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Manufactured Intolerance

Yesterday, as a friend and I drove back to Alexandria from Houston, we passed by a large, handwritten sign reading, “DON’T BLAME ME. I VOTED FOR THE AMERICAN,” proudly displayed in someone’s front yard, near the border of Rapides and Vernon Parishes.

I’ve been writing about smear campaigns against Barack Obama from, what seems like, the very beginning. I wrote my first post in January 0f 2007, a month before then-Senator Obama announced his candidacy, about an article by right-wing pundit Debbie Shlusser that claimed Obama was a “secret Muslim.” The bizarre stories about his birth certificate hadn’t yet surfaced, but whenever they finally did, honestly, I wasn’t too surprised.

Still, I’ve written about this for a couple of reasons: First, these stories and conspiracy theories demonstrate the lengths to which his opposition will go in order to undermine his legitimacy and credibility, but second and more importantly, they are, by in large, promulgating the notion of Barack Obama as Other. Unlike the critics on the left who opposed George W. Bush’s legitimacy because of the Supreme Court ruling or compared him to Adolf Hitler (which, let’s face it, is becoming an unfortunate bipartisan tradition), these attacks against Obama are based on lies about his fundamental identity as a human being: his birthplace, his religion, his ethnicity.

To me, it is particularly noteworthy that so many Americans actually believe in these theories. He wasn’t born in America. He was born in Kenya or maybe Indonesia. He’s not a Christian. He’s a “secret Muslim.” He’s not the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya. He’s an Arab.

And it’s even more interesting (and frustrating) that these ideas have gained traction in our national conversation. People are buying billboards and planting homemade signs in their front yards that claim the President isn’t actually an American. Certainly they have the right to do so, but that’s not the point. The point that what they’re saying is a lie– and not a lie about the President’s policies, but a lie about his identity.

When Barack Obama won the Presidency nearly two years ago, some talked about the dawning of a “post-racial America.” Obama was a “post-racial” candidate, and America demonstrated its rejection of institutionalized racism by electing him, or so the logic went.

Maybe we are living in a post-racial America, but during the last two years, it’s been difficult to notice any real, appreciable difference. If anything, racism, nativism, xenophobia, and bigotry have become more socially acceptable and widespread. In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush reminded Americans that Islam was, at its core, a peaceful religion and that millions of Americans were members of the Muslim faith. Today, our troops are in direct danger of attack because some Christian preacher in Florida wants to prove his own righteousness by burning copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11, all as a publicity stunt.

As a culture, we aren’t treating our Muslim neighbors and citizens as equals; we’re treating them with mistrust and ignorance. When a group of Muslim-Americans announced their intention to construct a massive community center in Lower Manhattan, the project became defined as the Ground Zero mosque. No, it’s not exactly just a mosque, and no, it’s not on Ground Zero (it’s at the site of a Burlington Coat Factory). But that didn’t really matter.

Today, we’re giving attention to people who want to burn religious texts and people who say our President is lying about his birth certificate and his religion. I’m not sure what these people ever did to earn our collective attention and respect, but they have it, nonetheless. And miraculously, these people are being propped up by a media that seems to care more about reporting the stories of people who believe in lies than in actually correcting those lies.

Today, there was an “emergency” interfaith meeting in Washington, D.C. The New York Times reports:

Prominent Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders held an extraordinary “emergency summit” meeting in the capital on Tuesday to denounce what they called “the derision, misinformation and outright bigotry” aimed at American Muslims during the controversy over the proposed Islamic community center near ground zero.

“This is not America,” said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the emeritus Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, flanked by three dozen clergy members and religious leaders at a packed news conference at the National Press Club. “America was not built on hate.”

They said they were alarmed that the “anti-Muslim frenzy” and attacks at several mosques had the potential not only to tear apart the country, but also to undermine the reputation of America as a model of religious freedom and diversity.

….

The clergy members said that those responsible for a poisoned climate included politicians manipulating a wedge issue in an election year, self-styled “experts” on Islam who denigrate the faith for religious or political reasons and some conservative evangelical Christian pastors.

The Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, said: “To those who would exercise derision, bigotry, open rejection of our fellow Americans of a different faith, I say, shame on you. As an evangelical, I say to those who do this, you bring dishonor to those who love Jesus Christ.”

