Friday, October 31, 2008

Myth and the Election, The Candidates Compared

Every election year undoubtedly brings out the worst in some people. Tempers flare as politicos of all stripes gear up for battle with an arsenal of half-truths, gotcha attacks, and accusations of the evils to come if one’s opponent is elected. In this age of blogging, Youtube, and rapid information exchange, these rumors, myths, and flat-out lies can whip around the country in record time, being emailed from family member to family member, to friend, to colleague.

Unfortunately, one expects questionable politics during a campaign. But to what degree? How far do the attacks and character assassinations and crackpot theories go? Can we say anything about the electorate based on the myths they read and pass on to their friends and family? If the amount of web traffic and written content on the web is any indicator of what voters are talking about this election year, the level of attacks lobbed at Senator Barack Obama is astoundingly larger than those aimed at John McCain. Not only are there more attacks in volume, but the attacks are more vitriolic and damning. With some simple Google searches, we get a good picture of what kind of myths are being spread about the two candidates.

Despite the relative novelty of a candidate for US president being called a Muslim and a terrorist, Obama is not alone in his seeming attractiveness as the target for conspiracy theories and myths. As could be expected in an environment where the freedom of speech is gleefully upheld to dizzying degrees on the Internet, a few myths float around blogs and information sites about John McCain. The most prominent myth involves John McCain as the ‘Manchurian Candidate.’ According to this myth, like the popular book and movie from the 1960s, John McCain was brainwashed during his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The Communist interrogators were able to crack McCain and install in him the psychological triggers the Communists need to take down the United States government from the inside out.

We have two comparable myths of presidential candidates with secret agendas. In one, the candidate is a Muslim terrorist sleeper cell. In the other, the candidate is a hidden weapon for the enemy. But these myths differ in volume and widespread acceptance.

If we look at Google search terms as an indicator of the volume of discussion and debate on these topics, we see a clear difference between the two. A Google search for the phrase “‘John McCain’ ‘Manchurian Candidate’” yields 144,000 search results. A Google search for the phrase “’Barack Obama’ Muslim” yields more than 10 million search results. If the contrast in volume of discussion on these topics isn’t enough, the content of the top forty search results for each myth is even more telling.

In the case of Barack Obama, the formula is pretty clear and predictable. Barack Obama’s detractors, for racial or political reasons (exploiting racist sentiments), accuse Obama of being a secret Muslim (as if that were a crime). They say he will be sworn in on the Koran, take direction from Saudi Arabia, and bring down the United States from the inside out. The top forty Google search results are a mixture of webpages spreading this myth or webpages denying it while giving the facts—Barack Obama is not a Muslim terrorist sleeper cell.

Those that propagate this myth of the Manchurian Candidate do so from a different perspective. The majority of top forty Google search results for “’John McCain’ ‘Manchurian Candidate’” were from anti-globalism blogs and information sites that fear John McCain will bring on a one-world government. Furthermore, they appear to be motivated by discontent with John McCain’s position in the POW-MIA community, saying he was a weak prisoner of war and stands against their interests on POW-MIA issues in Congress. While equally ridiculous, this myth is not being propagated by McCain’s political opposition (political leftists and liberals), but instead by those even further to the right of the Senator.

The role of myth in the Presidential election gets even more interesting if we consider the issue of birth certificates. But here, instead of a situation where both myths may have been grounded in some very small element of truth--Barack Obama’s father was born a Muslim, John McCain was a prisoner of war like the characters depicted in The Manchurian Candidate—the issue of birth certificates is incomparable. Barack Obama was born in the United States and John McCain was born in Panama.

Briefly, the myths follow a similar pattern to the previously-stated accusations. Obama needs to release his ‘real’ birth certificate so America can see that either he is not a US citizen, or that he has a different mother and father. Again, this is fueled by the assumption that Obama could very well have faked his way into natural born US citizen status to further his political goals. Again, the top webpage results authors are conservatives that seek to discredit Obama or Obama’s political defenders. The Google search for “’Barack Obama’ ‘birth certificate’” yields 343,000 results. Again, these webpages are continuing to be authored to this day, despite the Obama Campaign having released Obama’s birth records.

In the case of John McCain, we see something different. The Google search for “’John McCain’ ‘birth certificate’” yields 111,000 results. These webpages almost entirely date back to the Republican primaries in January and February of 2008. The fact is John McCain was born in Panama while his father was serving in the United States Navy. Congress passed a non-binding resolution to validate John McCain as a natural-born citizen of the United States hoping to avoid a legal challenge to his candidacy. In the end, all debate over John McCain’s birth certificate centered around a legitimate question about his status as a natural-born citizen of the United States—an issue that was resolved and dropped almost a year ago.

