Herman Cain, Donald Trump and birther talk: The new face of prejudice in media and politics
Fear and paranoia are powerful motivators in politics and in media.
So it's no wonder that, as we creep up on another presidential election season, the airwaves are already drowning in paranoia and clumsy scapegoating just this side of outright prejudice.
The most absurd recent example may be GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain, a black man who said he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet or a federal judgeship saying "many of the Muslims, they are not totally dedicated to this country." Which is funny, because that's the same thing bigoted white people said about black people when the government integrated the armed forces, schools, the workforce and everywhere else in American public life.
But instead of excoriating him for his nonsensical attitude, longtime Cain pal Neal Cavuto brought the candidate onto his Fox News show, where he noted "many of them are trying to force Sharia law onto this country." Which is again very odd, because the only time I've heard of Sharia law possibly being used in America for anything was when an American judge in Florida announced he would use Islamic law to help decide a dispute involving a mosque. Which drew an immediate objection. From the attorney representing the mosque.
That's the problem with stereotypes. They tend to fall apart when actual facts enter the picture.
No surprise then, that some people slinging the paranoia don't even believe it themselves. According to an audiotape unearthed by liberal media watchdog Media Matters, Bill Sammon, vice president of news and managing editor of the Washington bureau for Fox News, told a cruise ship full of people years ago that he suggested on air Barack Obama might be advocating socialism during the 2008 election campaign, even though he personally found the idea "far fetched."
Sammon later told NPR he was trying to characterize what conservatives were thinking. According to NPR, he also said his point was proven by a later government takeovers of General Motors -- a temporary measure which, in General Motors' case, likely saved the company.
This may be the saddest tactic among those who oppose the president. Cynically aware that a percentage of their audience may never be comfortable with a black president (or a Democratic president, or a moderately liberal president), these figures instead offer thin alternative reasons to mistrust him. And there's no strategy more slimy on this score than the so-called "birther movement."
Publicity hound Donald Trump made headlines on this score, saying he was "really concerned" about the question of whether President Obama was actually born in this country (The St. Pete Times' own PolitiFact has done extensive reporting to debunk this particular controversy; read it here). He told conservative outlet Newsmax he found his birth certificate in a matter of hours, releasing it for posting online.
Except it wasn't his birth certificate. Instead, it was the same sort of notification President Obama has released -- which government officials say is considered proof of citizenship -- proving that actually getting your hands on official birth certificates from 50 years ago isn't as easy as some pundits would like to pretend. (Trump has since released his actual birth certificate and related documents)
Of course, the point of all this isn't to speak on actual policies or leadership; it's to give people a thin reason to mistrust the president and embrace someone else. It reminds me uncomfortably of the way some proclaimed that John F. Kennedy, our nation's first Catholic president, would be a stooge of the Vatican, and it seems rooted in prejudice. That this issue is raised by Trump, a man who seems unlikely to become a serious candidate for president, only makes modern media coverage of the tactic more bewildering and disappointing.
Finally, we have this commercial from the Citizens Against Government Waste, featuring a Chinese lecturer telling an audience of presumably Chinese countrymen about the fall of American dominance 20 years from now. You can feel this groups grubby fingers clumsily pushing at the buttons of paranoia and prejudice in this spot, featuring a sea of Asian faces laughing at the punchline: "now they work for us."
Bigots may not be able to turn firehoses on their opponents with the government's help anymore. But they can subvert a conflict addicted and politically skewed media into fanning the flames of prejudice for their own advantage.
Wonder when we'll stop playing along?