Sunday, October 12, 2008

Patterns of Force: Has McCain Lost Control?

There's an episode of the original series of Star Trek called "Patterns of Force." It's not in the upper echelon of good Star Trek stories, but rather one of Gene Roddenberry's sometimes awkward attempts at social commentary. But that's not important right now. The premise was this: the Enterprise finds a missing historian on a planet that's literally turned into a planet of Nazis, complete with SS and Gestapo, bent on exterminating the rather peaceful inhabitants of the next planet over. The historian, John Gill, tried to solve the planet's problems by setting up an "efficient" government modeled on Nazi Germany, setting himself up as Fuhrer, the better to guide and help them. Gill left out the religious/ethnic scapegoating from his recreation, but the Deputy Fuhrer rectified this omission when he took over behind the scenes. By the time Kirk and Co. arrive, Gill is a figurehead, a drugged up talking head manipulated by the hatemongers in his government.

There's also at least one Doctor Who story (Vengeance on Varos, perhaps?) with a similar dynamic, the apparent leader of a totalitarian regime who is actually just another victim of the vicious people pulling his strings.

Now, I don't mean to remotely imply that there is a close parallel with either of these stories in current American politics. But as I ponder recent developments at the rallies of John McCain and Sarah Palin, I find myself wondering how much control McCain is exerting over his own campaign. Does he really "approve this message" when an ad strays far from factual territory into character assassination? Does he approve Palin's attempts to paint Barack Obama as the scary unAmerican, one of Them, possibly a terrorist himself (although Palin never quite says this)? Does he approve of supporters' yells - unanswered until Friday - that Obama is a traitor and a terrorist, so "off with his head"?

For most of this week, it looked as though McCain approved all of the above, or at least didn't object enough to say anything to the contrary. Then on Friday, he finally said something. When McCain volunteer Gayle Quinnell, called Obama "an Arab," McCain said, "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues."

Reports differ on whether Quinnell called him an Arab or an Arab terrorist; the microphone only picked up "Arab" as McCain took the mike from her. But he knew what she meant. After all, the emails and other extremist hatemongering propaganda about Obama being a secret Muslim terrorist, possibly even the Antichrist, have been making the rounds for quite some time. McCain did not refute the idea that an "Arab" is inherently evil; he merely asserted that Obama is a "decent family man" and a "citizen." At another point in the rally he assured a father-to-be that he did not need to be afraid of an Obama presidency. For these reasonable, truthful remarks amid the attacks on Obama's character, McCain was booed by the crowd.

Nor was Quinnell herself convinced by McCain's attempt to defuse the paranoid hatemongering. Afterward she told reporters that she had been mailing out "information" about Obama as a Muslim terrorist at her own expense to hundreds of people randomly selected in the phone book.

Noah Kunin: You called him an Arab terrorist? Is that correct? Why do you think he is an Arab?

Quinnell Because his dad is. If you… I’ll send you the paper.

Female reporter: His dad is Muslim. His dad was Muslim. Barack Obama has never been a Muslim.

Quinnell: No but he’s….

Dana Bash of CNN: He’s a Christian.

Quinnell: He’s not an Arab either, he’s a--

Bash: His father was Muslim, and he’s a Christian.

Quinnell: Yeah , but he’s still got Muslim in him. So that’s still part of him. I got all the stuff from the library and I could send you all kinds of stuff on him. In fact….

Bash: What did you think about McCain said? He said he’s a decent person.

Quinnell: Well he did have didn’t have (unintelligible) I think McCain wanted to (unintelligible) I don’t think he wanted to say anything against him. You know he didn’t want to cut him down. That was my way of thinking. I don’t think he wanted to cut him down. So he just kind of brushed me off.

Reporter: Plus he criticizes Barack Obama plenty himself, so why wouldn’t he do it now?

Quinnell: Well I probably brought up something that he didn’t want to talk about.

Reporter: Do you think John McCain thinks that he’s Arab? Do you think he knows this stuff that you’re saying you know is fact?

Quinnell: I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t want to bring it up then. I don’t know why. Is there some way I can get to you more information?

As deluded xenophobes continued to spread lies about Obama beyond what McCain himself would condone, Obama himself called for an end to the divisiveness without directly criticizing the scary people who called for Obama's blood:

"In the last couple of days we have seen a barrage of nasty insinuations and attacks and I am sure we will see much more over the next 25 days.... It's easy to rile up a crowd by stoking anger and division. But that is not what we need now in the United States, the times are too serious."

He also said,
“I want to acknowledge that Sen. McCain tried to tone down the rhetoric yesterday, and I appreciated his reminder that we can disagree while still being respectful of each other,” he said at a rally in north Philadelphia. McCain, he said, “has served this country with honor and he deserves our thanks for that.”

And the McCain camp's response to Obama's rather mild rebuke?

“Barack Obama’s assault on our supporters is insulting and unsurprising,” McCain senior adviser Nicolle Wallace said in a statement, “These are the same people Obama called ‘bitter’ and attacked for ‘clinging to guns’ and faith. He fails to understand that people are angry at corrupt practices in Washington and Wall Street and he fails to understand that America’s working families are not ‘clinging’ to anything other than the sincere hope that Washington will be reformed from top to bottom.”

A McCain spokesman also attacked Obama. “Barack Obama’s attacks on Americans who support John McCain reveal far more about him than they do about John McCain. It is clear that Barack Obama just doesn’t understand regular people and the issues they care about,” said Brian Rogers.

Somehow I don't think that's going to dial down the hate and paranoia on the part of supporters.

So the question remains: is John McCain in control of his campaign at this point? He seems to have attempted a measure of it on Friday, but failed to keep either his campaign staff or his supporters from undercutting his words. At this point I have no idea whether any portion of the old image of McCain as an honorable man was ever true but I'd like to think that the spark of decency she showed on Friday was genuine. He needs to fan that flame, and use it to combat the very different fires being set in his name.



Sandisan said...

Good write. I watched McCain "try" to appease the audience too, but I felt like I was watching an actor on stage..protesting against the injustice just a little bit. Did you ever see that little ole governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas? Dancing up on the balcony as fast as he you see me, now you don't...I always think of McCain. For the sake of our nation I hope that Obama is well, Sandi

Carly said...


I expect the hate is much larger then both men at this point. McCain had an opportunity to calm the hatred of his party months ago, when a female McCain supporter asked the question, "How do we beat the BITCH?" That was in reference to Hillary Clinton, of course, but it was also a clear indicator of how the hatred toward a democratic nominee would be. McCain blew it off, said nothing, then went about his own toned down version of hate. The responsibility lies with him to control the kind of message he sends. If that woman wasn't fired immediately, then he most certainly "approved of the message."