But along came the Edwards scandal and the attendant media boorishness. And Monday, I glanced at the Time magazine Web site and found this, the latest in the interminable string of efforts to depict any criticism or potentially negative portrayal of Barack Obama as outside the bounds of decency.
In the last month alone, we’ve had the controversy over Barry Blitt’s “The Politics of Fear” New Yorker cover, which, those complaining said, might make idiots think that Obama was an Islamic terrorist. And then there was the uproar over calling Obama, with regard to his Berlin rally, “presumptuous,” which, those complaining said, might make idiots think Obama was an uppity Negro (we all know the slur being inferred) who didn’t know his place. And then there was McCain’s "Celeb" ad, which, those complaining said, might make idiots think that Obama was a dastardly black man looking to ravish white women.
And now, thanks to Time’s Amy Sullivan, we have a brewing controversy over McCain’s “The One” ad, which might make idiots think Obama is the Anti-Christ. Take a look:
I’ve volunteered for pooper-scooper duty before when these controversies have erupted (see here, here, here, here, and here for details), so I might as well pick up the broom and don the baggie gloves again.
First off, let’s review the conclusion I came to last time. The concern is always over what some idiot out there might think. In other words, if we say anything about Obama that said idiot, such as an unrepentant racist, an ignorant anti-Islamic bigot, or—in this instance—an irrational Protestant religious dogmatic might agree with or take the wrong way, we're doing something wrong. More specifically, we’re saying something in bad taste, and they're trying to shame us out of it. Unfortunately, anything negative one could say about Obama might confirm some idiot in his or her stupidity, so the only way to avoid bad taste when discussing Obama is to not say anything negative about him at all. It’s a justification for stifling debate about Obama altogether.
That said, here’s the meat of Sullivan’s article:
It's not easy to make the infamous Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign seem benign. But suggesting that Barack Obama is the Antichrist might just do it.
That's just what some outraged Christian supporters of the Democratic nominee are claiming John McCain's campaign did in an ad called "The One" that was recently released online. The Republican nominee's advisers brush off the charges, arguing that the spot was meant to be a "creative" and "humorous" way of poking fun at Obama's popularity by painting him as a self-appointed messiah. But even this innocuous interpretation of the ad — which includes images of Charlton Heston as Moses and culled clips that make Obama sound truly egomaniacal — taps into a conversation that has been gaining urgency on Christian radio and political blogs and in widely circulated e-mail messages that accuse Obama of being the Antichrist.
As the ad begins, the words "It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him The One" flash across the screen. The Antichrist of the Left Behind books is a charismatic young political leader named Nicolae Carpathia who founds the One World religion (slogan: "We Are God") and promises to heal the world after a time of deep division. One of several Obama clips in the ad features the Senator saying, "A nation healed, a world repaired. We are the ones that we've been waiting for."
The visual images in the ad, which Davis says has been viewed even more than McCain's "Celeb" ad linking Obama to the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, also seem to evoke the cover art of several Left Behind books. But they're not the cartoonish images of clouds parting and shining light upon Obama that might be expected in an ad spoofing him as a messiah. Instead, the screen displays a sinister orange light surrounded by darkness and later the faint image of a staircase leading up to heaven.
Perhaps the most puzzling scene in the ad is an altered segment from The 10 Commandments that appears near the end. A Moses-playing Charlton Heston parts the animated waters of the Red Sea, out of which rises the quasi-presidential seal the Obama campaign used for a brief time earlier this summer before being mocked into retiring it. The seal, which features an eagle with wings spread, is not recognizable like the campaign's red-white-and-blue "O" logo. That confused Democratic consultant Eric Sapp until he went to his Bible and remembered that in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, the Antichrist is described as rising from the sea as a creature with wings like an eagle.
The analysis in Sullivan’s article is overwrought in its concern, but it gives one pause. The ad does indeed appear to be playing off resonances that would identify Obama with the Anti-Christ. As opposed to the “presumptuous” business, or the juxtapositions of Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, the alleged tropes are likely being called for what they are. The question I’m left with is, is the ad out of bounds? And I have to answer that it isn’t. Tropes can have multiple layers of meaning, and the layer of meaning the article identifies and explicates is subtextual; it’s not the main point. And the core criticisms of Obama the ad makes are wholly justified. If anything, they’re overdue.