So while this election has made a lot of tempers flare, we have to think about the magnitude of the accusations being thrown at the two candidates. While one might think that both candidates would see equally ridiculous myths and conspiracies being spread to their detriment, it has been Barack Obama’s campaign that has had to endure the most, and the most damning. The question is whether the vilification will stop on November 5th, or continue right on through an Obama Administration’s first four years. And if so, to what effect?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Barack Obama as Straw Man, Part Two: 'We Still Don't Know the Real Barack Obama'

If the suspicion surrounding the early days of Barack Obama's candidacy weren't bad enough, the fact that the 'stranger' card is still being played is puzzling, if not suspect. Some of the nastiest rumors about Barack Obama started in the earliest days of his campaign, at a time when most people truly did not know about his family life, his home life, or his political life. Rumors can fester quite easily when a candidate is fresh on the scene. But the fact that these rumors are still being stoked by the insinuations of very prominent conservative writers and politicians gives one pause.

After nearly two years of vetting and investigative reporting, columnists like Charles Krathammer still make the following statements in his August 29 piece, Self-Made Man or Mysterioius Stranger?:
“The oddity of [the Democratic National Convention] is that its central figure is the ultimate self-made man, a dazzling mysterious Gatsby. The palpable apprehension is that the anointed is a stranger -- a deeply engaging, elegant, brilliant stranger with whom the Democrats had a torrid affair. Having slowly woken up, they see the ring and wonder who exactly they married last night."
Barack Obama is a cunning outsider with unclear motivations, as the Gatsby metaphor goes.

Thomas Sowell has simialrly, and more recently made similar arguments about Obama's character and readiness to lead while making this statement about what we know of the man. Starting the piece by calling Obama a 'phony' and 'dangerous,' he states:
“Of the four people running for President and Vice President on the Republican and Democratic tickets, the one we know the least about is the one leading in the polls-- Barack Obama.”
Sowell goes on to make historical comparisons of people putting faith in inspiring leaders sush as Jim Jones, Hitler, and Communist Russia. Again despite alomst two years on the campaign trail, in the public spotlight, Barack Obama is being called a mysterious man with questionable motives.

Just one week ago, Victor Davis Hanson continued to push the meme, calling Barack Obama an 'enigma' and 'the most unknown presidential candidate in its history."

Of course, calling a candidate unknown is not negative, per se. But these allegations fly in the face of two years of hard campaigning in which Barack Obama has opened up his life, political and personal, to public scrutiny. All of his policy positions are publicly available and backed up with experience where applicable. He has even established a website to fight smears about his person, releasing his birth certificate and giving more intimate details of his life to stop operations at the rumor mill. All the information these columnists need is out there.

The problem arises when an environment exists like today's. When so many myths about Barack Obama float across the worldwide web and and are passed in conversation from neighbor to neighbor, a prominent columnist can easily stoke the flames by making such adamant claims about what we know and do not know about a man. These articles have been relatively inspecific in detailing where they would like more information from the Obama campaign. Instead they make blanket statements where many readers are able to fill in the blanks.

So maybe John McCain isn't wrong to ask, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" But when the answer is screamed to his face--"Terrorist!"-- we know where some people's minds are. And we know why continuing to claim that Obama is an unknown, a stranger, an outsider, is dangerous.

This leads me to my next topic of the prospects for the next four years and how an Obama presidency will be received. Stay tuned.

More From Keystone Progress

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Barack Obama as Straw Man, Part One

Over the next week, before the election, I will be writing about the phenomena of Barack Obama as “Straw Man”. People across the country witnessed the inexcusable behavior of many McCain/Palin supporters at rallies throughout October. I was appalled to see the level of demonization and “otherizing” of Barack Obama, as he was called a “terrorist,” a “Muslim,” an “Arab,” a “socialist,” and a turncoat. Gov. Palin herself accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists” and McCain constantly asked about the “real Barack Obama.”

I say Obama is being demonized and otherized in all seriousness. The accusations being made about Obama are deeply personal and dehumanizing. Research I’ve performed and read concludes that “otherizing”—or making an opponent a member of an outgroup—is necessary to rationally vilify an opponent. Dehumanizing an opponent takes away any predisposition to expect reason and logic from an opponent. When an opponent is dehumanized, compromise and empathy are impossible, as the opponent is not capable of meeting this gesture in kind.

But this otherizing is predicated, to an alarming extent, on exaggerated relationships and policy positions, blatant lies, and elaborate baseless conspiracy theories. The Barack Obama the right otherizes is a Straw Man. It is a fabrication that has been blown up to extreme proportions by an extremely large percentage of the right.

