Backlash: Six Challenges to McCain's Racist Fearmongering

In the minutes following the second presidential debate last week, CNN analyst and former Reaganite David Gergen was gripped by an apparent fit of honesty. Amid the prevailing view that Obama had come out ahead, Gergen warned that it was still too soon to say that Obama had the race in the bag. "I think it's too early to declare victory," he said. "because Barack Obama is black."

Gergen's blunt analysis acknowledged what many Americans know to be true, but have not vocally admitted in this historic presidential campaign. "Until we play out the issue of race in this country," Gergen said, "I don't think we'll know (how Obama's race will affect him)." So much for "post-racial" America. As we see the country "play out the issue of race" in these closing weeks of the presidential campaign, fearmongering attacks from the McCain camp have spiked to obscene new levels. While forced recently to push back against some of the most blatantly racist public remarks about his opponent, McCain is largely responsible for stoking mistrust for Obama, repeatedly calling Obama "too risky" for America, asking "Who is the real Barack Obama?" and approving campaign ads that plumb the lowest depths of racist fearmongering. Even the often-repeated claim that Obama will "kill jobs" characterizes Obama as a predator politician who will endanger Americans.

McCain may be the one who "approved this message," but much of the dirty work has been carried out by the campaign's resident pit bull, Sarah Palin. On Oct. 4, at an appearance at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., Palin warned about the Democratic presidential candidate:

"This is not a man who sees America as you and I see America. We see America as a force for good in this world. We see America as a force for exceptionalism. … Our opponents see America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who would bomb their own country."

The well-documented result has been a chillingly heightened lynch mob atmosphere at McCain/Palin rallies, where McCain's lines asking, "Who is Barack Obama" now meet with shouts of "terrorist!" and "kill him!" At an event in Allentown, Penn., according to MSNBC, "At one point one man could be heard yelling, 'Off with his head,' when McCain spoke about Obama's tax plan."

This "is the Willie Hortonization of Obama," University of San Francisco associate professor James Taylor told the San Francisco Chronicle. Or perhaps more accurately, it is the "Osamafication" of Obama -- a brutal and nasty campaign to appeal to Americans' basest instincts and worst fears.

The following are recent responses to the race-baiting attacks that have come out of the McCain campaign over the past week. Most of the responses come from journalists, including opinions by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who asks whether the country is "witnessing the re-emergence of the far right as a power in American politics," and by Carl Bernstein, writing for the Huffington Post, who turns Palin's "palling around with terrorists" charge on its head by pointing out McCain's unsavory -- and by all appearances, current -- connection with G. Gordon Liddy, who, "during the same period that Bill Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground … was making plans to firebomb a Washington think tank, assassinate a prominent journalist, undertake the Watergate burglary, break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, and kidnap anti-war protesters at the 1972 Republican convention." Other contributors include Kai Wright writing for The Root.com, Robert Dreyfuss writing for The Nation, Andrew Lam at New America Media, and more. And for good measure, we've included a video of CNN's Campbell Brown, who this week used her corporate media perch to ask what so many progressives have been saying for months: "So what if Obama was Arab or Muslim? … We've all been way too quick to accept the idea that calling someone Muslim is a slur."

-- Liliana Segura, Editor, Rights & Liberties Special Coverage

E.J. Dionne, TruthDig

Are we witnessing the re-emergence of the far right as a power in American politics? Has John McCain, inadvertently perhaps, become the midwife of a new movement built around fear, xenophobia, racism and anger?

McCain has clearly become uneasy with some of the forces that have gathered around him. He has begun to insist, against the sometimes loud protests from his crowds, that Barack Obama is, among things, a "decent person."

Yet McCain's own campaign is playing with powerful extremist themes to denigrate Obama. When his running mate, Sarah Palin, first brought up Obama's association with 1960s radical Bill Ayers, who has become a centerpiece of McCain's attacks, she accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists." What other "terrorists" was she thinking about?

Since Obama was a child when Ayers was part of the Weather Underground, and since even Republicans have served on boards with Ayers, this is classic guilt by association.

Ayers has been dragged into this campaign because there is a deep frustration on the Right with Obama's enthusiasm for shutting down the culture wars of the 1960s.

Precisely because Obama is not a baby boomer, he carries none of that generation's scars. Most Americans (including most boomers) are weary of living in the past and reprising the 1960s every four years.

Yet culture war politics is relatively mild compared with the far right appeals that are emerging this year. It is as if McCain's loyalists overshot the '60s and went back to the '50s or even the '30s.

What we are now witnessing is the mainstreaming of the far right, a phenomenon that began to take shape with some of the earliest attacks on Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

False claims that Obama is a Muslim, that he trained to overthrow the government, that he was educated in Wahhabi Muslim schools, are a standard part of the political discussion. These fake stories come from voices on the ultra-right that have dabbled in other forms of conspiracy, including classic anti-Semitism. McCain and his campaign do not pick up the most extreme charges. They just fan the flames by suggesting that voters don't really know who Obama is, hinting at a sinister backstory without filling in the details. That is left to the voters' imaginations.

The tragic irony here is that McCain was the victim of some of the very same extremist forces in the 2000 South Carolina primary.

To bring McCain down, some of George W. Bush's supporters on the far right peddled all manner of falsehoods about McCain, raising despicable charges about his time as a POW and suggesting (again falsely) that he had fathered an illegitimate child of color. In the past, McCain publicly condemned some of the very people who are now going after Obama.

McCain cannot be blamed for all of the crazies who see in Obama a chance to earn fame and fortune by concocting lies about him. And yes, we should defend the speech rights even of those whose views we find abhorrent.

But the angry McCain-Palin crowds, and particularly those who threaten violence or shout racist epithets, should be a wake-up call to McCain. The dark hints about Obama that McCain's campaign is dropping dovetail too nicely with the nasty trash floating around the Internet and the airwaves.

We are in the midst of what could become -- and here's hoping it doesn't -- the worst economic downturn in decades. The last thing we need is a campaign that strengthens fanaticism, tarnishes the authority of the next president and whips up the worst kinds of prejudice. This works both ways: Obama should not be delegitimized if he wins, and McCain should not want to win in a way that would undermine his own capacity to lead.

When Christopher Buckley, a novelist and former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, announced last week that he would vote for Obama (his first vote ever for a Democrat), he referred to words once spoken to him by his late father. "You know," the conservative hero William F. Buckley Jr. said, "I've spent my entire lifetime separating the Right from the kooks."

McCain has an obligation, to his own legacy and the country he has served, to separate himself and his campaign from the kooks. Extremism in defense of liberty may be no vice, but extremism in pursuit of the presidency is as dysfunctional as it is degrading.

Carl Bernstein, Huffington Post

Does John McCain "pal around with terrorists?"

Certainly McCain's continuing "association" and relationship with convicted Watergate burglar and domestic terrorist G. Gordon Liddy might suggest that is the case, if we are to apply the standards drawn by the McCain campaign.

In 1998, Liddy gave a fundraiser in his Scottsdale, Ariz., home for McCain's senatorial re-election campaign -- the two posed for photographs together; and as recently as May 2007, as a presidential candidate, McCain was a guest on Liddy's syndicated radio show. Inexplicably, McCain heaped praise on his host's values. During the segment, McCain said he was "proud" of Liddy and praised Liddy's "adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great." From the program:

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

What you can do:
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