I don’t know about you, but I find recent turn of events at McCain-Palin rallies to be rather disturbing, if not downright frightening. There seems to be a rising level of anger and resentment against Obama’s ascent in the polls among a core group of white Americans, and this is leading to increasingly violent rhetoric. In the past few days, we have heard cries of “terrorist”, “communist”, “socialist”, “kill him”, “traitor”, “treason”, “off with his head”, “bomb Obama”. Of course, this dangerous cauldron of hatred is being stirred by McCain and Palin themselves, with their emphasis on Obama’s connection to an assortment of dubious characters, and cries that he is “palling around with terrorists”, plus their failure to condemn this the violent rhetoric.
If this sounds all vaguely familiar, it should be. The rhetoric is strikingly similar to the right-wing response to Martin Luther King Jnr, when he too was denounced for being a communist, an alien, a danger to the country. King was constantly in danger from the mob violence unleashed by this hatred, and it ultimately killed him. Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic Monthly draws the connection, noting that “when the McCain campaign cast the spell of diabolical jingoism, they have no idea of the forces they are toying with” and the hatred against King arose “not simply by rank white supremacy, but by people who slandered King as a communist”. One of the main instigators of this communist conspiracy theory: Jerry Falwell. Today, the communist charge has been joined with some more contemporary demons: Muslims, foreigners, “terrorists”…but the intent is the same.
Many of us had assumed, or desperately wanted to assume, that race would not be a factor in this election. And indeed, overt displays of racism or racist language are now considered beyond the pale, and politicians who indulge in them do so at their peril (remember George Allen?). But latent racism is very real, and voters can be surprisingly candid about it, as George Packer notes in his excellent indepth study of white working class voters in Ohio. I think it is probably too optimistic to assume that the great sin of American history would be erased so quickly. Segregation is still within living memory, and the white segregationists simply merged into the Republican party following Nixon’s southern strategy. Some repented and changed, but some clearly did not. A few years ago, Senate majority leader Trent Lott was caught musing wistfully on what might have been had segregationist Strom Thurmond been more successful. Even today, ex-governor Frank Keating calls Obama “a guy of the street”. And of course, the angry mob violence also owes a debt to the crude and bombastic Limbaughesque talk radio rhetoric that has become so dominant in political and cultural discourse.Sadly, white racism will be an issue in this election. If Obama wins, it will be in spite of it. What does this mean for us as Catholics? Well, we all know that racism is intrinsically evil. If a person refuses to vote for a candidate because of his race, then that person is cooperating formally with evil, irrespective of that candidate’s support for activities such as abortion. As always, intent matters. I’ll leave you with a conjecture and a question: I think that far more white people will refuse to vote for Obama based on his race than on his support for abortion. Is this something the Church needs to address?
Update: When writing this, I assumed that it was quite obvious that the excessive demonization of people like Ayers and Wright had a certain racial twist, and mirrored the kinds of allegations made against Martin Luther King in his day. The reason I think it is obvious is that for every one of Obama’s dubious “pals”, McCain can match him, even out-do him. Remember, McCain has been associated with a convicted felon who planned on blowing up buildings in Washington DC and — far from showing remorse– gave “advice” on how best to murder federal agents. This man (G Gordon Liddy) held a fundraiser for McCain in his house and called him an “old friend”. McCain also used the money of a convicted felon to purchase his house(s). He also served on the board of a group that included a eugenics researcher studying “white superiority”, and hired the publisher of a confederate nostalgia magazine that called Nelson Mandela a terrorist. And then there are his dubious pastor endorsers, including those who call the Catholic church a “great whore” and a “false belief system”, blame America for 9/11, call the destruction of New Orleans the judgment of God, and preach a divinely-mandated war between the US and Islam? And we haven’t even gotten to Charles Keating.
Let me state this clearly: McCain is not responsible for the views and actions of any of these people. He may be guilty of poor judgment, but even that is second order. We need to move beyond the “guilt by association” nonsense. And yet, the rapid extremists on Fox News seem to want to dig up every unsavoury character associated with Obama, and yet seem blind to McCain’s equally suspicious dealings. Why is that? And why is it that these one-sided attacks play well with a certain (minority) element of white voters? And why is it that they provoke a violent reaction?