From the beginning, it appeared to be Obama’s ‘outsider’ status as a young, new Senator that fueled a lot of the initial myths. People did not know Barack Obama. They did not know where he had been in his life, who he had known, who he had worked with, or who gave him advise. Of course, the continuation of this myth about Obama being unknown, mysterious, and a ‘stranger’ is my motivation for writing today. The fact that these myths have been continuously spread about Obama this close to the election can only be seen as a deliberate campaign to discredit the man.

Below is the original email my father sent me way back in the Spring of 2007, when conspiracy theorists could easily breed on a population of voters that simply did not know who Barack Obama was For the record, my father does not actually believe the accusations that follow:

Who is Barack Obama?

Probable U. S. presidential candidate, Barack Hussein Obama was born in

Honolulu, Hawaii, to Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., a black Muslim from

Nyangoma-Kogel, Kenya and Ann Dunham, a white atheist from Wichita,Kansas.

Obama's parents met at the University of Hawaii.

When Obama was two years old, his parents divorced. His father returned to Kenya.

His mother then married Lolo Soetoro, a radical Muslim from Indonesia.

When Obama was 6 years old, the family relocated to Indonesia.

Obama attended a Muslim school in Jakarta.

He also spent two years in a Catholic school.

Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim.

He Is quick to point out that, "He was once a Muslim, but that he also attended Catholic school."

Obama's political handlers are attempting to make it appear that Obama's introduction to Islam came via his father, and that this influence was temporary at best.

In reality, the senior Obama returned to Kenya Soon after the divorce, and never again had any direct influence over His son's education.

Lolo Soetoro, the second husband of Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, introduced his stepson to Islam.

Obama was enrolled in a Wahabi school in Jakarta. Wahabism is the radical teaching that is followed by the Muslim terrorists who are now waging Jihad against the western world. Since it is politically expedient to be a Christian when seeking Major public office in the United States, Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.

Let us all remain alert concerning Obama's expected presidential candidacy.

Please forward to everyone you know. The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level.

In my next post, I'm going to expand on how these myths have been promoted and used in conservative discourse on Barack Obama and ask why it continues today. After two years of vetting as a presidential candidate, some prominent conservatives are still using racist insinuations to attack Barack Obama--but the Barack Obama they attack is nothing but a Straw Man as these politicos gear up for four years of entrenched disagreement with the Democratic president.

Later, I’m going to explore a simple case of most-comaparable cases. Given John McCain’s status as a foreign born (albeit to a US military family) citizen and prisoner of war in Vietnam, why haven’t accusations about John McCain’s past been circulating around the internet blogs and newsrooms across the country? I’ll take a look at the volume of equally ridiculous myths about the lives of Barack Obama and John McCain and ask why we see such a difference.

I fly to Akron tomorrow and will begin adding video and written accounts from then on.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Traveling to Ohio

This woman is part of the reason...

I'm heading back to Ohio next Wednesday to do some campaigning for Obama.

Also, I'll be writing some pieces and recording interviews with people about their experiences with blatant racism, false accusations about Obama's family life, and the prospects for the next four years. I'll be writing more of my initial thoughts over the next couple of days.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Learning from the Past, Changing Approach

I'm going to start keeping this blog again, but with a few new ground rules. When I was blogging before I found myself pressured to update it constantly, as if I was some center of news and information. This is ridiculous because I get most of my news from mainstream sources that anyone can access on Google News. I'm not doing myself or anybody else a service by regurgitating news that's very public. Where I can contribute is on new insights, ground-level reporting and analysis, and snark. So I'm going to be concentrating on these three things more and more.

I've always enjoyed writing longer op-ed style pieces and will continue to do so. Since I was an undergrad, writing for Ohio State University's student newspaper, The Lantern, I enjoyed editorializing and giving (hopefully) new perspectives. Now after a little training at GlobalVision and MediaChannel, and a new spirit of urgency and entrepreneurship I'm going to push this blog in a new direction. I'm mainly going to use it as a homebase for editorializing and reporting on issues such as race, media accountability, media and society, perceptions and politics, and a whole range of things Brian Williams will never be mentioning on the nightly news.

So don't expect constant news updates. But do expect posts with shameless self-promoting links to stories I've had posted elsewhere on the web.

Also, expect some video at some point...

So for now, let me get some comments on this blog, in terms of style--even the name, so I can get this thing going!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Sarah Palin: George W. Bush 2.0

When Facebook dramatically changed its format last month, users were in an uproar. They either couldn’t or didn’t want to navigate the new format. How could they not be allowed to opt-out? Why couldn’t things just stay the same? Alas, the great wheel of progress rolls forward.