The Onion puts it better than anyone else:

Man Already Knows Everything He Needs To Know About Muslims

SALINA, KS—Local man Scott Gentries told reporters Wednesday that his deliberately limited grasp of Islamic history and culture was still more than sufficient to shape his views of the entire Muslim world.

Gentries, 48, said he had absolutely no interest in exposing himself to further knowledge of Islamic civilization or putting his sweeping opinions into a broader context of any kind, and confirmed he was “perfectly happy” to make a handful of emotionally charged words the basis of his mistrust toward all members of the world’s second-largest religion.

“I learned all that really matters about the Muslim faith on 9/11,” Gentries said in reference to the terrorist attacks on the United States undertaken by 19 of Islam’s approximately 1.6 billion practitioners. “What more do I need to know to stigmatize Muslims everywhere as inherently violent radicals?”

“And now they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero,” continued Gentries, eliminating any distinction between the 9/11 hijackers and Muslims in general. “No, I won’t examine the accuracy of that statement, but yes, I will allow myself to be outraged by it and use it as evidence of these people’s universal callousness toward Americans who lost loved ones when the Twin Towers fell.”

“Even though I am not one of those people,” he added.

When told that the proposed “Ground Zero mosque” is actually a community center two blocks north of the site that would include, in addition to a public prayer space, a 500-seat auditorium, a restaurant, and athletic facilities, Gentries shook his head and said, “I know all I’m going to let myself know.”

Gentries explained that it “didn’t take long” to find out as much about the tenets of Islam as he needed to. He said he knew Muslims stoned their women for committing adultery, trained for terrorist attacks at fundamentalist madrassas, and believed in jihad, which Gentries described as the thing they used to justify killing infidels.

“All Muslims are at war with America, and I will resist any attempt to challenge that assertion with potentially illuminating facts,” said Gentries, who threatened to leave the room if presented with the number of Muslims who live peacefully in the United States, serve in the country’s armed forces, or were victims themselves of the 9/11 attacks. “Period.”

“If you don’t believe me, wait until they put your wife in a burka,” Gentries continued in reference to the face-and-body-covering worn by a small minority of Muslim women and banned in the universities of Turkey, Tunisia, and Syria. “Or worse, a rape camp. That’s right: For reasons I am content being totally unable to articulate, I am choosing to associate Muslims with rape camps.”

Over the past decade, Gentries said he has taken pains to avoid personal interactions or media that might have the potential to compromise his point of view. He told reporters that the closest he had come to confronting a contrary standpoint was tuning in to the first few seconds of an interview with a moderate Muslim cleric before hastily turning off the television.

“I almost gave in and listened to that guy defend Islam with words I didn’t want to hear,” Gentries said. “But then I remembered how much easier it is to live in a world of black-and-white in which I can assign the label of ‘other’ to someone and use him as a vessel for all my fears and insecurities.”

Added Gentries, “That really put things back into perspective.”

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. William Mixon #

    funny, right before I read your Manufactured Intolerance article I watched a you tube film on the same subject. Now, I am really confused???

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?V=MwhKuunp8D8feature=player_embedded

    like many people, I don’t really know just what to believe these days. wwm

    September 8, 2010
  2. Is this really that surprising? At all major points of cultural shift in the past this same behavior was expressed. Religion is not the issue or problem, merely a convenient label to use. The vast majority of individuals expressing such bigotry and hatred are reacting from fear. Their long cherished world view, based on a fairly limited exposure to people and ideas outside of their monocultural life, has been shattered. Their viewpoint is no longer the “only” accepted, or even highest valued. Perpetual media inundates their world, splits their cocoon of safety and stability. It is biology 101. When threatened, either physically or ideologically, we usually push back with vehemence. To even entertain others thoughts, ideas, or facts painfully threatens. This doesn’t excuse but does provide a different avenue for response.

    September 8, 2010
    • Brian,

      Very well put. We’re not only undergoing a cultural shift; we’re currently undergoing fundamental demographic changes. And no doubt about it, these shifts are scary to some people.

      You’re right: Religion shouldn’t be the point or the issue, but unfortunately, it’s being used by some as a vehicle to promote their own political agendas.

      September 8, 2010
  3. Ace Midnight #

    Lamar,

    This was well written, and persuasive to a point. However, it betrays some of your partisan bias on this issue.

