Friday, August 20, 2010

Political Outsider

"Let's meet the knucklehead Americans who think Barack Obama is a Muslim."
Gah. There are times when I think that phrase "deep-cover conservative" is more accurate that it's given credit for. Whoever wrote that subtitle to Jack Shafer's "Greetings, 18 Percenters!" seemed to be dead-set on perpetuating the conservative stereotype of liberals as obnoxious know-it-alls. Of course, Shafer himself seems pretty keen to hype the stereotype himself, and wastes no time getting to it.

Much has been said about the tendency of those on the American political Left to place their faith in well-reasoned arguments as to why they are objectively and self-evidently correct, and then be shocked/angry/disappointed when their audience doesn't bow to their clearly superior grasp of the facts. One of the more recent issues that the Left has been having with this is the idea that President Obama is secretly a practicing Muslim. (We'll leave aside, for the time being, the biggest problem with this theory - the idea that in an organization as large as the White House, not to mention anywhere else that he might go - that the President of the United States of America can engage in the required rituals of Islam without ever being observed by a single person who would attempt share word or evidence of it - despite the fact that most administration officials can leak six things before breakfast, if it suits their purposes.) "Everybody knows that the President is a practicing Christian," they say.

But that presupposes that this the "debate" over the President's religion is what it purports to be - namely, a debate over the President's religion. But it isn't. The set of people that have allowed themselves to be convinced that President Obama is a Muslim don't think that because they don't have access to the facts about him. They think that because they don't understand him and to a degree, they don't like him. Part of this is simple partisanship. For a certain segment of Republicans, no Democrat would ever be an acceptable President these days. He or she could be THE President, but they wouldn't be THEIR President, and that hostility would make itself known in whatever way would stick. Part of it is the failure of Obama Administration policy to make the bad times of the "Great Recession" go away. Part of it is a dislike of activist government, a standpoint that the President espouses. I think a lot of it has to do with a certain conspiratorial mindset that many Americans have cultivated and manifests itself in the idea that government rarely ever fails - rather everything goes according to plan, and sometimes those plans have the injury of the public as their goal. Whatever the reason, there are people in this country who understand the President to be, for lack of a better term, a hostile outsider.

And for some time now "Muslim" has, to a degree, taken on that same meaning of hostile outsider. And often to the same people. Couple that with the fact that the President's father was an African Muslim, and you have a convenient shorthand in which people can succinctly wrap their concerns, insecurities and fears. The label "Socialist" is a similar shorthand, but the loading is different, since there haven't been any violent socialist revolutions recently to carry a connotation of potential violence.

This goes beyond the idea that the President's approval numbers aren't very high at this point. This is about that group of people who are of the opinion that the current Presidency is illegitimate, either because the President is not whom he purports to be or because he's basically shown himself unwilling to deal with them and their problems in a serious and effective manner. No facts are going to change that.


Keifus said...

Embracing a cultural or emotional signifier is an acceptable reason to be factually incorrect? I can't agree with that. Schafer's gloating doesn't excuse them, even if he's an ass.

Even if no one really believes it (which I don't think is true), softening the meaning of things can have other uses than shorthand. It can demonize opponents (as in "socialist" or "Islam") and it can obscure true meanings, more or less on purpose. Good chunks of the conservative community thrive on government activism, for example, and, to state the obvious, there's the race thing. Would Obama get called a Muslim if he were as white as Bill Clinton?

Aaron said...

"Embracing a cultural or emotional signifier is an acceptable reason to be factually incorrect?"

No, not really. But the existence of factual incorrectness isn't an workable reason to ignore the cultural or emotional signifiers that are actually at issue. In other words, you'll never manage to correct the facts, as long as the other issues remain unsolved, because people's understanding of the facts is driven by the signifiers, and not the other way around.