On November 4, voters will be faced with a similar dilemma. The current administration has expired. A new format will take place on January 20, 2009. But what hasn’t been articulated, at least thus far, is exactly what kind of an upgrade we’ll be getting. Senator Obama promises a totally new platform, a complete reboot. A Palin Vice Presidency offers something less dramatic, albeit no less violent: George Bush 2.0. By “2.0” of course I’m using internet-speak to say the second version. But, as in Web 2.0, the second version doesn’t just mean new, it means improved, updated, and expanded upon.

In this case we have George Bush, an underexperienced president that has failed us from day one while giving a wink to the American people and a cold shoulder to the world. George Bush 2.0 is fresh (With a new gender!), harder hitting and more galling (Now even more disrespect and arrogance!), more provincial (From deeper in the wilderness! With even less familial connection to the East Coast establishment!), and even more fundamentalist in Christian belief (Dinosaurs now only 6,000 years old!). Sarah Palin, my friends, is the George Bush that George Bush could only dream of being.

Barack Obama has been hammering John McCain as the new standard bearer of George Bush’s failed policies. Understandably, it is not in Senator Obama’s strategic interest to address the vice presidential candidate and acknowledge her as an equal. But, as her rally attendance numbers have shown, she is an energizing force in parts of the country where Senator McCain is simply seen as the least worst option. In the popular Governor Palin we have a politician that would not only carry out Bush’s policies with even more conviction, but would exceed all measures of ignorance and arrogance, something John McCain just hasn’t quite mastered.

The key to understanding George Bush 2.0 is to understand the failures of George Bush 1.0 (much to the chagrin of George Bush 2.0) and then adding flat out lies. George W. Bush had to learn foreign policy on the fly, while Al Gore sighed and tsk-tsked in the background. George Bush 2.0 takes it to the extreme by unabashedly defending the value of being able to see a foreign country from her home state. When asked to defend the claim that her position as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard, McCain aides and Palin cannot site one specific example of a decision Gov. Palin has had to make. Most importantly, after defending her position as a government reformer over and over based on her stance against the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, it was revealed that she in fact fully supported the bridge until the funding had been retracted by the US Congress. Not only does she not have the experience, like Bush 1.0, but she will blatantly lie and stretch the truth on tangential examples of her preparedness to lead.

She’s not lying about her smalltown life in Alaska, as her lack of international travel can attest to. This is completely acceptable and not to be mocked. But she may be cynically playing up her down home, folksy language for political gains. Compare her gubernatorial debates in Alaska in 2006 to her Vice Presidential debate with Joe Biden last week. In her gubernatorial debates she is professional, stern, and while not always on topic, eloquent. She presents a serious face, ready to take on serious challenges. In her Vice Presidential debate, she uses the word ‘darn’ three times in the first ten minutes. She winked more often than she gave a straight answer to a question. It’s as if she and the American people were a part of one big inside joke that Senator Biden and Gwen Ifill just didn’t get. One might reasonably expect that if Gov. Palin can be so professional in her role as gubernatorial candidate, she might equally rise to the occasion for an unarguably more important job interview as Vice Presidential candidate.

The new George Bush 2.0 has a disdain for history and level of disrespect for facts that was unimaginable under the beta version. On multiple occasions she has disparaged Senators Obama and Biden for pointing fingers at the Bush administration while they campaign on forward-looking platform of change. While certainly resisting exploding into laughter during the Vice Presidential debate, Senator Biden simply said, “Look, ‘Past is Prologue,’ Gwen.” Obviously studying history is too elitist for Bush 2.0. But since Bush 2.0 is such a populist, surely she saw The Dark Knight this summer, along with millions of other Americans. At a crucial moment in the psychological adventure that is Bruce Wayne, a young Wayne is schooled by his father, “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

The fact is, for every time Bush 1.0 has proven his incompetence in the past, Bush 2.0 will be there in the future to not only carry it out, but also defend it. For every ounce of make-believe cowboy in George 1.0, there’s a real-life moose hunter in Bush 2.0. For every media blockade in the Bush 1.0 Administration, there will be a snarky, condescending attack on the media from Bush 2.0. Palin has proven herself to be more genuinely incompetent, less well-read, more condescending and cynical, and less prepared to lead than the administration that preceded her.

So when McCain and Palin’s “Brownie” starts doing a “heckuva job”, at least we won’t be surprised. We’ll have to take it as a genuine statement. We’ll also know exactly what we got ourselves into.

UPDATE: David Brooks gets it perfectly


Thanks to MorrillMajority for this footage. Wow. This is really unbelievable stuff.

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