    *NOTE I AM NOT MAKING MORAL EQUIVALENCIES BY MAKING COMPARISONS
    First – I am not drawing moral equivalence in the following comp

    September 8, 2010
    • Ace Midnight #

      Ignore the above one – butterfingers… Full post below.

      September 8, 2010
  4. Ace Midnight #

    Lamar,

    This was well written, and persuasive to a point. However, it betrays some of your partisan bias on this issue.

    *NOTE I AM NOT INMPLYING MORAL EQUIVALENCIES BY MAKING COMPARISONS MERELY POINTING OUT THE OVER-THE-TOP HYPOCRISY OF THE LEFT

    George W. Bush’s legitimacy was challenged well into the 2004 campaign season, and beyond, by those on the radical left. It was based on a lie – that ANY count of the votes in Florida EVER yielded Florida’s electoral votes to Gore – therefore, you have picked and choosed which to call a “lie” and which to call a “Supreme Court ruling”.

    I agree with you that the Hitler stuff has got to go. The right and left use it far too much. At least the libertarians are sincere when they use it — they see most government as tyranny (and I agree with them more as I get older).

    Many of the questions about Obama come from the fact that the mainstream media picked him, backed him and did not explore his background sufficiently to satisfy the public’s necessary need for information. So that information gap was filled in by the fringe. Sorry – but the way that news is collected, packaged and presented to the public by CNN, MSNBC, FNC, as well as ABC, CBS and NBC has failed the general public. It is far more a product and means to sway public opinion than a method to satisfy a journalistic duty to the public. This is not new – it has been present since the beginning.

    As far as his background – I don’t talk to any conservative, libertarian, whomever, who sincerely believes he is not the product of an American white woman and a Kenyan black man. Whatever ignorant corner who believes he is Arab are self-delusional or worse. This is somewhat different from the ACTIVE campaign by the Louisiana Democratic Party in whispering and suggesting that Jindal was Pakistani (or Arab) and Muslim, despite ALL evidence to the contrary. This was also a pioneering use of Govenor Jindal’s given first name of “Piyush”, which was later either copied or emulated in using POTUS’ middle name, during the campaign (and I’m not 100% certain if that was started by the Clinton campaign or the RNC – I remember Rush doing it first, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to any conclusions).

    As far as the Qur’an burning – I am against it. However, in light of all of the other expressions of freedom of speech that are either supported or lionized by the left (particularly burning of the U.S. particularly, protesting soldiers’ funerals, etc.) and the consequent LACK of sincere protection of Christian religious values and sensitivities merely lends more credence to the notion that the left is completely rife with conscious or unconscious bias against anything Christian and American and for anything else. The flavor du jour is Islam.

    I wonder how the left would feel if this were truly an Islamic “Republic”, instead of a (at least it was founded as such) Christian nation.

    September 8, 2010
    • Ace, as always, I appreciate your comments, though I have a few points of contention.

      First, with regard to the Florida recount and subsequent Supreme Court ruling, there is a compelling argument to be made that had Al Gore focused on a statewide recount strategy, instead of hand-picking counties that leaned Democratic, he may have had a better chance of success. Yes, independent analysis concludes that even if the Gore campaign had been able to conduct a recount of those hand-picked counties, George W. Bush would have still come out on top, but again, there is real disagreement about what a statewide recount would have resulted in. (For what it’s worth, I think history will reflect that the Gore campaign made a huge mistake by only targeting recounts in specific counties, instead of demanding a full, statewide recount. No matter who actually won the most votes, it was a stupid move). Also, the subsequent Supreme Court ruling was split along ideological lines, a decision made even more suspect by the notion that our democracy could only function if we adhered to a set of arbitrary deadlines and the fact that the SCOTUS ensured their decision could not set any type of legal precedent. No matter who you supported, the whole thing was suspect, and I have no doubt that if Gore had been declared the winner instead, he would have faced the same sort of attacks on his legitimacy. So, the criticism about the Supreme Court isn’t based on a lie; it’s based on opinions about the integrity of the process.

