Monday, August 23, 2010

Obama as Muslim and other myths

Maureen Dowd's latest column is on the myth that President Obama is a Muslim -- which, it's been widely reported, is a belief held by 18% of Americans (or 24%, according to a different poll). She says:

The country is having some weird mass nervous breakdown, with the right spreading fear and disinformation that is amplified by the poisonous echo chamber that is the modern media environment.

Many people still have a confused view of Muslims, and the president seems unable to help navigate the country through its Islamophobia.

It is a prejudice stoked by Rush Limbaugh, who mocks “Imam Obama” as “America’s first Muslim president” . . .

You can have an opinion on the New York mosque, for or against. But there aren’t two sides to the question of whether Obama is a Muslim.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

How can a man who has written two best-selling memoirs and been on TV so much that some Democrats worried he was overexposed be getting less known and more misunderstood by the day?
My mom (Ann Althouse) says Dowd is taking Limbaugh out of context, as he was clearly joking. My mom quotes Limbaugh:
"If it was laudatory to call Bill Clinton America's first black president, why can't we call Imam Obama America's first Muslim president?"
That is certainly said in a joking (half-joking?) tone, but Limbaugh can't be allowed to insulate himself from criticism that easily. His rhetorical question is still going to have the predictable effect of implanting the association of "Obama" with "Muslim" in people's minds. That association will stick with many Americans even after they've long forgotten where they heard it. Now, there are some people who would like this to happen, and other people who hope it doesn't happen. Limbaugh is clearly in the former category, and I'm in the latter category. While he may have been joking, the question of how successful he and others are in propagating this association is no joke.

I'm hardly disagreeing with my mom here -- she herself makes a similar point:
I'm sure [Limbaugh will] have his fun on tomorrow's show. And it will give him license to spend a few more minutes massaging Obama-Muslim, Obama-Muslim, Obama-Muslim... into the listeners' confused mushy heads."
My mom also has a good two-part answer to Limbaugh's question:
1. Back in 1998, when Morrison wrote her essay, Americans — or at least the Americans she was writing for — really did think it would be a fine thing to have a black president, but today, when Rush Limbaugh said that, Americans have a big problem with the idea of a Muslim president and Rush knows that.

2. Since we know Bill Clinton isn't black, calling him black creates no confusion. Calling Obama a Muslim, even as a trope, plays with — stokes — the doubts people have.
Point 2 is the most obvious distinction. That's reason enough for people not to refer to Obama as "Muslim," even jokingly, and think they can somehow excuse themselves based on Toni Morrison's quip about Clinton.

There are also deep historical reasons for point 1. Even if you personally would be just as enthusiastic about the idea of America's "first Muslim president" as you would about our "first black president," we can still understand why many Americans would not consider these to be equivalent. Blacks have been uniquely oppressed in America. I'm not saying there hasn't been any oppression of Muslims in America, but the oppression of blacks is a defining legacy of our country's history -- an evil from which Americans understandably seek redemption. Most Americans didn't think much about Muslim Americans until September 11, 2001, and then, of course, they felt victimized by Muslims, albeit a relatively small group of Islamic extremists. I wish that all Americans would be careful to distinguish between terrorists who happen to Muslim from the vast majority of Muslim Americans, but the Park51 fracas has revealed that we have a long way to go there.

The historical differences are also augmented by demographic differences. There are at least 10 times as many black Americans (about 12%) as there are Muslim Americans (around 1%, if even that). And the former are more than 12 times more visible than the latter, since most Americans have an easier time immediately recognizing someone as black than immediately recognizing someone as Muslim. The result is that white Americans are regularly reminded of the existence of the group that was oppressed for so long in America; it's much easier to conceive of Muslims as a mysterious Other.

Somewhat incongruously, Dowd includes this philosophical rumination on error, which was my favorite part of the op-ed:
In “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” a history of such national follies as England’s South Sea Bubble and Holland’s Tulip Frenzy, the Scottish historian Charles Mackay observed: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”

He also concluded that people are more prone to believe the “Wondrously False” than the “Wondrously True.”

“Of all the offspring of time, Error is the most ancient, and is so old and familiar an acquaintance, that Truth, when discovered, comes upon most of us like an intruder, and meets the intruder’s welcome,” Mackay wrote, adding that “a misdirected zeal in matters of religion” befogs the truth most grievously.
I say this is incongruous because the idea that "they only recover their senses slowly, one by one" doesn't seem to apply to the Obama/Muslim myth. The White House or liberal activists could have an effective truth campaign to dispel this myth en masse.

Although I don't find the quote particularly relevant to this topic, it's one I want to keep track of for other contexts. (It resonates with a fantastic book I'm in the middle of reading, Thomas Sowell's Economic Facts and Fallacies.) When I update my list of quotes after the blog's third anniversary, I'll make sure to include this:
“Men . . . think in herds . . . [and] go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”


Jason (the commenter) said...

It is bigoted to spread an "Obama is a secret Muslim" rumor if you don't believe it and you think it will hurt him. But it's also bigoted to be so very offended by the rumor. Being a Muslim isn't bad, it's not an insult. Dowd has crossed a line.

These people do not have to be delusional or insane to hold this belief.

John Althouse Cohen said...

1. Can't she be offended by the sheer distortion of the truth, totally aside from whatever her opinion might be of the Islamic faith?

2. We can see the Muslim rumors for what they are, and look down on the intent to damage Obama, based on what we know about the political consequences of a politician being viewed as Muslim in the United States. Her being distraught about the use of this tactic does not entail that she herself has any negative views of Muslims. It just means she's a minimally savvy observer of American culture and politics.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Dowd could care less what Conservatives say about Obama. And I think she could care less about Muslims.

Dowd tries to paint Americans as a lynch mob because that's what Liberals like to hear. (Also the bits about Limbaugh et al brain-washing the populace.) This is a piece intended solely for Liberal consumption. It's in the New York Times, who else is going to read it? And even if a Conservative does get a hold of it, do you really think they'll be convinced by quotes from Daniel Patrick Moynihan?

She makes no effort to dispel misconceptions. She just wants to gain the confidence of Liberals for the end of the article, where she trashes Obama.

This is a hit-piece. Dowd uses the same techniques she accuses Limbaugh of using to warm the crowd up before she pours poison in their ears.