Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Obama as Other

The last few days, as I've been musing over the downturn in Obama's popularity, there have been a few different threads running through my head.

First is the sheer loudness, anger and nastiness of the opposition. I'm not claiming that there wasn't plenty of this during the Bush years, or even Clinton, but my impression is that it seems to be going to new levels. Of course there are always conspiracy theorists during any administration, but it seems like they're getting more of a platform and are being taken seriously by a wider range of people on the populist spectrum. The angry populist crowd also seems to be more organized than in previous years. Whether that's due to new media formats or popular/charismatic figures at the helm, who can say.

Second is the fact that Obama has not had much success in convincing so-called "neutrals" to give him a fair shake. The honeymoon is over, his mandate is gone, and without much to show for it, people who may have been on the fence about him are gravitating toward the anti-administration crowd. But more than issues of policy, there seem to be lots of personal grievances the populists have with Obama.

This leads us to the third point. Obama is an outsider. He ran on this as part of his image, that he was a multicultural candidate who "transcended" race. And clearly, that narrative was appealing to enough voters to get him elected. But even during the campaign, there were people who were using this other-ness against him, accusing him of being a Jihadist sleeper agent, a non-eligible non-citizen, a radical, and so on. This last point is what, ultimately, strikes me as being so different about this era's political opposition. The rhetoric seems to go beyond mere hyperbole-- people have actually become convinced that Obama is not just not the right kind of American (vis-a-vis politics), but un-American and anti-American. That's the real significance of the poll (and the punditry) showing that almost 20% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, and only 34% think he's a Christian. That's the subtext of all the talk of Obama's birth certificate and his "radical connections". That Obama is not a real American, and therefore illegitimate.

Looking at conservative analysis of the poll, the same talking points pop up again and again. What has Obama done to make people "doubt" his faith? Things like:

- Spending several years as a student in an allegedly "Muslim school" in Indonesia (debunked here).

- Reaching out to Muslims in America and around the world and downplaying the narrative that America is exclusively Judeo-Christian.

What I see in all this is that these arguments are based on perceptions and biases, not factual information. There's also a total refusal on the part of the right to admit the role that media has played in casting doubts on Obama's background. There may be some gaps in Obama's history, but his real problem is that he's being held to an unfair standard and that his opponents have so ruthlessly poisoned the well. Any supposed inconsistency, any alleged "newly revealed fact" must be true, regardless of the source. And of course, anything Obama does or says that counters the narrative is deception.
It's conceivable, says Morse, that the president never truly left Islam at all, but professes faith in Christ as a cover for his true beliefs – an allowable offense for Muslims in certain circumstances.
The "Islamic-sanctioned deception," says Morse, remains the only explanation to escaping such punishment.
"The other possibility is that President Obama is engaging in a Taqiyya, which is a lie that is spoken in the greater interest of Islam," says Morse. "There are several quotes in the Quran and the Hadith, the Islamic holy books, that set the conditions under which it is permissible for the Muslim to lie regarding his identity and his intentions when dealing with non-Muslims and the non-Muslim world. Lying is allowed, even encouraged, by the Muslim according to Shariah law, if the lie in some way furthers the agenda of Islam.
"If Obama is indeed a secret-believing Muslim, as opposed to an apostate, the effects on public policy and on American society would be profound," adds Morse. "Whether Muslim or Christian, Barack Obama is the first 'Muslim president' in the same way that Bill Clinton was the first 'black president.'"
What's so frustrating about this dynamic is the subtext that being Muslim is an automatic disqualifier for being American, patriotic, loyal, or competent. When the right accuses Obama of being Muslim, they are declaring that being Muslim is a inexcusable cultural sin. That is why people are accusing them of Islamophobia, bigotry and disingenuousness.

Of particular concern to me is the role that American Jews seem to be playing in this New Nativism, either as producers or consumers of the narrative. Shaul Magid wonders whether this new focus on "global" (read: Muslim) antisemitism has essentially replaced previous decades' obsession with the Holocaust (and, more broadly, persecution) as a focal point for Jewish life, experience and identity:
The Holocaust served to define a Judaism threatened, a Judaism that required vigilant protection from an Other. That looming threat has not disappeared with the slow ebb of the Holocaust from everyday Jewish life. Instead, it has been replaced.
...Antisemitism in the Arab/Muslim world surely exists and is a problem, not only for Jews but also for Muslims. But using that as a new way to construct what I would call a “negative Judaism” is hardly a sign of health for American Jewry.
My point is not to denigrate or delegitimize the study of Arab Antisemitism, in America or abroad. This is a phenomenon that merits our attention. However, I think we should also be studying Islamophobia in America as a “replacement” for antisemitism. And we should be examining why American Jews may be using Islamophobia to push a different agenda.
This is not only happening with Muslims. Atheists, illegal immigrants, advocates for same-sex marriage, all of them are being tarred as the scary Other as well. Which means that the more Obama reaches out to these ostracized groups, the scarier he becomes.

Over the last year, I traveled across the country seeking the sources of right-wing outrage and anger in the Obama era... I discovered...fear -- some of it innate and much of it whipped up by high-def hucksters on TV and in talk radio and even in the corridors of political power in America. Much of that fear centered on one simple fact: That America is increasingly becoming a non-white-dominated country. While many Americans take no issue with that, the prospect of an America with an increasingly non-Caucasian face is a deeply disturbing one to millions of people -- people for whom a unified and traditional culture is a source of solidarity and comfort, even -- according to some sociologists -- a bulkhead of immortality.
...the bottom line was that for many, reports that whites will be a minority of Americans by the year 2050 carried the shill ring of an alarm bell. But this concern about the submersion of a dominant white culture in America spiked prematurely in 2008 with the political rise of Obama. In researching the book, I spoke with many conservative voters who talked of their "discomfort" the first time they watched Obama speak on television, who said that in particular they were alarmed at the future president's use of the specific word "transformation."
...by mid-2009 I was hearing from the leader of the anti-Obama group the Delaware 9-12 Patriots that the 44th president of the United States "is absolutely not American" while his neighbors were screaming at town hall meetings: "I don't want this flag to change. I want my country back!" These rank-and-file citizens were often echoing what they heard in a 24/7 right-wing media bubble of ratings-driven irresponsibility -- outlandish neo-McCarthyite allegations that Obama had Commies and Maoists working in the West Wing, Glenn Beck's notorious claim that the president has "a deep-seated hatred of white people" and, perhaps more tellingly, of "white culture," and most recently radio's Rush Limbaugh's bizarre charge that Obama is probably the "best anti-American president the country's ever had."
...Once the Pandora's box of emotion and rage against "the Other" has been opened so wide, it is almost impossible to close.
Implicit in the charge of being Other is the concept that Other is not only different, it is wrong, and furthermore, is incompatible with "Authentic" American-ism or American values. That is where the discourse becomes unacceptable, and that is why I find it so unsettling.

The bottom line is that when basic identity terms like "Muslim", "Gay", "Foreigner" or even "Socialist" become a code for being un-American or a traitor, you have a problem. When your political strategy involves the demonization and delegitimization of whole swaths of people and then linking them to politicians you dislike to destroy both, you have a problem. (I realize this happens on the left as well.)

The right should fight Obama and the Muslim community on their merits, or de-merits. By stooping to these tactics, they are revealing their true colors. And they are ugly.

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