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Unreasonable hatred in American politics

 
Samuel P. Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington

In his landmark study of the cultural and civilizational origins of conflict and war, the late social scientist Samuel P. Huntington concluded boldly that “It is human to hate.” He viewed this as an ineradicable feature of our basic human nature.

Hatred, as anyone who follows national politics in this country knows, shows no signs of going away soon. Much of it is directed against the president, though senators and representatives (and, less frequently, federal judges) are also targets of hate from time to time.

Earlier this month, President Jimmy Carter stated that “the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American.” Not surprisingly, his comments angered many and led to accusations of playing the so-called “race card” to denigrate those (presumably white) Americans who are fiercely opposed to Pres. Obama’s policy goals in health care, the economy, and other issue areas.

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

Alleged assertions of racism, which are empirical claims, should not be given or received lightly. Carter has a responsibility to substantiate his claim, which he has done only in rather general and vague terms. It appears that Carter can only conclude that the raw hatred directed against Pres. Obama at some protests and town hall meetings around the country and, more disturbingly, on blogs and in chat rooms on the Internet is due to racial bias. There is much in American history to make such a conclusion a plausible one. However, it should not be seen as inevitable or the only conclusion.

Expressions of hatred tend to demonize and distort their targets with varying degrees of exaggeration. George W. Bush was vilified by many as being grossly incompetent in dealing with domestic affairs and as relying too much, even blindly, on a rigid version of his evangelical faith to guide his foreign and national security policy. Bill Clinton, by contrast, was despised by many because of his deeply flawed moral character and expansive ego.

President Barrack Obama

President Barrack Obama

Barack Obama is a very different type of person and politician compared to Bush and Clinton. Even his critics are quick to acknowledge his intellectual strengths and rhetorical skills. Moreover, he has, at least to this point, avoided the sort of personal scandals that plagued Clinton before and during his presidency. All of this means that haters of Obama must demonize him in other ways, such as by shouting him down as a liar, branding him as a communist, or comparing him to Osama bin Laden (the “Obama bin Lyin’” displayed on the signs of some protesters) or Adolf Hitler (whose image has been combined with the likeness of Obama in some posters). Still others continue to claim that Obama, who is really a closet Muslim, was not born in the United States and therefore his presidency is illegitimate.

johnnypiper

Mayor Johnny Piper

What, we might ask, is fueling these distorted characterizations of the president, especially those that are both erroneous and hateful at the same time, such as the recent e-mail message stereotyping Muslims forwarded by Clarksville Mayor Johnny Piper to city employees?

If it is not racial bias, and I still cling to the hope that it is not, then it is incumbent upon those of us most opposed to this president to frame our opposition to him in terms that are at once rational and respectful. In his two books, Obama gives us a standard by which to judge him and other leaders on the basis of their ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, to develop sound reasons in support of policy, and to argue persuasively about how citizens in a democracy can best respond to social challenges in specific contexts.

This strikes me, frankly, as a reasonable standard and one we can apply with greatest effectiveness if we lower our sights by not striving for love or hatred with respect to our political leaders.

Clearly, it is human to hate, just as it is human to love. History has shown that both of these passions can lead to dangerous and violent outcomes when mingled with politics.

Fortunately, it is also human to reason. In the realm of politics and especially during these uncertain times, it is best call on reason and to keep our passions in check.

About Matthew T. Kenney

Matthew T. Kenney is an associate professor of political science at Austin Peay State University. The views expressed here are entirely his own, and do not represent those of his employer.



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One Response to “Unreasonable hatred in American politics”

  1. Blayne Clements Says:
    September 29th, 2009 at 4:10 pm
    Blayne Clements

    When people use pamphlets with pictures of the front lawn of the White House being as a watermelon patch, or email a picture of all the presidents with Obama just a pair of white eyes on a black background, or hold signs at tea party rallies calling Obama a “lyin’ African”, we should not ignore these blantant acts racism.

    Conservative talking heads suggest these folks arent really racist, they just don’t like the way this adminstartion headed, (bless their little hearts.) And with that simple comment, they transistion the topic to the specific policies.

    Exactly what policy are they expressing to be against by carrying a sign that called Obama a “Lyin African” or fwd an email with a pic of the White House lawn full of watermelons, etc?

    Instead of addressing these issues head on, conservative leaders spin their own “reason” to either marginalize these examples, or justify the overall intent. The problem is that does not address the underlying issue of racism.

    You are correct that “it is incumbent upon those of us most opposed to this president to frame our opposition to him in terms that are at once rational and respectful.” Equally so, it is incumbent of those most in favor of this president to not ignore the racism, but not to classify all dissenters as racist…..but if your holding a sign that says such, it should not be denied, spun, or ignored.

    Good Article Sir.

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