Saturday, October 18, 2008

Target: Obama - A Guest Post by James Taylor

University of San Francisco political scientist James Taylor has been one of the most active commentators on the issue of race in this presidential election. Though the piece below gets at semiotics through the back door, it does address the optics of the election, the actions and reactions of people who respond to the idea (and the image) of a black president.

"Kill him!" "Terrorist!" "Traitor!" "Sit down, boy!" "He is not one of us!" "He's an Arab," "Socialist," and "Bomb Obama!" are just a few of the audible rants of Americans, heard at McCain-Palin gatherings in recent weeks.

Wow, how we long for the good ol' days of feeling bombarded when William Horton (he was given the name "Willie" by Atwater, not his mother) was introduced to the Republicans by Al Gore in 1988 -- providing Lee Atwater and Bush 41 the race-baiting, fear-mongering fodder that resulted in the defeat of Dukakis after having the lead entering the final weeks of the 1988 campaign.

This is not to suggest the Obama campaign has been innocent of smear tactics, such as linking McCain to the anti-immigrant demagoguery of Rush Limbaugh on Spanish-speaking TV. But this did not amount to all-Mexican and all-Black crowds calling for McCain's Mississippi Irish blood.

The Right's rage against Obama has bordered on fanatical, and the dye may have been cast, regrettably, by Hillary Clinton's defeated campaign, which provided the blueprint that the McCain-Palin ticket is currently following. This tenor was stirred earlier this week by the Republicans' answer to Hillary Clinton -- Sarah Palin. McCain should take note; it did not work effectively for Sen. Clinton.

This animus we are witnessing may be owned by the Republicans, but it was brought and brought first by the Democrats during the primary campaign. Pundits called it the "kitchen sink" strategy. Indeed once Sen. Clinton's campaign was on the verge of defeat in late May -- just weeks before the 40th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination -- she reminded an editorial board in South Dakota, "My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992, until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know I just, I don't understand it," she said, dismissing the idea of abandoning the race at that time.

It was the fourth time which Clinton alluded to RFK's late June assassination as precedence for not suspending or ending her campaign (on March 6th she used the word "assassination" in a TIME magazine interview; on May 7th in Washington, D.C. and later in West Virginia she redacted the word, but mentioned the tragedy). After reasserting the word in late May amid much criticism, Sen. Clinton apologized.

In a January 8th interview with BET's Jeff Johnson (What's In It For Us? special), Barack Obama himself, conceded, that early reticence among older African Americans -- who witnessed the murders of JFK, MLK, and RFK -- centered on concern for his safety. It has been widely reported, but only whispered, that Barack Obama received Secret Service protection beginning in May 2007, earlier than any presidential candidate in recorded history of the Service; "I've got the best protection in the world," Obama said in a previous interview, "So stop worrying."

But Obama made the request for protection himself. On the eve of Obama's Democratic nomination acceptance speech on August 28, three "lone wolf" white supremacist meth addicts, Tharin R. Gartrell, 28; Shawn R. Adolf, 33; and Nathan D. Johnson, 32, were arrested for plotting to kill Obama. Initially, officials said there was no credible threat -- despite their possession of two rifles, one with a scope, in the car, along with walkie-talkies, a bulletproof vest and licenses in the names of other people -- but they now consider it a serious plot.

During this campaign, the world witnessed the tragic assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who like Obama, was a left-of-center political leader and equally an historic figure as the first woman to be elected head of an Islamic state.

In 1963, Texas oil tycoon Haroldson Lafayette (H.L.) Hunt publicly stated that JFK should be shot since "there was no way to get those traitors out of government except by shooting them out." His son, Nelson Bunker Hunt and others, took out a full-page advertisement in the Dallas Morning News on November 22nd accusing JFK of being a Communist sympathizer and a traitor to the nation -- precisely the charges against Obama for his ties to Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright.

JFK, like Obama, was a "first" in being a serious Irish Catholic candidate (Al E. Smith lost in 1920) and his faith, like Obama's racial mix, was a perennial issue in the 1960 campaign. The Hunts also ran a propaganda machine called the International Committee for the Defense of Christian Culture and like the venomous Fox News demagogues, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, they used their radio programs Facts Forum and Life Line to spew hatred of the president before he was killed.

Martin Luther King, of course, lived with death threats every day of his public life until it was taken April 4, 1968. Like Malcolm X, it is depressingly true that in such an eerie atmosphere as the present, Barack Obama is safer abroad than he will be, should he win, in America, even as President of the United States.

Some might remember comedian Eddy Murphy's 1980s Delirious stand-up routine where he joked about whites voting for Jesse Jackson -- after a night of drinking and pranks -- only to discover the next morning, that Jackson had been elected; during his fictitious inaugural address, Jackson ran back and forth from left to right of the stage as the imagined assassins, in southern drawl, looked through a rifle scope saying, "He won't stand still, he won't stand still."

That was funny; the tenor of this political moment is not.

Politics has always been a "blood sport," and campaigns often bring out the lowest common denominator in people; the "us" against "them" trope. But there is something of a spiritual sickness in a nation where our political process has been reduced to calls of "Kill him," and something only slightly less troubling about Hillary Clinton saying, "Let's wait and see what happens."

Add the ingredient of the worst global economy since the Great Depression or the crash of 1877, and it makes for a combustible atmosphere. And in the end, if this is the course that our politics take -- again, then what voice, prey tell, do you think many people might invoke? Does the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ring a bell?

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