Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Colin Powell and Ben Affleck Address the Muslim/Arab Issue

For a while, it felt like it was simply becoming okay to accept the answer to the "Barack Obama is a Muslim!" rumor by saying, admittedly correctly, that he's not, he's a Christian, and he has never been Muslim. Despite that, about 13% of Americans still believe that Obama is Muslim.

Colin Powell, in one of the most well-thought out, articulate endorsements of any this year, finally made the distinction between the "correct" answer and the "right" answer to this question:

I'm also troubled by – not what Senator McCain says – but what members of the Party say, and it is permitted to be said: such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is he is not a Muslim. He's a Christian; has always been a Christian.

But the really right answer is, "What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?" The answer's "No, that's not America."

Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be President?

Yet, I have heard senior members of my own Party drop the suggestion he's Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery. And she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards – Purple Heart, Bronze Star; showed that he died in Iraq; gave his date of birth, date of death. He was twenty years old.

And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross. It didn't have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American.

He was born in New Jersey, he was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he could go serve his country and he gave his life.

Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as non-discriminatory as anyone I know. But I'm troubled about the fact that within the party we have these kinds of expressions.
A separate incident a little over a week ago at a McCain-Palin town-hall meeting featured a woman who told John McCain that she was afraid of an Obama's presidency because he's "an Arab".

This time, it was Ben Affleck who addressed it best on Friday's Real Time with Bill Maher (starting at 5:20 in the clip):
"...(John McCain) said, "No he's not an Arab, he's a good man."

What if someone said, "I heard he was a Jew..." and I said, "No, no, no, he's not a Jew, he's alright..."? 'Arab' and 'good person' are not antithetical to one another!

We've allowed this idea, denying the fact that Obama - who, yes, is not an Arab, nor is he a Muslim - (that) we've allowed that denial to turn into the acceptance of both of those things as a legitimate slur is really a problem.

Instead of standing up and saying these aren't slurs, these are categories of human beings, they're not slurs of people - no one in the media stood up and said that. And instead they just follow around Joe the Plumber, it's the same bullshit they do every fucking day over and over again."
Despite the fact that Obama is neither Muslim nor Arab, his historic campaign may give rise to a more balanced national dialogue not only on race, but on what has been another kind of bigotry - one that is novel and easily overlooked, but just as significant.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

John McCain Has Lost His Confidence

Let's face it - these debates aren't really debates - they're auditions.

A real "debate" would be a substantive discussion on the issues, and although we have seen that happen from time to time, it's only one of many components of the overall audition.

Everything from smiling into the camera to delivering sharp one-liners plays into the performance - and sometimes, depending on expectations, simply not screwing up is enough to make it through.

In the end, debates are won with confidence. No voter can have confidence in a candidate if a candidate doesn't have confidence in himself. And what we saw more than anything last night was a palpable display of John McCain's loss of confidence.

Sarah Palin went into last week's debate facing very low expectations; conversely, McCain went into last night's debate facing very high expectations.

He had been touting his townhall debate proposal all summer, and it was all but established that the townhall format favored him.

He had appeared erratic and impulsive during the economic crisis and needed to come across as stable and presidential.

He had appeared agitated and cynical during the first presidential debate, needed to show more optimism, and needed to connect with voters in the warm way that he did during his townhall meetings in the primary season.

He needed to follow through on his campaign's bizarre announcement that they will now focus on 'exposing' Obama's alleged deficiency in character, judgment, and patriotism.

He didn't do any of those things.

Instead, he reminded voters again and again of his record and experience, which have now been established as non-factors in this debate. The two most popular candidates in this election, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, have the shortest records and the least experience.

He appeared agitated, cynical, and tired again, more so than in the first debate. He occasionally rambled. His few attempts at humor fell flat, making him appear sarcastic and passive-aggressive. It really is a testament to John McCain's honesty that he doesn't have a very good poker face, but in these debates/auditions, this has been a major handicap.

Finally, his decision not to bring up talking points like the alleged "terrorist" ties Obama has - as his campaign and running mate have been doing recently - showed inconsistency.

McCain had promised a feisty Tuesday night, and appears now to have backtracked on the nature of the attacks that his party's faithful were hoping to see. He built up those expectations for the Republican base all week, and then let them down, de-energizing them at a time where it is critical for him to maintain the fragile momentum and energy level the Republicans have finally gained in this fall.

McCain is trailing by more than 5 points in almost every aggregate poll, and he's down by over 100 votes in state-by-state electoral college polls. He walked into last night's debate looking like a man too aware of that - discouraged and exhausted, his confidence shattered.

To regain his footing, he needs his confidence back.

And it's not going to happen with the William Ayers association attacks or questions about Obama's patriotism. It's too late for McCain to define his opponent - everybody already knows Barack Obama by now, and opinions have already been formed.

