Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The terrorist rhetoric of McCain and Palin is dangerous

It is unnerving to turn from narratives about how brutal wars take form elsewhere, as in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or Darfur, to American politics. Most Americans are unaware that those wars took form in what was supposed to be, or claimed to be, a democratic process. But through the skillful use of innuendo political leaders created doubt, suspicion, and fear and so were able to put in motion ignoble even inhuman acts.
• It was after Franjo Tudjman was elected in Croatia that the Serbs and Croats broke into conflict, involving people who knew each other, neighbor taking up arms against neighbor. The context was Tudjman’s declaration that Croatia was for the Croats and his deployment of Ustashe symbols – symbols used by criminal Croats allied with Hitler during World War II who systematically sought to exterminate Jews, Serbs, Roma and other minorities in the area. The minority Serbs in the new state of Croatia feared that they would again suffer as their parents and grandparents had in World War II. [Denich, Bette. 1994. "Dismembering Yugoslavia: Nationalist Ideologies and the Symbolic Revival of Genocide." American Ethnologist 21(2):367-390].
• Early after Sudan became independent, as political parties formed, they did not carry on gentlemen’s disputes about power. Within the Umma party, for instance, there was a bitter division among the leaders: One leader began to appeal to the “African” tribes while his opponent appealed to the “Arabs” – a distinction in DarFur that scarcely constituted a difference. But as the two sides exaggerated the racial-cultural rhetoric they established a context for the creation of intense hostilities that would [along with many other factors however] lead to the fighting that is now described as genocide in Darfur. [Prunier, Gerard. 2005. The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca: Cornel University.]
• In Rwanda a notable Hutu declared in 1960 that Rwanda's new freedom meant that “Democracy has vanquished feudalism.” The truth was otherwise. In fact, it enabled the dominant Hutus to put in motion an attempt to exterminate their Tutsi neighbors. Deploying newspapers and radio they promoted the idea that the Tutsis were the source of national problems, describing them as “cockroaches.” They needed to be exterminated for the public good. It was not merely a matter of propaganda, as they also established organizations through which the process of extermination could begin and through which pressure might be exerted on the rest of the population to conform. So it was that the day came when it was possible to induce many ordinary Hutus to take up machetes against their neighbors. Such is the power of public myth and rhetoric fabricated and promoted for political ends. [Gourevitch, Philip. 1998. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We are to be Killed with our Families. New York: Farrar, Strauss.]

Many of us have been uneasy about the way that McCain and Palin – and many others in the Republican propaganda network – have characterized Barak Obama. Many persist in calling him a Muslim [by implication a terrorist], and a socialist. These are not mistakes: they are deliberate and pointed. But it is more dangerous to the American public than may be supposed.

Take what happened today in Miami, Florida. From
“After the rally, we witnessed a near-street riot involving the exiting McCain crowd and two Cuban-American Obama supporters. Tony Garcia, 63, and Raul Sorando, 31, were suddenly surrounded by an angry mob. There is a moment in a crowd when something goes from mere yelling to a feeling of danger, and that's what we witnessed. As photographers and police raced to the scene, the crowd elevated from stable to fast-moving scrum, and the two men were surrounded on all sides as we raced to the circle.

The event maybe lasted a minute, two at the most, before police competently managed to hustle the two away from the scene and out of the danger zone. Only FiveThirtyEight tracked the two men down for comment, a quarter mile down the street.

"People were screaming 'Terrorist!' 'Communist!' 'Socialist!'" Sorando said when we caught up with him. "I had a guy tell me he was gonna kill me."

Asked what had precipitated the event, "We were just chanting 'Obama!' and holding our signs. That was it. And the crowd suddenly got crazy."

The claims that politicians make matter. Politicians, if they are properly situated, can create an unbridgeable chasm in a society. Wasn't it Goering who said that propaganda needs to be simple and repeated many times until people come think there is something to it? Surely if freedom is to work, the pursuit of public office should entail the obligation to speak fairly and truthfully in making public claims.

I pray that our country will be spared what many other countries have experienced. It is easier than we think to poison the democratic process.

1 comment:

DonQuixote99 said...

I think the fact that people respond so strongly and predictably when prompted to xenophobia (even against people that, objectively, aren't very xeno) says something very disturbing about human nature.

But it's of a piece with my conviction that, actually, people have to be carefully taught not to be xenophobic, racist, etc.