Saturday, October 11, 2008

This is Your Campaign on Prejudice

Over the past several days Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin have served a steady dose of bigotry, fear-mongering, and character assassination by their suggestions that Senator Barack Obama "pals" with terrorists and holds views that are somehow alien to American notions of democracy. Their campaign stood tacitly by when speakers lampooned Obama because of his middle name (Hussein) which he was given to honor his Kenyan father. Their campaign took no effort to silence or correct people who falsely described his religious beliefs (calling him Muslim when Obama is Christian). When people shouted "kill him" or "off with his head" about Obama during McCain-Palin campaign rallies, neither McCain nor Palin acted displeased.

McCain was visibly condescending toward Obama during their first debate in Oxford, Mississippi on September 26 to the point that he refused to even look at him. During their second debate in Nashville, Tennessee, McCain referred to Obama as "that one," as if Obama was unworthy of being identified as "Senator Obama" or "my opponent." As I witnessed McCain's demeanor during those debates, I recalled the behavior of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice James C. McReynolds, who Woodrow Wilson first named as his Attorney General and later appointed to the Supreme Court after having endured too much of McReynolds' bad temper and poor judgment.

Like McCain, whose intemperance toward his colleagues in the U.S. Senate is well-known, McReynolds was rude toward his colleagues on the Supreme Court and intemperate toward the attorneys who appeared before the Court. McReynolds was openly anti-Semitic and often snubbed Justices Brandeis and Cardozo because of their Jewish faith. And, McReynolds was racist. He once referred to Howard University in Washington, D.C. as a "nigger university." During the oral argument of a landmark desegregation case by Charles Hamilton Houston, a black lawyer who represented the NAACP and who was a former member of the Harvard Law Review, McReynolds turned his chair around so that his back was toward Houston, and stared at the back wall of the courtroom for Houston's entire argument. I recalled McReynolds' conduct when McCain refused to look at Obama during the first debate and when McCain referred to Obama as "that one" during the second debate.

Senator McCain and Governor Palin began playing the fear and prejudice cards with relish from the time their campaign began losing traction as the economic crisis gained strength. Instead of talking about the economic challenges facing Americans, McCain-Palin strategists talked of being eager to turn the page away from those challenges so they could encourage voters to question Obama's patriotism. So they played up fears and prejudices, sowed distrust and bigotry, and hoped their tactics would undermine Obama's influence with undecided voters. The fear-mongering campaign tactics emboldened fearful people to say and act out their worst impulses. As of now, McCain's campaign is better known for its divisiveness, hatefulness, and bigotry against persons of color, immigrants, non-Christians, persons who disagree with McCain and Palin about reproductive choice, and homosexuals, than it is known for a vision of a "United" States that faces current and future challenges with hopeful unity.

McCain and Palin spent much of the past two weeks playing up fears and prejudices at a time when Americans most need to be called to recognize our common predicament. Having sown the seeds of distrust, fear, and bigotry, they should not be surprised by the crop of hate that their campaign has become. Voters have good reason to ponder whether two people who resort to such divisive campaign tactics are likely to be leaders of goodwill, inclusion, and peace. Instead, McCain leads a presidential campaign that would have made Senator Joseph McCarthy proud. He may not like the pet he fed now, especially now that it has begun baring its fangs at him when he tries to make it behave.

It is hard to understand how images of bigotry and prejudice will encourage undecided voters to favor McCain over Obama. Beyond that, one wonders how a McCain presidency would fare in a multi-cultural world. Perhaps the tactics of the past days suggest that McCain and Palin don't care that the next president must work with people from diverse backgrounds and views.

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