Perhaps finding Osama bin Laden can save John McCain. Maybe if Sarah Palin is dropped and a new, equally explosive VP pick is announced a week before November 4, he could get his mojo back. But short of those kinds of scenarios, I've run out of ideas.

It's becoming very obvious that John McCain has too.

Monday, October 6, 2008

'Religulous' Speaks for a Large, Growing Silent Minority

When Sarah Palin was stumped by perfectly legitimate questions that she couldn't answer in two major network interviews, she deflected the blame onto the questioners.

This is a common dynamic that's part of human nature, and it seems at least partially to be what's driving the controversy being generated around Bill Maher's new comedy Religulous, which raked in $3.5 million on its opening weekend, cracking the top ten despite a limited release on only 502 screens nationwide.

Bill Maher, host of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, doesn't seem to have much of a problem with Jesus. He actually reminds some of his interview subjects, like the blinged out pastor Jeremiah Cummings, wearing lizard-skin shoes and gold bracelets, that Jesus would never have dressed or decorated himself that way. He asks a Vatican priest - on location - whether Jesus, known for his humility and modesty, would live in such opulence. He questions an ex-gay pastor about his mission to convert gay people to heterosexuality, when Jesus was never even known to address homosexuality.

What Maher does seem to have a problem with, though, is the increasing involvement of religion in politics, its self-proclaimed monopoly on morality, and its infiltration into everything from US foreign policy (complete with a W. quote) to science education in schools - illustrated adeptly with an immensely entertaining tour through a creationism museum in Kentucky showcasing animatronic human children and dinosaurs happily playing side by side.

The central focus of Maher's quest is to finally ask the questions that have always been taboo to ask, including the questions that many religious people are often afraid to ask themselves - and to do it with an element of lighthearted humor. He does this by questioning the unwavering certainty that his subjects have in their beliefs more than the beliefs themselves; his operating premise is, "I don't know, so how do you know?"

If you're expecting a serious discussion, debate, or detailed investigative analysis on the dynamics and intricacies of belief, this movie will probably leave you dissatisfied - it's constructed as a comedy, not a documentary.

And if you're sensitive about your religious beliefs, you may find yourself offended at Bill Maher's methodology. He is definitely provocative in his questions, and because this is a comedy, he tries to get laughs, which he does successfully even when he comes across as glib and condescending.

The good news is, he covers all of the major Abrahamic religions, and even people of faith like critic Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times and Ebert and Roeper), who gave the film three and a half stars out of four, report taking some guilty pleasure in it:

"...I report faithfully that I laughed frequently. You may very well hate it, but at least you've been informed. Perhaps you could enjoy the material about other religions, and tune out when yours is being discussed. That's only human nature."
A lot of criticism has been directed at Maher for interviewing those considered aberrations and "kooks" instead of learned theologians. In some cases, this is true. His interview with Yisroel Dovid Weiss, the anti-Zionist rabbi who attended and spoke at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference in 2006, falls under this category. Others, with geneticist and Human Genome Project head Francis Collins, Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, and Vatican astronomer and priest George Coyne - do not, yet some of them do come across as conflicted when they attempt to reconcile their faith with their own perceptions of modern reality.

And some of the "fringe" characters that Maher is accused of unnecessarily focusing on are actually significant, like Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, who believes he is the second coming of Christ. Miranda, portrayed as one of the "kooks", is very entertaining until you learn that he has actually managed to amass a following of over 100,000 people who believe in his claim to divinity. This - in addition to his inherent, priceless comedic value - rightly earns him his place in the film.

Though he focuses primarily on Christianity, Maher also takes on Judaism and Islam. As someone who grew up in a Muslim environment, I can all but confirm his suspicion that Muslims generally tend to tout the "religion of peace" claim unequivocally in front of outsiders, while they remain very conflicted about it within. He interviews Aki Nawaz (aka Propa-Gandhi), the controversial UK rapper, as well as a more mainstream, moderate Muslim woman in Amsterdam, both of whom struggle to reconcile their faith and their ideals in response to his questions.

And that is the point of this film - to ask questions. In one of the earlier scenes, where Maher holds interviews in a small church for truck drivers, one of the truckers immediately says, "You start disputin' my God, and you've got a problem," to which Maher replies, "I'm only asking questions." The trucker walks out shortly afterwards.

Maher points out that non-religious people now constitute over 16% of the US population - a higher percentage than than blacks, Jews, or homosexuals. He provides a voice for this large, silent, fast-growing minority, encouraging them to speak up and reclaim their right to what is actually a completely legitimate alternative view of the world - a view that is just as moral, and based on at least equivalent values of reason, rationality, and consistency. This is the group that this film is directed to.

