Monday, May 19, 2008

Superstitious about Language

Paul Reynolds, world affairs correspondent for the BBC, has written a useful think piece for the BBC News Web site on the role of foreign policy in the coming Presidential election, contrasting the current position statements being delivered by John McCain and Barack Obama. He structured the piece in terms of McCain speeches directed to attack Obama and Obama responses that, in turn, attack McCain. Unfortunately, one of the Obama quotes invoked a haunting memory from my high school history days:

The American people are going to look at the evidence. We don't get a sense that this has been a wise foreign policy or a smart foreign policy or a tough foreign policy.

The memory was of a Democratic candidate who lost a Presidential election. The candidate was Al Smith; and he gave a famous (at least still in my high school days) speech attacking the policy of Prohibition. He is best known for the first sentence of that speech (to the extent that more people remember the sentence than remember that the speech was about Prohibition):

Let's look at the record.

He then confronted the American people with evidence (choosing my words from Obama's text) to demonstrate that a Constitutional Amendment that had been motivated by what may be called a "War Against Sin" had actually led to a significant increase in violent crime, much of which was directly related to the trafficking of goods that had been declared constitutionally illegal.

My point is that, compelling as Smith's speech was, the American people didn't look at the evidence. They were more preoccupied with fear. Prohibition was escalated to Constitutional authority through the zealous efforts of Protestant evangelists, who knew precisely how to cultivate fears, not only of sin and hell-fire but also of those who did not embrace their particular breed of Christianity. Smith was victimized by those fears not only by opposing Prohibition but by being Catholic. (In 1884, long before Prohibition became a Constitutional Amendment, the Republicans had already classified the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.")

One lesson from Reynolds' analysis is that things have not changed very much. The Republicans still know how to cultivate fear of rebellion and have reaped considerable political gain from transforming their predecessors' "War Against Sin" into a "War Against Terror." Romanism, on the other hand, has been replaced by Islam, particularly as embodied by the new linguistic barbarism of our culture, "Islamofacism." (Invoking The New Oxford American Dictionary, Wikipedia uses a less extreme characterization than I do, calling the word a "controversial neologism!") Thus, Reynolds offers a simple example of McCain's skill at fear-mongering:

The McCain campaign circulated this comment: "We need change in America, but not the kind of change that wins kind words from Hamas, surrenders in Iraq and will hold unconditional talks with Iranian President Ahmadinejad."

In one sentence, John McCain linked three American foreign policy fears - Hamas, Iraq and Iran - and tried to isolate Mr Obama as unreliable on all three.

However, if good slogans come in threes, then the Republicans have been very careful about manipulating the third element. I would suggest that the issue of rum has now evolved into the issue of race. This is particularly evident in a post written last week by Doug Feaver for his dot.comments blog for The Washington Post. The post is a reflection on a report that had recently appeared on the front page of the Post's print edition, summarized by Feaver in his first paragraph:

Kevin Merida wrote a front-page story earlier this week reporting that Sen. Barack Obama's "phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed -- and unreported -- this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They've been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they've endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can't fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president."

The Web version of that story accumulated 3300 comments in the time between its appearance (last Monday) and the time of Feaver's post (last Thursday). Feaver used his post to reproduce what he felt was a representative sample, neither offering any critical observations nor trying to draw any conclusions.

Reading his selection reminded me of the sorts of calls placed to C-SPAN's Washington Journal (which I listen to on XM, rather than watch on television). While this program gets its share of "oddball calls," it has a high proportion of listeners who deserve attention; but, what I like most is that C-SPAN provides separate call-in numbers for Democrats, Republicans, and independents. This provides an approximation (which, of course may be disguised) of the background of any caller who chooses to make a comment about race, whether it involves Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, or racially divisive language in political advertising. The Washington Post made no effort to identify the backgrounds or persuasions of the authors of all those comments it received; but we have already been exposed to accusations (which may or may not be valid) of Republican involvement in cultivating fear of race.

My point is that the Republican rallying standard of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" may now very well have been transformed into "Race, Islamofacism, and Terrorism" (even if it is no longer alliterative); and this new standard draws just as much strength from cultivating fear as the old one did in 1884. If Obama really believes that this standard can be pulled down because "The American people are going to look at the evidence," then he may be lacking sufficient respect for how formidable the force of well-cultivated fear can be. I would suggest that he and his strategists set aside some time to examine what were the most critical factors in Smith's loss to Herbert Hoover in 1928 and make sure that they do not find themselves bitten once again by those same factors.

No comments: