Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




October 16 , 2008

Every major political campaign has at least one memorable moment—the point, either, where you later could say that the contest turned, or where some great insight was gained into what it was really all about.

In the campaign between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain for the United States presidency, you will undoubtedly choose yours. My most memorable moment of the election came during a widely-broadcast exchange between Mr. McCain and a supporter at a McCain Minnesota political rally last week.

During an audience question-and-comment period, an unidentified middle age woman took the microphone and told Mr. McCain, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not”—here she paused, searching for the right word—“he’s an Arab.”

The woman did not explain what she meant by her comment, and since was not a recognized political figure or some writer whose speeches or writings we can research, we can only guess at her meaning. It’s clear she meant the term “Arab” as something distasteful, to be shunned, but whether she meant the term to mean members of al Queda, or some loosely-defined collection of “Arab Muslim fundamentalist terrorists”, or to apply to all non-American Arabs or any Arab (including Arab-Americans) is impossible to determine. Each of the interpretations has its own particular brand of bigotry, however, so if you’re keeping score, there is no way to make the woman come out good. It’s one of those worse or worser situations.

What struck me about the moment was not the woman’s statement, however. Anyone who finds something remarkable about prejudice by some American against Arabs (or Muslims or anyone wearing a turban, such as an Indian sikh) in these days and times needs to either get outside more often or, at the very least, turn on the television.

And what made the moment memorable was not even Mr. McCain’s response. Shaking his head, he immediately cut her off, taking the microphone back from the woman and telling her, “No, ma’am.” (Meaning, it would seem, that he was disagreeing with the assertion that Barack Obama is an “Arab.”) Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain then explained, is “a decent, family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

In other words, in case you missed the point, an “Arab”—by whatever definition either Mr. McCain or the unidentified woman were using to categorize “Arab”—were not decent, family people, or citizens.

Sip on that a second, cousin, as they say back out in the country.

One of the things I found revealing about the moment was that Mr. McCain did not bother to ask what the woman meant by the term “Arab.” Perhaps he already knew or, at least, thought he knew, and he and the woman and the Minnesota crowd were communicating through some mutually-understood code words. Or perhaps Mr. McCain was worried where such an inquiry might lead, a sudden, illuminating journey into the dark heart of American prejudice that he preferred not be attached to his campaign and preserved, forever, on YouTube. It should be noted that the exchange with the unidentified woman came after a young man—saying that he and his wife were expecting a child— told Mr. McCain that he and his wife were “frankly … scared of an Obama presidency” because of allegations of Mr. Obama “consorting with a domestic terrorist.” When Mr. McCain responded that Obama “is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared (of) as President of the United States,” he was roundly booed by the crowd. Perhaps Mr. McCain felt himself on sinking sand, and when the unidentified woman tried to draw him back into that territory, his instincts told him simply to scramble away as quickly as he could.

So the moment with the unidentified woman was not so much what happened, but what did not. How much different the moment would have been if—when the woman said that Mr. Obama was an “Arab”—Mr. McCain had simply asked, “What do you mean by that?”

If the woman had responded that it meant she thought simply that Mr. Obama was of Arab ancestry, or that he was of the Muslim faith, Mr. McCain could have replied, “he’s not. He’s of Kenyan ancestry—African, in more general terms—and he’s a Christian. But if he were Arab and Mulsim, what would be wrong with that?” Or if the woman had said—by way of explaining what she meant by Mr. Obama being an “Arab”—that she meant he was a terrorist sympathizer who secretly hated America and wanted to bring it down, Mr. McCain could have repeated the line—braving the boos—that “no, Mr. Obama is not a terrorist sympathizer. He deeply loves America and wants it to succeed. He and I simply have fundamental disagreements about how the nation should go about achieving that success, and that is what this presidential campaign is all about.” Mr. McCain could then have gone further and told the woman, gently, that in any case, she was using the wrong word. “I know you don’t mean any harm by equating ‘Arab’ with terrorist,” he could have told her. “But the two are not synonymous. Terrorists come in all nationalities, and only a small percentage of Arabs in the world are what we would call terrorists, or even terrorist sympathizers. To equate the two, Arab with terrorist, is to slur many good people around the world who are as opposed to terrorism as you and I are.”

What a moment that would have been, a Lincolnesque moment, a moment that would have defined the 2008 presidential campaign in a far different way.