For those who feel that this film is disrespectful and dismissive of the faithful, remember: most widely followed religious texts have declared skeptics and nonbelievers to be morally bereft, lost, strayed souls that are potentially punishable by death and condemned to damnation and eternal hellfire.

In response, all Maher is offering on our behalf is a little film, a comedy which at the very least is laugh-out-loud hilarious - whether you're a believer or not.

No Post-Debate Bump for McCain-Palin

Frank Luntz and Bill O'Reilly predicted it wrong. There has been no poll bump for John McCain as a consequence of the VP debate.

Barack Obama's lead has actually widened in the first national polls conducted entirely after Sarah Palin and Joe Biden's vice presidential debate on Thursday, October 2.

For October 3-5, Hotline/FD shows a 6 point advantage (47-41%), Rasmussen an 8 point advantage (52-44%), and Gallup shows an 8 point advantage (50-42%), for Obama.

The Electoral College Map Obama leading by over 100 electoral votes, despite another 100 or votes still in the toss-up states.

Apparently, people were able to see through the Palin facade, despite the analysts and pundits largely declaring the debate a "tie". Karl Rove's campaign style, predicated on the assumption that the majority of people are gullible and can be taken advantage of, seems to have gone the way of trickle-down economics.

The McCain camp will now focus on Obama's alleged association with William Ayers - a last resort strategy - and deliberately target Obama's character, judgment, and patriotism. It's obvious why they feel the need to go down this route now.

I wonder if Bill O'Reilly has any more predictions.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Biden Helps Obama, and Palin Helps Palin

Going into the debate last night, it was pretty clear what the tasks for each vice presidential candidate would be.

Sarah Palin had to survive the ninety minutes and bounce back from the Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson interviews, which she did.

Joe Biden had to win the debate, which he did.

The two major post-debate polls conducted on undecided voters by CNN and CBS showed that Joe Biden won the debate by a significant margin, but Sarah Palin exceeded expectations.

Normally, this would mean a boost for the Obama-Biden ticket, but it's not. Winning the debate isn't enough - primarily because these things aren't really debates. They're auditions, and the actual debate (which by definition would be a substantive discussion on the issues) was only one component of the audition last night.

Strategically, Joe Biden had to define John McCain as an out-of-touch non-maverick closely tied to the Bush administration. He accomplished this very effectively.

Palin needed to show that she was not as clueless and incoherent as she appeared in her Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson interviews.

She accomplished this partially.

She wasn't completely coherent - she would often ramble and repeat herself, and she did dodge questions, including a very relevant one on McCain's record on deregulation. When Biden pointed out that she didn't answer the question, she covered up semi-effectively by saying, "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people."

She also wasn't completely clueless - she was able to hold her own, not stumble, take a few effective jabs at both Biden and Obama, and come up with some sort of answer, as tangential as it may be, to every question.

On style, Biden and Palin were both great, but Palin seemed to have the edge.

She was charming, delivered her attacks with a smile, and constantly looked and spoke into the camera. She was concise and clear, and warm and folksy. Her hockey-mom persona came through well. At one point, she sent a shout-out to a group of third graders who she said would get extra credit for watching the debate.

Her Washington-outsider persona also came through well, forming the basis of her single most effective one-liner against McCain: "Oh, yeah, it's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider. And someone just not used to the way you guys operate. Because here you voted for the war and now you oppose the war. You're one who says, as so many politicians do, I was for it before I was against it or vice-versa."

Palin Benefits From Reverse Sexism.

Biden was coached to restrain himself and not attack her or appear like he's "beating up" on a woman. Again, he did this perfectly. He was gracious and gentleman-like, not even correcting her when she mistakenly called David McKiernan (the commanding general in Afghanistan), "McClellan". He allowed Palin to get away with a lot, rarely if ever criticising her, instead choosing to focus on McCain.

If Palin was a man, Joe Biden would most certainly have been more aggressive about the dodged questions and slipups, like Lloyd Bentsen was to Dan Quayle in 1988.

But Biden was careful and did the smart thing, recognizing that in some situations, Americans are still not ready to see a woman treated in exactly the same way as a man.

He was easy on her, playing the honor student to her cheerleader: anything semi-intelligent out of her was shockingly impressive, while anything short of brilliant out of him was less than expected.

The Aftermath.

In the end, things are most likely to stay the same. The Republican base will love Palin's performance, the Democratic base will love Biden's, and the undecided voters will again, as they have before, vote against the status quo if they feel that things are going badly.

Thankfully, though, the Palin sideshow is over and she has now been initiated. Last night's audition went without any major disasters or home runs, and the race is back on track. From here on, Palin may be wise to restrict her media exposure to short but frequent interviews that are not recorded and susceptible to operator-dependent editing, but carried live - which seems to be the format most suited to her.

But for now, it's back to McCain and Obama.