of this plan of attack. Norm Coleman's newest ad attacking Al Franken does not back up any of it's claims, and offers no stance on Mr. Coleman or his platform. It follows the idea that if something is said it can be influential and make unjustified claims facts. By making the attack a quote (every attack in the ad is presented as a quote), from any source, it starts to feel authentic, even if the quotes are used out of context. The ad makes some umbrella statements that dig into Franken in a nearly pornographic fashion. The end of the ad in particular is very aggressive. It states:

Al Franken Humiliates Minorities, demeans women, writes pornography, makes child abuse a joke, laughs at the disabled.

No lie. That is the ad.

This kind of ad is not only abrasive for it's lack of integrity, it's lack of factual information, and it's presupposition that all voters are dumb and will believe this if they hear it. It also is abrasive because when I first saw this ad I was watching a hockey game. I see Norm Coleman on the news, or on his own time, when he has the stage, and he talks about values and religion, but in another situation, where he doesn’t implicitly have my attention, when a viewer is not trying to get their daily dose of politics, then he is creating a hateful message, trying to manipulate voters by an aggressive ad that will attempt to snap the viewer from their current focus. By contrast, the Franken ads during the some block of time focused on Franken's platform. The one attack in the Franken ads (I'm only looking at the ads displayed during this two hour block of time) was that Coleman voted with Bush 86% of the time. Which isn't necessarily about issues, but it's a fact and it's specific, opposed to "Al Franken...laughs at the disabled."

Now, I’m aware that this is not a new development in American politics, or politics around the world, but it is continually frightening to see these ads which are often thought of as transparent and invoke the kind of reaction I am having right now. But the continued prevalence of this type of advertising and campaigning is a testament to its ability to work on many voters, and I’m just not sure what that says about the electorate. American voters are often considered dumb, and are pandered to in an election that often amounts to little more than a popularity contest. But I find myself in a minority thinking that the American voter is much more intelligent that they are given credit for. Voters often see the transparency of such tactics, and many who don’t vote see through this too, and it is likely the cause of their disinterest. I believe it is a misconception that people who don’t vote don’t pay attention. They may be paying more attention that a good quantity of the voting public. The vast majority of voters know what issues matter, and pay attention, and have their minds made up just days after the conventions, if not before that. I believe that it is tactics such as these that create disinterest in the electoral process and create voters that allow the election to become a popularity contest, where baby kissing or what kind of pet someone owns truly makes a difference in who the nation decides should rule an entire branch of the government for the next four years. It is this kind of campaigning that has made words like elitist a dirty word, the climate in which being elite (elite: a person or group of people who are considered to be the best in a particular category or group) doesn’t pander to the more traditional values of American politics which includes racism, fear, gossip, and appearing as though you came straight out of a American folk tale. I won't claim to have the answers, but isn't it time that voters prove to the government that we aren't as dumb as they suppose, and that we won't continue to tolerate hate and lies as acceptable methods of campaigning. If there is any truth in the Houston Chronicle's poll, maybe we aren't ready to say that as a nation, but I am, and I don't think I'm alone.

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