“Taft is a fathead.” (Theodore Roosevelt, 1912)
The anti-gay blog QueerHunt has just launched an expose that General David Petraeus is gay and has a secret Arab boyfriend he periodically meets in a Dubai hotel. The young man goes by the code name ‘awrence, an apparent reference to how T. E. Lawrence was known by his beloved Arab boys.
Just imagine the legs this will get in the blogosphere.
But wait. There is no blog called QueerHunt (that I know of) and I just batted out the lead paragraph above on my keyboard. I totally made it up. But in this freaky world we live in, it’s now a meme out there for any nutcase with a blog to run with.
My apologies to General Petraeus for abusing him to make a point, but there’s really no difference between this hypothetical scenario and the absurdity that 18% of Americans and 31% of Republicans think President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
You have a supposedly educated man like Franklin Graham suggesting Islam is passed via a man’s semen from one generation to another. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell was asked on “Meet The Press” if he thought Obama was a Muslim, and, with a flick of his snake tongue, he said, “I take him at his word” that he is a Christian.
Truth seems to be no protection from the virulent nature of this stuff.
The fact the President’s middle name is Hussein may lead some people to assume he’s Muslim. But, hey, by the same token, Petraeus is a Greek name, and we know about those Greeks and how they liked to drop the soap in their ancient tiled bathhouses. The Greeks even had a centaur named Petraeus, a guy who had the head of a man and the fully-equipped hind quarters of a horse.
Give that some rope in the mental space and see where it can go.
The silly season in American politics
There is nothing new or novel about this kind of politics. American history is full of it. The human mind always seems to prefer a compelling fiction that reinforces its prejudices over a boring fact that challenges them.
In 1828, John Quincy Adams was smeared for being a “dandy” and having a “foreign wife.” She was British. He was accused of pimping his wife’s maid to a Russian when he had been an ambassador there. His opponent, Andrew Jackson was called a drunk and a bigamist; his wife was called “fat” and a “whore” guilty of “open and notorious lewdness.”
In 1856, slurs suggested bachelor James Buchanan was a homosexual. He was also accused of having failed in an attempt to hang himself, which, the story went, caused his head to tilt to the left, which it did. Andrew Jackson called him “Miss Nancy,” a name that stuck through his career.
The greatest example of turning circumstance into opportunity for slander may have been in the 1912 election when ex-President and then Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest by a raving maniac while giving a speech in Milwaukee.
Roosevelt picked himself up and, to gasps from the audience, returned to the podium. He pulled his bloody speech from his chest pocket (it had apparently slowed the bullet down) and delivered his speech, ad-libbing added remarks blaming his loathsome opponents for trying to kill him.
George Smathers ran for Congress in Florida in the fifties and told crowds his opponent Claude Pepper was “practicing nepotism with his niece,” who worked for her uncle’s campaign.
Franklin Roosevelt may have summed up the business of smearing with this how-to formula, referring to opponent Wendell Wilkie’s mistress, saying, “We can’t have any of our principal speakers refer to it, but the people way down the line can get it out. …They can use the raw material. She’s an extremely attractive little tart.”
The life has gone out of this nastiness today. Everything now is based on avoiding “the slip” from the controlled image. Everything is about acting and not screwing up.
Xenophobia and American exceptionalism
So why do 18% of Americans and 31% of Republicans polled believe the cockamamie notion that Obama is a Muslim?
The answer may lie in the nature of the slurs that tend to get legs in dirty politics. There usually is some degree of truth in them, as there is a larger degree of fear or submerged hatred.
John Quincy Adams’ wife was “foreign-born,” and Claude Pepper was “practicing nepotism with his niece.” In the latter case, Smather’s genius was in manipulating the audience’s ignorance and fear of the incest taboo.
Jackson’s wife had indeed been married before and there was some legal glitch in the divorce that caused the Jacksons to undergo a second wedding ceremony. Thus, the bigamy charge. The woman who Jackson loved dearly was apparently not a skinny woman. As for Taft being a “fathead,” his head was indeed as “fat” as his famously huge ass.
