Sunday, October 12, 2008

Respect the Truth of Lewis's Statement

The latest distractions in this year's presidential election revolve around race. The mess started as V.P. Candidate Sarah Palin made it a point to attack Barack Obama on his non-relationship with William Ayers. Palin also suggested that it might be a good idea to attack Obama on the issue of his former paster, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Now, if you've been reading this blog for long enough, you know that my immediate response to this was that such a line of attack – depicting Obama as scary and anti-American – only has the possibility of being effective because of Obama's race.

Well, this increasingly negative tone was effective in inciting increased fear and hatred at least among John McCain's base. Before we knew what was happening, McCain-Palin rallies turned into places for almost all white crowds to vent their hates and their fears (are they synonyms?) in increasingly disturbing ways. When McCain sought to conjure up the image of Obama as a scary unknown by asking “Who is the real Barack Obama,” someone in the crowd yelled out, “Terrorist!” While Palin was speaking of Obama and Ayers, a supporter cried “Kill him.” Someone even yelled, “Off with his head.” There was booing at the mere mention of Obama's name. Those allowed to pose questions at McCain's “town hall” style events were noticeably angry and expressed fear of Obama. One lady even said, incorrectly, that Obama is Arab, and even McCain had to correct her on that one. After some bad press, McCain decided that he needed to urge his audiences to tone down the hate. This was, of course, received with a chorus of boos.

It's also worth pointing out that McCain had, at first, criticized Obama for attacking those in attendance at McCain-Palin rallies.

This all led up to this weekend, when civil rights legend and Georgia Congressman John Lewis took McCain to task. Although this post is already getting long, I think it's worthwhile to post Lewis's comments in their entirety.

As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.

During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.

As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all. They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better.

In case you don't know, George Wallace was a racist who ran for president on a segregationist platform.

Of course, John McCain was quick to issue a response:

Congressman John Lewis' comments represent a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale. The notion that legitimate criticism of Senator Obama's record and positions could be compared to Governor George Wallace, his segregationist policies and the violence he provoked is unacceptable and has no place in this campaign. I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I've always admired, would make such a brazen and baseless attack on my character and the character of the thousands of hardworking Americans who come to our events to cheer for the kind of reform that will put America on the right track.

For his part, Senator Obama's campaign issued the following statement:

Senator Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies. But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night, as well as the baseless and profoundly irresponsible charges from his own running mate that the Democratic nominee for President of the United States ‘pals around with terrorists.’ As Barack Obama has said himself, the last thing we need from either party is the kind of angry, divisive rhetoric that tears us apart at a time of crisis when we desperately need to come together. That is the kind of campaign Senator Obama will continue to run in the weeks ahead.

So, after all this, the question is, was Lewis right for saying what he did? I say no. And yes.

Let's deal with the no first. New Jersey Governor Jim Corzine said today on Meet the Press that Lewis's comments showed poor timing, serving as a distraction from the real issues. I agree in that, strategically, this is not good for Obama in that it allows McCain to paint him as a race-baiter who wants to distract voters from the real issues at a time when McCain has been the one truly guilty of distracting.

However, since Lewis did make the comments, I must say I agree with what he said. The statement from the Obama campaign first points out that McCain's policies are not pro-segregation, as were Wallace's. With this I must also agree. While McCain's policies will have a disproportionately negative impact on African Americans, they are not unapologetically racist. John McCain is no George Wallace.

Here's the thing: No one accused McCain of sharing policies similar to those of Wallace. Lewis only accused McCain and Palin of creating an atmosphere that breeds hatred and, potentially, violence. Are we really going to argue that this isn't true? Sarah Palin all but calls Obama a terrorist, John McCain ask, “who is Barack Obama,” and we really don' think that contributes to a hateful and divisive atmosphere? Although we can't read their minds to prove it, we essentially know that part of the McCain-Palin strategy was to remind easily swayed voters that Obama is a scare/shadowy/creepy/unknown young black guy with ties to terrorists and angry black men. He's “not one of us.”

Palin complained that Obama saw America as “imperfect enough” to be friends with a domestic terrorist. When I heard this it made me sick, because I immediately recognized it as the argument that blacks complain too much and are ungrateful to this country. It echoed her low blow at Michelle Obama, and was an attack on every black person who has ever dared to point out the flaws of their country. This was a divisive statement if ever there was one, and it was a dog whistle to her supporters, reminding them, “we can't let this ungrateful, America-hating black man win.”

What kind of response did John McCain expect when he described Obama as a vague and unknown figure? Did he really not expect people to respond by being afraid of Obama? Did he really think that he could paint Obama as a danger to America and not incite anger and violence? At a debate for senate in Georgia, a woman in the crowd cried out, “bomb Obama.” Given the tone of his rallies – a tone he helped to create – is McCain really surprised at such comments?

Let's look at Lewis's words one more time:

He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights.

While Lewis here was speaking of Wallace, such words could soon come to describe the reckless and repulsive actions of McCain and Palin. Judging from the atmosphere of their rallies, violent encounters at polling places wouldn't surprise me. Barack Obama already received Secret Service protection earlier than any candidate ever (other than those who already had it, like V.P.s or first ladies) because of racial tensions. There was already a poorly planned assassination attempt during the Democratic National Convention in Denver. And now we hear threats of violence as McCain and Palin stoke the worst fears of their supporters.

If anyone would know about such a thing, it would be John Lewis. He's not a professional race-baiter. He doesn't go around crying “racism” just to get attention from the media. When someone who lived through racial violence just because he tried to exercise his legal rights tells you that the potential for such a thing to happen again exists, you listen! I dare anyone to show me what, exactly, Lewis said that was untrue. As far as political strategy is concerned, I question the timing of Lewis's comments. Still, we must respect the truth and wisdom within his statements, or we risk allowing our already struggling democracy to slip into a fear- and hate-fueled chaos.

Food For Though:

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