The Terror of Ignorance

I’m frightened of the people who are frightened of having Barack Obama in the White House because they believe, or say they believe, things that are nonsense. They’re not patriots. They’re not responsible citizens. They’re willing pawns of demagogues who have no interest in participatory democracy. I’m shocked by Gayle Quinnell of Shakopee (I lived there for a year or so — I won’t move back) who called Sen. Barack Obama a terrorist and a Muslim and an Arab at the McCain campaign event in Lakeville yesterday.

This was in Minnesota. Where we like to tell ourselves we have good schools, an informed electorate, a state that works.

Dislike and speak out against and vote against Obama because you don’t like his health-care plan or his liberalism or even his race. That would be racist, but honest, saying I won’t vote for Obama because he’s black. He is black. If you can’t handle that, you don’t have to vote for him. But to swallow the spurious crap that the McCain slime machine and its right-wing fellow travelers are putting out, to uncritically inhale these lies — he’s an Arab, he’s a Muslim, he’s a terrorist — means you aren’t doing your patriotic duty as a citizen of a free country (country first, anyone?) to engage your brain and make the informed choice Thomas Jefferson expected was the least we could do as beneficiaries of an experiment in democracy that millions of people have died to create and preserve.

There are many ways to harm the United States of America. Not being vigilant against terrorists is one of them. Letting the country rot from within through ignorance is another. It’s insidious, this enemy within. It masquerades as fine upstanding people while it meets in cells that trade misinformation and feed prejudice. Obama is a Muslim, they say to one another. And nobody says, “Hmm, maybe we should look into this, inform ourselves, engage our critical thinking faculties and learn about this guy and decide for ourselves.” No, Obama is a Muslim. My fellow cell-member told me so. (And, of course — so what if he’s a Muslim? The Jefferson crowd never said only Christians need apply — in fact, that’s precisely what they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to get away from. But members of these terrifying little cells don’t know that, because they scheme in the dark, protecting their ignorance and beliefs from the light of day, from the light of knowledge.)

Come on, Gayle. Do a little thinking. A little reading. Do your duty. Put your country first. You don’t have to vote for Obama, but you do have to open your mind if you’re going to be a deserving recipient of what Jefferson helped create and what you would, I imagine, say the men and women dying and being maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting for.

And let’s talk about terrorism — using terror for political ends. Who’s using fear as a weapon? Yesterday a fragment of McCain’s honor revisited his body and caused him to say Obama is a “decent person” and to say he should be given respect. McCain did not, however, caught in the Rovian cesspool that he has allowed Steve Schmidt to make of his campaign, stand up like an officer and a gentleman and say to Gayle Quinnell, the person sitting in darkness, “Ma’am, you are wrong. Barack Obama is not a Muslim — not that there would be anything wrong with that. But get your facts straight, my friend. If you’re going to vote for me I want it to be a vote cast with knowledge and good heart.” McCain didn’t do that. He’s using the fear that slinks in this dull woman’s mind. He’s fanning it. Who’s using fear as a weapon? Hillary Clinton stood by in the primaries when the lie that Obama was not a Christian was circulating. She said, “as far as I know…” he’s not a Muslim. She did not stand up and say “that’s a lie, and I won’t be any part of benefiting from it. That’s not how America works.” John McCain is now standing beside Hillary Clinton in that musty rank corner of the basement where cowards gather in little cells. All that it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to say nothing. John McCain is not saying enough. Gayle Quinnell is wasting the America so many have fought to preserve.

Terror is stalking the land. But it’s not old, and it doesn’t live only in the past acts of a college professor named Ayers. It lurks behind the flag the ignorant are waving, and it lurks behind the campaign that won’t stand up and put country first.

— Bruce Benidt

(photo from AFP/Getty Images) grants for college fine

Michelle Obama, RFK and America

Michelle Obama is still getting hammered for saying, as her husband started winning primaries, that this was the “first time in my adult life that I have been really proud of my country because it seems like hope is making a comeback.”

I’ve been reading The Last Campaign, by Thurston Clarke (excerpted also in last month’s Vanity Fair), about Robert Kennedy’s 82-day run for the White House in 1968. The book casts Kennedy as a revolutionary, the rare candidate who challenged his audiences and spoke uncomfortable truths. Clarke says no candidate has ever “criticized the American people so brazenly.”

Clarke writes: “Try to imagine a mainsteam politician saying, as Kennedy did in a New York Times essay, ‘Once we thought, with Jefferson, that we were the “best hope” of all mankind. But now we seem to rely only on our wealth and power,’ or, as he did on Meet The Press:I am dissatisfied with our society. I suppose I am dissatisfied with our country.’ You cannot because today’s thin-skinned electorate would never tolerate such criticism.” (Nor would the tiny-brained chihauhau yippers on cable TV ever let such a comment pass without a million replays and gallons of crocodile tears over why they’re talking about it over and over. My sentence, this last, not Clarke’s.)

RFK criticized all of us for complacency in not standing up against the Vietnam War — and admitted his own mistakes in being one of the architects of our early involvement, sending military “advisors.” He nailed us all (those of us who were alive and conscious then) for ignoring the poverty in our midst, ignoring the racism and inequality all around us. He had the guts, when asked by a medical-school student where the money was going to come from for the social programs such as neighborhood clinics Kennedy advocated, to point at the student and say, “From you,” and he jabbed his finger around the hall and shouted, “and you, and you, and you.” Then he more quietly explained that it isn’t right for only the affluent to have access to medical care, or to go to medical school, noting very few black or Hispanic faces in the audience.

In 1968 the country was going off the rails, it seemed to a lot of us. Urban riots, demonstrations and violent lawandorder crackdowns, a disastrous war, a polarized country. And Robert Kennedy looked at it all straight on and said what he thought was wrong — not with his opponents, but with the country, with his fellow citizens, with himself. And he said what he thought we all needed to do to set things right.

Criticizing America is patriotic. Shouting down those who criticize is idiotic. We need more courage from people like Michelle Obama.

Here’s a passage from Clarke’s book that hits home 40 years after RFK’s brief campaign:
“During his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Kennedy told Americans that they were individually responsible for what their government had done in their name in Vietnam and for what it had failed to do at home for minorities and the poor. He said they could not acquit themselves of this responsibility simply by voting for a new president and new policies. Instead, they would have to participate in the healing process. Because Kennedy had managed his late brother’s 1960 presidential campaign and served in his cabinet as attorney general, he understood that following a crude and divisive campaign with a high-minded presidency would be difficult, and healing a morally wounded nation after running an immoral campaign would be impossible. Because he understood this, his campaign is a template for how a candidate should run for the White House in a time of moral crisis.”

This is a time of moral crisis. How are Obama and McCain doing so far?

–Bruce Benidt small business management fine