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 Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Is Sarah Palin Playing with Fire?


Peter Ross Range

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It's been almost more than a committed news junkie can bear: What a blizzard of news, views and counter-attacks have swept through the presidential election campaign in the past few days.

First we have Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin flinging around reckless accusations against Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

Then a flood of negative media reactions, comparing Palin’s hate-mongering with the civil rights era and worse.

Finally, like a bombshell, the statement of Rep. John Lewis, one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement. He said the campaign of Republican candidate for president John McCain was “sowing the seeds of hatred and division.” Lewis was reminded of segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, who helped create “the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans” during the 1960s.

Of course the McCain campaign reacted with righteous indignation to Lewis’s statement. Even the Obama folks felt obliged to say that "Sen. Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies." At the same time, they added: “John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night."

What we have here is a generation gap -- and a geography gap. It’s impossible for either McCain or Obama to imagine the atmosphere of hatred and potential violence that prevailed around matters of race in the Deep South in the 1960s and 1970s.

McCain was not only temperamentally far removed from such cataclysmic social upheaval as civil rights and all its tragic distempers; he was also geographically removed, fighting a war in Southeast Asia, then becoming a prisoner of that war.

Obama, on the other hand, was a generation behind.

The civil rights movement was in its heyday when he was five to 10 years old. By the time he was 12, civil rights had matured and tuned into a political movement -- blacks being elected to city halls, the sheriff’s office, and the US Congress. For all his sympathetic writing about the period in his books, Obama personally experienced none of it and, in my view, underestimates its dark power and the lessons it brings.

John Lewis -- and I -- come from the earlier generation. I've known and admired Lewis for 35 years.

As the courageous young man who took the harshest blows to his head during the infamous Selma Bridge March of 1965, Lewis is today one of the living bridges to that execrable past.

That’s why it is important for him to speak as he did over the weekend, reminding the political jousters of the “atmosphere of hate” that produces “toxic language that can lead to destructive behavior.”

Those are, in my view, relatively mild words, NOT “shocking and beyond the pale,” as John McCain claims.

Obama, too, misses the point when he denies that McCain can “in any way” be compared to George Wallace.

It was Wallace’s stirring up and tolerance of the mob mentality that remains his legacy.

Lewis only wanted to warn McCain and Palin that they, too, run the risk of "playing with fire, and, if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all."

In her witless way, Sarah Palin has re-injected race into the presidential campaign at just the time when it seemed to be sliding into insignificance. After all, you can hardly attach a racial narrative to the global financial crisis. Furthermore, polls have been suggesting a surprisingly high degree of acceptance by whites of a black in the White House.

Some commentators think "brownness" (immigrants) has replaced blackness as the new racial scarecrow in American politics.

I think it is also true that as people have gotten used to Obama, they increasingly see not a black man, but a post-racial person (white and black, by birth) who calmly and coolly embodies the swirling ethnic mix that is modern America.

But Palin, with plenty of abetment from McCain, has gotten it going again with the theme that Obama “is not a man who sees America like you and I see America."

She’s selling Obama not as the black, but as the other. This obviously can appeal to racial fears and antagonisms.

It now remains to be seen whether or not the McCain campaign has been sufficiently chastened by the tsunami of criticism of recent days to pull back the attack.

He has a chance to do it today in Virginia with the new, "retooled" stump speech he has announced. If he doesn't, however, he should quake in fear of what his legacy will be, no matter how this campaign ends.

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