Monday, January 7, 2008

Takin' Out Ugly

Three people who ought to know better have sent me an ugly email that's circulating about Obama. About his church, actually. And sent it with some degree of buy-in. "This worries me," or "We don't know enough about this candidate," they write.

It's disturbing when this kind of thing has its desired impact on people who ought to know better. It confirms that most Americans must lack the equipment to make it intact ethically and intellectually through the coming storm of swiftboating. (If we thought Vietnam vet John Kerry was vulnerable, we ain't seen nothin' yet.)

It's not like this email is arcane. It's formulaic smear stuff, straight out of the Book of Rove, Dolan, and Atwater. (And that's on the record, not rhetoric on my part.) Attack anonymously. Put the candidate in the impossible position of proving a negative. Appeal to the reader's latent racism and fear. Imply that the little you do know is evidence of something you don't know that's profoundly threatening to Christians and/or to America. Mix the candidate up in the reader's mind with someone or something around him or her, and hold the candidate accountable for what they say or do, not what he or she says or does. Ignore the candidate. Instead, effectively erase the candidate and replace him or her with a sinister avatar you've made up of nasty, unprovable innuendo.

But most Americans don't have any knowledge at all about smear tactics as a technique, a "science," if you will. Most simply know that the Willy Horton ad is called "smear campaigning," but they really don't know why, or how it works.

That's why it's highly effective. If, like all the rest of us, you're uninformed, naive, perhaps bigoted about race or religion or gender or whatever, earnest, and highly sensitive to implications that America is threatened, you're vulnerable. In the wake of 9-11, we all have a little post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We're all apt to react out of fear of what we don't know than to consider the source and the circumstances before plunging.

What to do about it? Here are some questions to ask the people who are circulating this kind of thing generally, regardless of candidate. I would appreciate your using them when you get posts like that about any candidate, because no matter which horse you support, all of them are going to get smeared--especially the Democrats (smear tactics, as a matter of history, have been evolved and refined by the Right):

Who is the author of this information?
What do I know about the author?
What is his or her precise agenda? (Opposition can come from any direction. Which is it now? Domestic? Foreign? Reacting from self interest? If so, which?)
On what basis do I think I should I believe him or her?
What about this post gives me reason to take it seriously?
Am I reacting to it with a sound combination of thinking and feeling?
Do any parts of this post seem to lead me to a pre-determined conclusion? What does that tell me?

As to the insinuations in this particular email, I hope people will ask themselves a few additional questions, too:
How much do I know about Obama's church, its history, community reputation, pastors' credentials, activities, reputation within the UCC denomination?
If there were really something sinister about it, why shouldn't I believe it would have surfaced before now in its long history?
What was Obama's personal role in setting this church's mission statement? Am I personally responsible for every statement my congregation makes?
What is the context for the congregation's alleged "commitment to Africa"? Might it have been adopted sometime around 1972, in the context of Liberation Theology? (See the link about the pastor.)
What do I know about the 1970s? About Liberation Theology?
Why does the email mix theology up with politics? Might the commitment to Africa be theological instead of political? Might it be about mission and support and outreach?
What does Obama himself say, as contrasted with this church?
How would I respond if my church were X-rayed like this? Could someone "make something" of anything we've said or done?
What do I gain from passing this on?

----- Original Message -----