      Second, I’m glad you reminded all of us about the whisper campaign leveled against Bobby Jindal during his first run for Governor. Even though I’m not sure it gained much traction, it was still insidious and shameful. However, the campaign wasn’t launched by the Louisiana Democratic Party and, as I recall, it didn’t have much to do with Pakistan or Islam; the whisper campaign was primarily about the color of Jindal’s skin. Sure, there were a few Monday morning quarterbacks who claimed that Jindal lost the election because conservatives in Central and Northern Louisiana were duped by a racist smear campaign. There’s no way of knowing or quantifying that, but I’ve always found it interesting that some Louisiana conservatives blame Democrats for depressing the racist vote. At the time, Jindal was a 32-year-old who had never before run for public office, and his opponent was an experienced politician who had already won statewide office. Attributing his loss to a whisper campaign that, in my opinion, never gained any real momentum (thankfully) is a little disingenuous, and assigning blame to the Louisiana Democratic Party is, with all due respect, absolutely ridiculous.

      You make a really interesting point about those who call Jindal by his given first name, Piyush, and those who like to remind people that Obama’s middle name is Hussein. I think there are a few important distinctions, but I understand your point.

      Finally, opposing the public burning of the Koran should not be a partisan issue.

      And you’re absolutely wrong about people on the left “supporting” or “lionizing” those, like Fred Phelps, who protest the funerals of soldiers, and with all due respect, I think you probably know better.

      September 8, 2010
      • PS: America is not and has never been a theocracy. America will never become an Islamic “Republic,” and America was not founded as a Christian theocracy.

        From Article VI Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

        Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin weren’t practicing Christians; both men considered themselves to be Deists. Jefferson was actually an outspoken critic of organized religion.

        I really don’t understand why some people feel the need to revise our country’s history in order to better conform with their own, personal religious beliefs. Pointing out that America was not founded as a Christian theocracy is a simple matter of fact, not an attack on fellow Christians or the Christian faith. We’re a diverse country, a country that wasn’t founded as a religious nation, but rather, as a nation that rejected the state-sponsorship of religion, a nation that championed inclusiveness.

        That’s a good thing. It makes us stronger as a country.

        September 8, 2010
        • Ace Midnight #

          Where did I say “theocracy”? I said “Christian Nation”. We were formed as a nation of Christians, like it or not. They specifically formed the government that specifically protected religious expression from government interference. Likewise, they made it prohibitive for the (federal) government to “establish” a state religion. This was specifically in response to the immediate experience with the Church of England, and more generally, the Roman Catholic Church in European political affairs for over a millenium at that point.

          I wish that America could be more inclusive, but that cuts both ways. The visceral response to the massive wave of “undocumented” immigration from Mexico would be less negative, in my opinion, if the new arrivals would adopt and assimilate into the host culture, instead of forcing the host culture to adapt to them. This would also be true of the more recent arrivals from Muslim countries.

          September 9, 2010
      • mcr #

        Bobby Jindal did run for public office before running for the Louisiana governor’s seat. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in Louisiana’s 1st Congressional District in 2004 and again in 2006.

        September 9, 2010
        • Check your facts. I was referring to his first run for Louisiana Governor, in 2003.

          September 9, 2010
        • mcr #

          I misunderstood and made a mistake. People do it all the time.

          *Sigh*

          September 9, 2010
          • Ace Midnight #

            mcr,

            Actually that was my bad – Lamar and I both knew (from context) that I was talking about 2003, but I didn’t specify 2003, so I opened the door for ambiguity as 2003 versus 2007.

            September 10, 2010
    • But “Bobby” WAS born Piyush. Obama was not born a Kenyan.

      September 20, 2010
      • Ace Midnight #

        What do you mean? POTUS was born “Barack Hussein Obama, Jr.”. Can you not see the exact parallel?

        Nothing to do with either Bobby’s Indian or BHO’s Kenyan ancestry (both of Gov. Jindal’s parents were born in India, and President Obama’s father was born in Kenya).

        September 23, 2010
        • Perhaps I should have elaborated. My point was that people calling Bobby by his birth name (i.e., pointing out a fact) is not comparable to people calling Obama things he is not (i.e., making up bold face lies about him).

          It would seem more logical for people to question the background of the man who chooses to go by a made up name than the man who goes by his legal birth name.

          September 24, 2010
  5. mcr #

    Thanks, Ace. Everything’s good.

    On a side note, I always enjoy reading your posts.

    Have a great weekend!

    September 11, 2010
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    August 16, 2011

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