October 13, 2008

McCain Campaign Forced To Confront Politics of Hate

John McCainImage via WikipediaWe are certainly living in strange times. The U.S. has become so bitterly divided that a candidate for president, Sen. John McCain, recently had to contradict his own campaign message in order to calm down enraged supporters eager to demonize his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama. McCain's tactics (e.g., raising questions about Obama's religious affiliation, association with "domestic terrorists," etc.) cannot be mistaken as anything other than the politics of hate. He sought to raise doubts about the degree to which Obama was sufficiently Christian, sufficiently American, and even sufficiently white for the presidency. In doing so, McCain's campaign managed to awaken the worst tendencies lurking in the hearts of his supporters. Now they are left trying to pick up the pieces as the rest of the country struggles to understand how political disagreements have morphed into accusations of terrorism and calls for assassination.

Evidence has been mounting over the past year that strategically deployed hate speech affects certain audience members in disturbing ways. Jim Adkisson shooting up a Tennessee church, leaving behind a 4-page rant against liberals and a collection of right-wing hate literature authored by the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, was a particularly disturbing example. More recently, McCain-Palin rallies have been characterized as increasingly angry, and supporters have been videotaped making hateful comments and even calling for violence. Both McCain and Palin have ignored such statements from their audience members, implicitly condoning the hate they have been fueling (see more examples of the sort of comments McCain has been making here). Whether the focus is on immigration or Obama's ethnicity, racism has been proudly on display during this presidential campaign.

The first thing we need to understand is that just because Fox "News" or a right-wing radio station might broadcast something does not mean it is not hate speech. Organizations charged with tracking hate groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, certainly consider right-wing extremism a form of hate speech.

Next, we need to acknowledge that this sort of hate speech can affect audience members. During one of McCain's recent town hall-style rallies in Minnesota, an audience member said that she did not trust Obama because he was an Arab. Where does one suppose she got that idea? When bigoted falsehoods are repeated often enough, some people will accept them as true. We should not be surprised when this happens.

Third, we must recognize that hate media will endure as long as it remains profitable. Fox "News" and Rush Limbaugh make money from advertisers. That is, corporations are willing to spend money to promote hate. Those who believe that the news should deal with facts rather than bigotry have a responsibility to make this less profitable. Those who worry about the impact of a Sean Hannity on our neighbors are justified in their concerns. The question is how best to restrict his influence.

The note I'd like to end on is a call for all Americans to reexamine our priorities. I disagree with John McCain on the issues, and I worry about his erratic behavior. However, I do not believe that he is an evil man or that he could not be an effective leader. There are far more important issues than the identity of the next U.S. president. I'd like to think that I can disagree with someone without needing to make them into some sort of monster.

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