James Buchanan was a life-long bachelor whose head tilted to the left because of some congenital disease. Tough guy Jackson was apparently repulsed by the sickly “Miss Nancy.”
So what reality is the Obama-is-a-Muslim slur rooted in?
Franklin Graham’s notion about the Muslim “seed” would seem to give it all away, by pointing an implicit finger at the fact the “seed” that conceived President Obama was from the dark continent of Africa and that the human source of that “seed” was indeed a Muslim, a current national boogieman. You can almost hear the Tarzan movie drums.
In the deep recesses of the national psyche, the delicacies of the US Constitution and citizenship laws don’t carry much weight. We’re talking primal, here. And if you doubt elections work on this level, ask Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. What matters is the heft of ideas in America’s history and how they can be manipulated deep in the minds of Americans.
In that realm it’s hard to ignore the fact that, national patriotic myth aside, two of the most powerful mass psychological forces in American history have been western expansion and the enslavement of Africans — and that institution’s less-than-stellar aftermath.
Racism is a fundamental fuel for developing hatred of the enemy in wars; it was ever-present against the Japanese in the South Pacific, the Vietnamese and many others. On an abstract level, the twins of American Destiny and Exceptionalism have fueled and, then, justified incredible horrors in our history.
Whether we like it or not – and some do like it – this dark motivational impulse is deeply involved in the anti-Muslim hatred we see more and more of in America. That it rises in intensity as the war in Afghanistan becomes more controversial should surprise no one. It is central in the arrogant attitude that we have the right—some say the duty — to tell people in Afghanistan and Pakistan what they can and cannot do.
For those facile at manipulating these deep symbols, linking our half-African President to the “enemy” in the war on Islam is a real coup.
A “Muslim” President on the horns of a dilemma
The question is why doesn’t President Obama fight back?
The coding in the Obama-is-a-Muslim charge is tricky. On one hand, it is rooted in racism, specifically a fear of Africans and African-Americans – that dark foreign “seed.” While on the other hand, it’s saturated with xenophobia and the post-911 hatred of Islam.
Obama certainly has the stand-up chops to come out swinging against the Muslim slur against him. With a straight face, he could mourn how the “seed” that spawned Franklin Graham had been friendly to previous Christian Presidents. So how did Franklin veer so far from the DNA in his father’s “seed”? Then, on “Meet The Press,” he could say, “I love the people of Kentucky so much I’ll take Mitch McConnell at his word that he’s not the hind quarter of an entry in this year’s Kentucky Derby.”
His problem seems to be, to directly respond to those gleefully propagating the absurd slur would mean ultimately engaging the entire complex of racist and xenophobic fears underneath the slur. This would make life difficult for him, since he would, by natural extension, end up having to oppose the very post-9/11 stigmatization of Islam that sustains the Bush War On Terror he has fully assumed as his own.
So, he’s vague and “Clintonian” about it all. First, he supports the Manhattan Sufi cultural center – then he sounds as if he’s not so sure. He says he plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July 2011, then he passively sits by as his commanding general tells everybody that’s not going to happen.
Making the Pentagon position even clearer, the retiring commandant of the Marine Corp just told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that the July 2011 withdrawal plan was a cynical sop to the American public weary over the war. He was actually quite positive on the feign, since a small, token withdrawal, “in terms of the enemy’s psyche,” would be a positive military move when the enemy realizes our military is going to be “still there hammering them” for years to come.
If Obama assertively used his bully pulpit to turn the egregiously un-just and superficially asinine slurs to his African descent and his father’s Muslim “seed” into a teachable moment, he would quickly find himself on a short and slippery slope to serious opposition to what many see as a massive, Pentagon-driven secret war against Muslim elements around the world.
Better to lay low in the Oval Office and let Biden handle Afghanistan.
CODA: For a complete run-down on the secret, unaccountable and “massive assassination program” General David Petraeus expanded in 2009 against Muslims in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, the former Russian Republics and other places, read Fred Branfman’s chilling article on AlterNet.