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?

Panama? Who knew? Good work, my friend.
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