There’s no question. The candidates agree, the pundits agree and the American people agree: this has been a tough election season. Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have a palpable contempt for one another, and neither has been especially good at hiding it thus far.
But it’s possible for a candidate to cross the line. When they do, it is the job of the media, and indeed of the people, to call them on it. That has usually happened throughout the course of this race, with one glaring exception: the treatment of Arabs.
When an elderly and somewhat disheveled audience member at a McCain rally in Minnesota said “I can’t trust Obama. He’s an Arab,” it was days before anyone actually dissected McCain’s reply; “No, ma’am. He’s a decent — family man — citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
As though being an Arab means being indecent, anti-family, and un-American, or unworthy of being a citizen.
It’s unlikely that McCain did not intend for his response to be interpreted that way, and frankly, it’s unlikely that he doesn’t feels that way. But his answer just rolled over most people. Nobody took notice. This is a worrying sign of latent resentment or fear of Arabs on at least a semi-national scale. This will surprise few in the Arab community, who have had to learn to live with this kind of prejudice, but it should be a stark wake-up call to everyone else.
Albeit frightening, McCain’s response to the Minnesota woman is neither the most recent nor is it the most worrisome event in this trend.
The most recent McCain slander of Arabs has gotten little press coverage, and it remains unclear whether or not the story will ever really get traction before the election, but it tells us something important about the Republican candidate for president.
Khalidi was born in New York in 1950 and served as a professor at the University of Chicago, during which time he was to some extent friendly with Barack Obama, another prominent member of the Chicago community. Khalidi is now the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, and a highly respected academic who has published a number of books and articles.
Khalidi is an ardent supporter of Palestinian rights and has angered Zionists by suggesting that the Palestinian national identity developed well before 1947, when Israel claims no substantive Palestinian nation actually existed. The obvious implication is that Israelis were as much conquerors as they were settlers.
McCain’s campaign is currently trying to get hold of a video, allegedly being suppressed by the Los Angeles Times, that shows Khalidi’s going away party at the University of Chicago, where he was presented with some manner of award by Barack Obama. McCain apparently feels that Americans need to know about associations with people of such “dangerous and radical ideas” as support for Palestinian human rights.
Obama has been vague about his relationship with Khalidi, but it would appear that that is because they had only a vague relationship. As such, this will likely be overlooked as yet another tired attempt by McCain to paint Obama as extreme, dangerous, and just too different, by playing the old “guilt by association” game.
But there is more to this.
For McCain’s line of attack to succeed, people need to fear Obama. And if they don’t fear Obama, they need to fear the people he knows. For this reason, Bill Ayers was never going to be an effective political weapon (as if it wasn’t enough of a clue that Ayers was raised as an issue by Sean Hannity, one of the lesser intellectuals of the conservative right). Americans (or more accurately, white Americans, McCain’s target audience) are not afraid of Bill Ayers. He doesn’t look scary, he’s friends with the mayor of Chicago, and most importantly, terrorist or not, Americans do not associate Bill Ayers with the kind of terrorism they fear: foreign, Islamic terrorism.
When Rush Limbaugh says that Obama is an Arab, he’s doing it for a reason. Obama isn’t “black enough” to frighten white Americans, so he must be turned into an Arab. Because everyone’s afraid of Arabs, but nobody’s afraid of slamming them. Candidates don’t have to court the Arab vote the way they have to court the Jewish vote, or the black vote, and this makes Arabs a very easy scapegoat.
The underlying prejudice against Arabs in America is troubling. That none seem really to have noticed is alarming. But the Khalidi issue is terrifying and for reasons that go beyond prejudice or racism and affect all Americans, Arab and otherwise.
Khalidi is an academic. He has never committed a crime and has never been accused of committing a crime. He does his job and based on his resume, he does it rather well. Academics are supposed to have opinions even if they are outside the mainstream. That’s the point of academia. Once we begin attacking academia and attacking ideas, we start down a very dangerous road.
Sinclair Lewis once said, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
We must remind ourselves of that every day.