But we drift away from the real world, here. Mr. McCain clearly wants the lines blurred between Mr. Obama, and Arab, and terrorist. Such a connection is designed to stir voter doubts about Mr. Obama, and slow the Democratic juggernaut. That is the only reason why the McCain campaign continues to try to link Mr. Obama with William Ayers, the former Weather Underground member, with Vice Presidential candidate Palin famously asserting that Mr. Obama “launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist.” It is the only reason why the warm-up acts at McCain-Palin rallies continue to refer to Mr. Obama by the inclusion of his middle name, Hussein. We hear—from McCain campaign representatives—that Mr. McCain has no control over these references, which are made by independent politicians from the localities where the rallies are held. But they would stop the moment that Mr. McCain came up to the microphone immediately afterwards and publicly directed people to stop, saying that he wanted no connection with such bigotry.

If you wonder how it could be done differently, with the candidate coming out on top, consider how the Obama campaign has handled a similar situation. The Democratic Party being permeated with veterans of the anti-war movement—both from the Vietnam era and the present—and we have all heard the disparagements of Mr. McCain’s fighter pilot and prisoner of war experiences once it was clear Mr. McCain would be the Republican Party nominee. In 2004, the re-election campaign of George W. Bush unleashed the Swift Boaters, attacking the military service of Democratic nominee John Kerry. But in 2008, Mr. Obama would have none of that. Pointedly, redundantly, sometimes to the point of boringly, at every mention of Mr. McCain in his early speeches, Mr. Obama began by referring respectfully to Mr. McCain’s military record. Even in February, for example, still in the midst of the Democratic primary, Mr. Obama was telling Wisconsin voters that “John McCain is a great American hero, a war hero. We honor his service.” He’s caught some flack for it. In a September post on Daily Kos, during that brief period following the initial Sarah Palin excitement when Mr. Obama dropped behind in the national polls, blogger Iguana Boy asked “Why Should We Respect McCain When He Doesn’t Respect Us?” and suggested that attacks on Mr. McCain’s military record should not be considered off-limits. But Mr. Obama held firm, his poll numbers rebounded, and Mr. McCain has allowed his campaign to sink deeper into the morass.

How deep a morass is exemplified by an offering this week by conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. In a Tuesday broadcast, Mr. Limbaugh managed to smear Mr. Obama, ACORN organization, Mr. Ayers, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and an entire generation of African-Americans and their parents. We quote from the Crooks And Liars transcript, at length:

“We thought that it was just liberal welfare policies and all that that kept blacks from progressing while other minorities grew and prospered,” Mr. Limbaugh said, “but no, it is these wackos from Bill Ayers to Jeremiah Wright to other anti-American Afrocentric black liberation theologists with ACORN, and Barack Obama is smack dab in the middle of it, they have been training young black kids to hate, hate, hate this country, and they trained their parents before that to hate, hate, hate this country. It was a movement. It was a Bill Ayers, anti-capitalist, anti-American educational movement. ACORN is how it was implemented, right under our noses. They're doing far more, folks, than just cheating when it comes to elections and registration. They are in deep in this mortgage crisis. ACORN and Obama and Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, the Democrat Party, have their fingerprints all over the subprime mortgage crisis. The whole concept of affordable housing was people that can't afford a mortgage are going to get one, because America is unfair. It has been a movement, it has been a religion, and Obama and Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers were all up to their big ears in it.”

This is a preying on deep an angry American prejudices, a stirring of a volatile and dangerous and violent pot. We have seen such dogs unleashed in this country before, in our lifetime, and though they have been chained for a time, they have never been tamed, and certainly never eliminated. There are thousands upon thousands—perhaps millions—of Americans for whom this such beliefs are a religion, their daily bread. In the tenor and tone and direction of his campaign, Mr. McCain has led us to the brink of this abyss. Worried, perhaps, that he may be held responsible for the consequences of his rhetoric and the unleashing of such prejudices and passions, he has temporarily “dialed back” his rhetoric, and begun insisting that Mr. Obama is a decent man, not to be feared. Only history will reveal if this was enough to stop the flow over the edge, or if it continues, unchecked, to the sorrow of us all.

A woman at a McCain rally says she cannot trust Mr. Obama because he is “an Arab.” And Mr. McCain misses a moment to lead his followers—and the nation—back out of the wilderness.

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