Monday, October 13, 2008

Facts: Campaign Collateral Damage

By William Fisher

The elementary school I attended as kid in Brooklyn was located in a “mixed” neighborhood --- which in the early 1940s meant Irish, Italian and Jews. Many of my classmates were first generation Americans – the children of immigrants.

These three groups fought constantly – over what, I’m sure none of us had a clue. But we were pre-teens, and so clueless by definition.

I sort of got used to being called Jewboy and Dirty Jew and Kike and Sheeny. But most of my fellow Jews tried to ignore the slurs. I didn’t. Somehow, I learned to defend myself – with my fists. And I got pretty good at it.

This behavior seemed to baffle my Gentile classmates – they just didn’t equate Jew with fighter. That confluence didn’t really transpire until the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the 1948 Israeli war.

As I grew older, the anti-Semitic smears became a lot more subtle. “Some of my best friends are Jews,” mindlessly became the politically correct form of bigotry. It was the time of Gregory Peck and “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”

What reminded me of this long-ago history was the remark made by a woman who was attending a John McCain townhall-style rally in Minnesota last Friday.

She took the microphone to tell McCain that Obama could not be trusted because he is an "Arab."

The happy part of this episode is that McCain rebuked her, reminding some of us about the man John McCain perhaps used to be. He said, "No, ma'am, he's a decent family man, a citizen, who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that's what this campaign is all about. He's not [an Arab]."

The sad part is that that’s where McCain stopped.

How risky would it have been for McCain to go on to ask, “What if he was an Arab?” Would that mean he was somehow un-American? Well, Straight-Talking John might just as well have said exactly that, because his silence created a verbal void in which his supporters were tacitly enabled to interpret his remarks any way they wished.

And given the McCain campaign’s proclivity for incessantly reminding voters that Obama’s middle name is Hussein, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in geophysics to figure out what that interpretation would be.

Ever since the attacks of 9/11, people of Middle Eastern descent have been viewed as potential terrorists by the public and law enforcement alike. The logic of this says, “Such people were responsible for 9/11. Al-Qaeda consists mostly of Middle Eastern men, and so that's who law enforcement and security personnel should look at first.”

Yet multiple studies have shown that when police focus on factors such as race, they tend to pay less attention to actual criminal behavior. This is a dangerous trend that can inhibit effective law enforcement and ultimately endanger the lives of all persons who depend on law enforcement for protection.

The same can be said of candidates and voters. Having Americans of Arab descent support you has become one of the hottest new Third Rails of American politics.

But lest I get carried away by partisanship, it’s worth noting that Barack Obama is not without culpability in steering clear of this new Third Rail. When was the last time we heard him say anything meaningful about our country’s several million Arab-Americans or American Muslims? But for McCain, painting Obama as an Arab or a Muslim isn’t simply an omission or a misstep or an oversight: It’s a core part of his strategy.

What’s amazing is that these people – many of whom have been U.S. citizens for generations – are still willing to participate in a political process that increasingly paints them as, at best, invisible or, at worst, pariahs.

Yet they are participating.

And, according to a recent Zogby poll, they are throwing their support behind Barack Obama. And Scott MacLeod, chief of TIME’s Cairo Bureau, reports that in a two-way race, Obama beats McCain 54% to 33% among Arab-Americans. In a tight nationwide race, their votes could give Obama a boost in a number of key swing states.

There are an estimated 3.5 million Arab-Americans, making up about 1% of the population of the U.S. Almost two-thirds trace their ancestry to countries of the eastern Mediterranean Sea; Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan. Roughly 70% are Christians and 20% Muslims; the poll respondents were identified as 63% Christian, 24% Muslim and 13% other/none.

Zogby’s findings have little to do with the so-called "ethnic vote." His polling found that Arab and Muslim-Americans are voting the same pocketbook issues as the rest of us.

They're not voting in a bloc because of Middle East-related issues. Arab-Americans considered jobs and the economy by far to be the most important issue in the election rather than Middle East foreign policy issues. Just 16% of Arab-Americans said they favored McCain because of his stance on foreign policy, and only 3% said that about Obama.

Sixty-three percent listed the economy as one of the top two issues facing the country – and that was before the current financial meltdown. Only 37% listed Iraq and Middle East peace. Health care, gas prices and terrorism were all much higher among the issues than regional problems like Palestine and Lebanon. Only 1% of the respondents said either of the latter issues was among the top two issues in the election.

When it came to who was better prepared to handle our economic challenges, 52% picked Obama and 34% chose McCain. Likewise, 48% said Obama was better able to handle the Middle East, while 39% said McCain was.

Zogby found that during the Bush presidency Arab-Americans have swung more decisively behind the Democratic Party in general. The respondents overall gave Bush a 76% negative job approval rating, with even those identifying themselves as Republicans registering only a 63%-37% positive-negative rating for the incumbent president.

Compared to the year Bush was elected in 2000, when the Democratic-Republican ID breakdown was almost even at 40%-38%, Arab-Americans now identify with the Democratic Party by a margin of more than 2-1. Forty-six percent called themselves Democrats, while only 20% said they were Republicans.

Do any of these statistics provide any rationale for the candidates to ignore or diss these voters – much less to encourage voters to go on believing that “that one” is part of the same group?

Yes. The excuse is that we seem to have accepted the proposition that during political campaigns, there are two parallel universes. There’s the real world – in which we trumpet our impeccable morality and those wonderful family values, runaway hypocrisy notwithstanding. Then there’s the political universe, where a lie is valued only in direct relationship to how big it is.

Call me naïve. Maybe so. But there were many of us who yearned for a different kind of campaign this time. We got rolled bigtime.

Who’s to blame? The candidates? The campaign consultants? The political parties?

I don’t think so. Candidates and consultants will always do and say whatever they think they have to do to win and/or whatever they think they can get away with. They’re just facilitators.

No, I suggest that the problem is a lot closer than that: It’s us. Notwithstanding the endless bromides about the “innate common sense” of the American voter, every credible survey reveals that we are a dangerously uninformed electorate. When a sizable majority of high school grads can’t tell you what the first ten amendments to our Constitution are called, do you think our country might just be in trouble?

It’s worth pondering that it was our schools, our teachers, our uninformed parents – and our thoughtless determination to stay cosseted in our fact-free zones while having a beer with our new president – that brought us George W. Bush eight years ago – and Sarah Palin today.