Message from a friend: you’re scaring us

“Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” (John 16:2)

My respect for John McCain moves up a notch at the news of how he stood up to some of his more deranged supporters yesterday:

A man in the audience stood up and told McCain he’s “scared” of an Obama presidency and who he’d select for the Supreme Court.

“I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States,” McCain said as the crowd booed and shouted “Come on, John!”

“If I didn’t think I’d be a heck of a lot better, I wouldn’t be running for president of the United States.”

And to a woman who said she’d heard Obama was an “Arab terrorist”:

“No, maam. He’s a decent family man and citizen,” McCain says. “He’s not. Thank you.”

So, well done, Sen. McCain (in contrast to your running-mate, who seems determined to stoke the fires rather than damp them down).

I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again (because pleading with people is like that): it is distressing and alarming to witness the way in which the United States seems to be losing one of the most important habits of democracy – the ability to undergo peaceful transitions of power in which the losing side recognises the legitimacy of the winner.

If Obama wins the election, then it seems that for substantial number of people he will be an illegitimate usurper: a Muslim fifth-columnist, friend of terrorists, America-hating “Kenyan-Indonesian-Hawaiian, or whatever he is” (as Mark Steyn so charmingly put it). For many more besides, these allegations will at the very least cast a shadow over Obama’s legitimacy.

Similarly, in the currently-unlikely event that McCain wins, it is hard to believe that fervent Democrats would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh well, better luck next time”. No: it’ll be the Third Stolen Election, in which the democratic (or Democratic) will of the American people has once again been subverted by a combination of racism, anti-Obama insinuations, lies and rigged electronic voting machines.

But at the moment it’s the increasingly hysterical attacks on Obama – “He is a terrorist!”, “Off with his head!”, “Kill him!” – that pose the greatest threat. I agree with the commenter on The Scylding’s blog who said he has “never seen an election filled with so much venom as this one”.

So as a plea to all concerned, but especially to those who are dismayed by the thought of an Obama presidency: by all means spend the next three weeks arguing against Obama, attacking his record, questioning his claims to represent “change” and “hope”, and all the rest of it. And then spend the next four years arguing you were right about him.

But at the same time, ask yourself whether the manner and tone in which you are doing so could be contributing to a rhetorical climate in which some nutjob with a hunting rifle decides that he is the one to whom it falls to save America by putting Joe Biden in the White House.

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16 Responses to Message from a friend: you’re scaring us

  1. paul bowman says:

    I have to say, though, that although I see worry & striking negativity about political matters among friends both ‘liberal’ & ‘conservative,’ I don’t see hysteria & apocalypticism in any of my own ordinary social/cultural surroundings. People who’ll eagerly fix blame for perceived disasters past & future on one public figure/group or another still have normal relations with those who don’t do so just as they themselves — as folks did also when I was growing up, in the shadow of the late ’60s & its actual swell of violence. In other words the tone of political conflict that’s operative at one cultural level, and that fuels & is fueled by popular media in particular, isn’t the tone of everyday life. At least as I live it — and I’m not living in a closet. Besides, there is still, always, the tremendous & pervasive political apathy right alongside this over-anxious blame-seeking that people are prone to when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the air. Not much seems really changed, from my own perspective.

    I wonder what a thoughtful outsider like you would say about the social environment here if he came here, just as a visitor for a while during this period — not as a journalist hunting for the ‘story’ of the times. It seems to me that your picture would change.

  2. Pingback: Message from England: Chill « Olde Frothingblog

  3. Phil Walker says:

    I’m glad you’ve raised the issue: I’ve noticed a similar incapacity on the part of at least some Americans even to listen to the other side and treat them as rational, thinking human beings. Taking politics seriously is one thing—and to the extent that Americans take politics more seriously than apathetic and cynical Brits (of whom I am chief, at least on the cynicism score), we probably have some things we could learn from the Americans—but the kind of near-demonisation that both sides engage in is awful, and I don’t think you’re wrong to describe it as (in posse) the beginning of the end of democracy. The parallel, which Scylding notes, with a beerhall in Bavaria should serve as a serious warning, Godwin’s Law notwithstanding.

    I’ve a friend who was thinking about going to an academic conference, but it’s in Texas, just a couple of days after the election, and she just doesn’t want to be around Americans that close after it. When she first said this a few months ago, I didn’t much understand why; over the intervening period, I think I’ve come to understand a little.

  4. I’m with you about the personal venom. The irony is that these guys talk about real issues that affect us. They should be accepted/rejected on their stand on the issues, no matter how good a hero they were 30 years ago or whether they hung out with an unrepentant terrorist.

    What screws that up though is that we have a history with both parties promising one thing in the campaign and then not following through with it (Clinton’s “middle-class tax cut”, Bush’s promise not to “nation build”). So when we can’t trust what they are saying, then we have to go with character, hence the attacks.

    If McCain were a real conservative, he could run on the issues, show how government protection of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac led the U.S. to the mess we’re in. But being a centrist, he really doesn’t have too many bedrock principles to explain to the public. He goes after Wall Street, forgetting that Main Street owns the stock.

    Obama doesn’t scare me because he hung out with unrepentant terrorists or went to the wrong church. I am quite concerned about his vote meaning an unchecked Congress legislating and controlling the snot out of everything. If he gets elected, our health care industry will look like Fannie and Freddie in a matter of years.

    Votes do have meaning, but failing to convey what things are really about, each candidate is going ad hominum. That should really disqualify them both.

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    I agree with Paul. In my own life, I hear much less shrillness than what I hear on the media. On television and radio, our culture looks like it’s become a “rantocracy.” But I see people of three political parties coexisting quite well in my world.

