Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Mob

US politics is a terrible place of twisted truth and insidious character assassination.

The brouhaha about Obama not wearing a US flag lapel pin is a good case in point. While this was widely cited as evidence that Obama is not sufficiently patriotic, it turns out that very few politicians wear the US flag lapel pin, including Hillary and McCain and just about every other elected official. The entire issue was fictitious, and yet it sticks like feces thrown at a plate glass window.

The Mob forgets the original issue, but remembers the smear (the questionable patriotism). Then a few complementary issues are blown out of proportion: the pastor who dares to raise uncomfortable societal problems is used to suggest the candidate is angry and anti-white; the acquaintance who was involved in a radical group long before the candidate was born is used to suggest that the candidate has a revolutionalry agenda. The candidate refers to his grandmother as "a typical white woman" and the pundits declare it a racist statement. In the mind of The Mob, the idealist becomes a snarling Black Panther. Lock up your women and make sure you vote for the other guy.

There's plenty of reason to criticize Obama for being inexperienced and naive and without the managerial skills to take on the challenges ahead. But political spin doesn't like cool, rational criticism: it seeks to demonize. Rational criticism can be countered. The goal of the opposition is to create the image that the candidate is most horrified by, to leave them sputtering and unable to respond. Then The Mob, swivelling their attention from partisan extremes like spectators at a tennis match, is left thinking that if the candidate can't refute it, it must be true.

Seeing through the lies isn't easy. Bill Clinton said something in his autobiography that helps me keep things in perspective: most politicians are good people who have devoted their lives to public service - even those on the extreme right. A trick I use is to try to ignore the criticisms of character, most of which is spin, and look at candidates as I would look at someone I was interviewing for a job.

Now that it's effectively over for Hillary (short of Obama's head exploding, which I suppose is statistically possible), it would be a huge relief if the Clinton-haters in the Democratic party would calm down or at least direct their vitriol at the Republicans. It has been apparent for months that her candidacy was a long shot, and the main reason I carried on in countering attacks against her is that the attacks were generally untrue, unfair and disturbingly sexist. The demonization of Hillary was ridiculous and it sets back attempts at greater equality for women.

But The Mob is not a self-reflective entity, so it's not clear that any of the lies and misrepresentations of any of the candidates will ever be seriously uncovered. Obama will survive the anti-patriotism attack not by arguing that the issue is hooey, but by using American flag backdrops and adopting patriotic rhetoric.

The difference in the upcoming presidential contest and the thing that gives me hope, is, strangely, the character of the candidate I don't support. John McCain is a standup guy, and he says he wants a clean campaign without negative ads. When asked, urged, even tricked into criticizing his opponents (as he was last night on The Daily Show), he steadfastly refuses, saying only that they're formidable people, friends, and that he has a lot of respect for them. Sure, the RNC and the interest groups will do their thing, but this presidential campaign might be just a little more rational than recent ones.


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