One of the reasons many of us find Obama so off-putting is that it’s clear to us he’s an unbridled egomaniac with an obviously messianic view of himself. We didn’t need the McCain ad satirizing him to realize that. (I'm not sure if Sullivan's implication is that the only people who could think such a thing are those who are viewing such snippets "out of context." Readers can decide that for themselves.)Those who have bought into his conceited self-regard--those who have “drunk the Kool-Aid”--see him as some sort of transformational figure beyond politics. Obama and his campaign have gone out of their way to encourage this, largely because they know he can’t run on substance: he has no record of accomplishment, he has little interest in the details of public policy, and his lack of appropriate experience is something any reasonable person aspiring to be President ought to be ashamed of. In order to get around this, a key goal of his campaign has been to present him as a transcendent saviour and to reinforce that view at every opportunity. This is why Obama campaign volunteers were encouraged not to talk about policy when speaking to voters; they were told to talk about their conversion experiences of “coming to Obama.” This is why so many of his campaign appearances resembled gargantuan Pentecostal tub-thumping rallies, and why he affected that preacher-man cadence when he spoke. (The first time I heard Obama talk like that, I thought for a moment I was listening to the opening to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”; I half-expected him to start singing about looking for the purple banana until they put us in the truck.) Michelle Obama was out there telling us that voting for her husband would save our souls, and, as shown in the "The One" ad, Obama himself was saying to audiences, “a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and say I have to vote for Barack.” Conceited idiocies like the “Possum” seal referenced in the ad haven’t been unusual, either. Obama has been ripe for skewering on these grounds for some time.
Throwing Obama's messianic nonsense back in his face is the overall point of the ad. I and many others got a good laugh out of it, just like we got a good laugh out of the satirical “Is Barack Obama the Messiah?” Web site, or the time Hillary Clinton mocked him by saying “let's get unified, the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect." Some viewing the ad will hopefully be embarrassed by the thrills they got up their legs from Obama’s hokum, and others--particularly the religious-minded who take the church trappings he appropriated seriously--will be reminded of how offensive they originally found it. The McCain ad is a good piece of negative advertising; it’s easily the most effective thing to come out of his campaign to date.
However, the Anti-Christ subtext does leave one a bit queasy. Sullivan compares the “The One” ad to the “Willie Horton” ad used by proxies of Bush the Elder’s 1988 Presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis. It’s an apt comparison: both ads deliberately use inflammatory subtexts to appeal to some of the worst thinking of certain members of society. One finds oneself thinking that the same point could have been made without going out of the way to rile up troglodytes and dogmatics. They probably would have been riled up anyway: racists didn’t need to see Willie Horton’s mug shot--or even know that he was black--to get upset over the fact that Dukakis was willing to let violent felons loose on furloughs. (Dukakis refused to cooperate with legislative efforts to close the loophole in the furlough system that let Horton out. The ad didn't mention it, but the campaign news coverage that followed it did.) Fundamentalist Protestants convinced that we are on the cusp of the End Times foretold in the Book of Revelation probably don’t need the McCain ad’s insinuations to think that Obama, in light of his messianic campaign antics, might be the Anti-Christ. According to Sullivan’s article, many of them were already thinking along those lines.
At the end of the day, all this griping is about is bad manners. The “Willie Horton” ad played it straight with the facts, and the McCain ad isn’t scoring off anything that Obama and his supporters didn’t put out there. The ads have a cynical edge, but they’re honest, and at the end of day, I think that’s all that should matter. There’s no practical consequence to these ads beyond people voting for Bush the Elder instead of Dukakis, or for McCain instead of Obama. (If McCain pandered to fundamentalists’ support for Likud anti-Palestinian policies in Israel—also borne of End Times anticipation—I’d be a lot more upset. Those policies are getting people killed.) Instances of racial or religious violence are few and far between in this country, and no crackpot looking to hurt or kill a U.S. politician on Obama’s level has been able to get close enough to try in over a quarter of a century--and that’s not by accident. Demonizing McCain for appealing to stupidity is hypocritical. Obama, like most successful politicians, has given us more than his share of baloney; the crap the McCain ad satirizes is proof of that, and there’s plenty of other examples. Complaining about attacks just because they’re politically incorrect is ultimately tiresome and counterproductive; if Obama gets elected, it’s going to make for a long four-to-eight years.
Mercilessly mocking, insulting, and criticizing the President is a great national tradition. Being told we can’t or that we should hold back because some nitwit might take it the wrong way just isn’t a change we should be asked to believe in. Back in high school, me and my friends used to draw the parallels between Ronald Reagan and the Anti-Christ. It was obnoxious, but as near as I can tell, the world didn’t end as a consequence. If Obama can’t take these hits, he needs to look for another job. Or better yet, he can finally start working at his current one; I’m sure the people of Illinois would appreciate it.
Finally, please note that I do not endorse the candidacy of John McCain. My attitude towards both him and Obama is a plague on both their houses.