    If someone were to take it upon himself to “elect” Biden, I think it would more likely be someone holding old prejudices than someone who has bought into the “new political culture” of suspecting other parties of being illegitimate.

    And your worries about perceived legitimacy! What would Jacques Ellul say?

  6. Mack Ramer says:

    I am really looking forward to a landslide. If we get a clear-cut winner things will go over a lot easier. The shrillness in the media comes in part because it’s what sells, but also in part because the slim margins of the last two elections (esp. 2000) make partisans desperate to exploit every weakness of the other side at every opportunity, whether sane or no.

    John H. & Phil Walker — I think you’re overreacting. As Paul & Rick said, things on the ground here in the US are nothing abnormal. You’ve got your crazies all fired up about this and ranting and raving (and getting air time), but a year ago they were all fired up about something else. Phil, your coworker’s comment about visiting Texas is absolutely incomprehensible to me.

    And Dan — it’s ad hominem 3rd declension: homo, hominis, homini, hominem…. The abuse of language is something up with which I will not put.

  7. Theresa K. says:

    Thank you for posting your comments on this, yet another, “historic” election. I don’t know what to think about the growing and firm divide in America. I am sincerely hoping that the upcoming generations will reject this divide. It is said that today’s 20 year olds are much more creative, communal and open than previous generations. They are also more religious than their 30 year old counterparts. (These are my own observations, so I can’t provide data.) I realize that some will find a problem with those traits, but I think God is developing those traits in our children for His purpose. God is still in control and we are still called to love each other and proclaim the gospel. Christians, particularly the evangelical right wing types, are forgetting that.

  8. spicedparrot says:

    Ummm…the rancor and vitriol this year really aren’t that much different than most other elections for chief executives in US History. Accusations of stealing elections are common (and some sometimes justified), lying at worst or misrepresenting the truth at best has always been common, pandering and promises to a relatively uneducated electorate, a biased press, etc. etc. A quick glance at presidential campaigns simply says this one is the same as they always have been – its just that we are living it now. The idea that some how elections in the past were conducted as part of some golden age is revisionist history at best.

    Case in point: Adams v. Jefferson still is one of the top 4 worst for this sort of behavior. Oh yes – lets not forget that the Aaron Burr v. Hamilton duel was over presidential politics.

    Anyway – even though a significantly weaker position prior to Lincoln, it was still a position of great power. Of course, where there is power there is sin – where there is great power there is great sin. This election isn’t any different.

  9. Josh S says:

    Hate to be a wet blanket, John, but voter fraud by ACORN will certainly not lend legitimacy to an Obama presidency. Furthermore, how is Obama’s radical past, whether his friendship with Ayers or his 20 years of black-supremacist religion, not important? The fact is that Obama’s most comfortable swimming in waters inhabited by the most radical fringes of the Left. That doesn’t mean that a potential election of him is “illegitimate;” it means that folks such as myself have reasons to be genuinely concerned about him.

    The other thing is that, as a UK citizen, you seem most privy to what the American press talks about–which is whenever a McCain supporter goes a little haywire. In my opinion, the actual violence and vandalism against McCain supporters, the suppression and intimidation of radio and television shows, and the legal threats against citizens running anti-Obama ads are far, far more sinister than a few people coming unglued at rallies. But you’re not thinking about that because the press isn’t feeding that side of the story to you.

  10. Oops…thanks for the spell-check, Mack. 🙂

  11. John H says:

    Josh: your comment shows why Mack nailed it by identifying the need for a landslide to clear the air. The problem with the 2000 election is obvious; 2004 was close enough for a certain type of Democrat to spend the next four years whingeing about Ohio voting machines; if 2008 is another nail-biter then the losers (on either side) will go similarly nuts about this or that factor that might have tipped things one way or another.

    So if Obama wins narrowly then I assume we can look forward to years of people ranting about ACORN and alleged voter intimidation and all the rest of it.

    As others in this thread and elsewhere have pointed out, a lot of what’s going on is pretty typical for US presidential elections. What makes it dangerous at the moment is that there have been a succession of 50/50 elections where these marginal issues can be felt to have made a significant difference. That’s why a clear margin of victory is needed this time, for everyone’s sanity.

  12. John D says:

    John H: What’s going on may be pretty typical for US elections – I don’t think it is, by the way – but only typical of the last fifty or so years. There was a time in this nation where the office of the president had far, far less power than it does now; the less power the office has, the less people are interested in who occupies it.

  13. Josh S says:

    John, I actually think that if Obama wins, most McCain supporters will credit that to a crappily-run McCain campaign. I know I will. It’s what most conservative pundits are already saying. In fact, a lot of us are expecting a resurgence in 4 or 8 years. The old moderates aren’t winning elections. Young conservatives are taking governorships around the country by running conservative campaigns.

    The fact that 105% of the voting population of my home city is registered to vote is a little disturbing, though.

  14. John H says:

    I actually think that if Obama wins, most McCain supporters will credit that to a crappily-run McCain campaign.

    As opposed to a crappily-run Bush presidency???

    This year’s election is (and remains) Obama’s to lose, and so far he isn’t looking like losing it (apart from some serious wobbles in late August). McCain faces (and always faced) an uphill struggle to win even if he had run a blinding campaign, which he hasn’t.

    And yes, I would expect a conservative comeback. Not if Sarah Palin remains conservatism’s poster-girl, though.

  15. Phil Walker says:

    Well, Carl Trueman uses the term “Manichean” of this year’s election cycle, and he’s a British Christian living in the States.

    http://www.reformation21.org/counterpoints/the-freedom-of-the-christian-market.php

    Perhaps the spectators really are seeing more of the game?

    If, as Mack says, this dualistic approach to politics is par for the course, then that’s even more worrying than saying that it’s just peculiarly bad this time.

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