Monday, February 25, 2008

Appealing to the Hypothalamus

Because some of us compose symphonies and write novels, it is sometimes easy to forget that human beings are, first and foremost, animals. We share the genetic heritage of our species, including both the complex and the primitive. On the one hand, we are the lottery winners of the evolutionary process, developing over time into creatures that explore space, build skyscrapers, and cure diseases. On the other hand, we share the territoriality of our fellow mammals and we often choose up sides with cruel and devastating results. No pack of dogs could ever paint the Sistine Chapel; nor could they devise and administer the Nazi Holocaust.

Timothy McVeigh was no less twisted and vicious than Osama bin Laden. That his terrorist attack did less damage than al Qaeda's assault on 9/11 speaks only to deficiencies in McVeigh's intellect and vision. And yet most Americans reacted very differently to these two atrocities. Despite clear evidence that McVeigh was part of a larger movement, the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was, and is still, generally regarded as the work of a couple of sociopaths, both of whom have now been neutralized. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, on the other hand, have been attributed by many to an entire faith, or at least to its most devout adherents.

Ethnicity is obviously not the only difference between the crimes of McVeigh and those of bin Laden, but it does dominate the issue in the minds of many of our fellow citizens. A young white male with a military-style haircut does not get a second look by passengers waiting to board a commercial aircraft. Muslims, however, have been viewed with suspicion by transportation authorities and, especially, members of the traveling public, who have, in several well-publicized cases, created incidents by misinterpreting the relatively mundane actions of bearded men in robes. The wild animal instinctively distinguishes between insider and outsider; the human animal often does the same.

I bring this up because I recently learned that someone I know and otherwise respect was expressing concern about the possibility that Barack Obama might secretly be a Muslim bent on corrupting or even destroying our nation from within. The notion is preposterous, of course, but it has begun to take root in the minds of people who had heretofore appeared fully rational. Unfortunately, this is merely the opening salvo in what promises to be a much bigger war.

The Republicans have very little to recommend themselves this year. Their incumbent president recently saw his approval number slip to 19% in one poll, and even on his best days over two-thirds of his countrymen regard him as a failure. He has mismanaged both the economy and foreign policy, presiding over a ruinous war and a fundamental corruption that startles even by contemporary standards. Along with his contemptible vice president, George W. Bush has dishonored his country, weakened its military, and diminished many of the bedrock freedoms for which soldiers have died for over two centuries. The question is no longer whether or not Bush is the worst president in American history; the question is whether and how his successor can restore the national greatness that he squandered.

Given that unhappy premise, the GOP produced its worst presidential field in decades, a collection of has beens, unbalanced ideologues, and soulless technocrats. Out of that shallow pool has emerged John McCain, a man whose only notable distinction involves his behavior as a prisoner of war forty years ago. The Arizona senator is widely disliked by his party's political base and his performance in the campaign to date has been lackluster and uncharismatic, though perhaps a bit less so than the lugs he defeated on the way to his default triumph. The McCain of 2008 may, perhaps, inspire lady lobbyists, but he has less star power than any Republican nominee since at least Bob Dole.

My guess is that the GOP is secretly delighted that Hillary Clinton will probably not be the Democratic nominee for president. They would certainly have had a chance to beat Senator Clinton, of course, given her high negatives, but they also know that a surrogate race between our last two presidential administrations would almost certainly favor the Clinton side. It would be particularly hard for McCain and company to move the football against a woman who has been so thoroughly vetted that there might not be anything additional that we could learn about her other than her favorite color.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, presents tantalizing possibilities to the nasty shut-ins who populate the Republicans' opposition research facility. They are experts at taking relatively unknown Democrats and defining them in the most slanderous way possible. Michael Dukakis cared more about black male prisoners than the white women they raped. Bill Clinton was a libertine draft dodger. John Kerry's service in Vietnam was marked by lying and cowardice. They even managed to soil Al Gore, the quintessential Boy Scout, as a compulsive liar.

With Obama, the strategy is already beginning to emerge. Right now, the senator enjoys a popularity that is broad but shallow. He has not yet been fully defined in the public's mind. Expect the Republican hit machine to attempt to contribute to that definition by making Obama seem as exotic and different as possible. They will find the symbols that help voters distinguish between us and them, and then carefully move the Illinoisan into the latter category. If the GOP can make this election less about the cerebrum and more about the primitive hypothalamus, they might just have a shot at derailing Obamamania.

This effort started last year when some no-name Republican hack got on television to announce to the world that Barack Obama's middle name is Hussein, just like Saddam. The whispering campaign about Obama the Manchurian (or, perhaps, Arabian) Candidate, the stealth Muslim, is another piece of the puzzle. Expect a lot of offhand references in the coming months to the years that Obama spent overseas and to his father's Kenyan background and family.

The current controversy about Senator Obama's patriotism is yet one more prong in this multi-faceted attack. Why doesn't Obama wear an American flag lapel pin? Why didn't he put his hand over his heart when the national anthem played? How come his wife isn't proud to be an American? Some will insist that these questions are simply the same kind that were leveled at Dukakis, Clinton, and Kerry in earlier elections. But they are not: they are part of a larger campaign to brand Obama as not fully American, by background and by personal philosophy.

The most subtle manifestation of this attack comes with the recent use of the word "cult" to describe Barack Obama's fervent supporters. You see, not only is Obama an outsider and a secret Muslim, he is also employing his preternatural charisma and eloquence to control the minds of idealistic, impressionable young Americans. He is the Pied Piper of Jakarta, and he is leading our children unwittingly down the path of jihad.

Assuming Obama wraps up the Democratic nomination a week from tomorrow, his advisers had better begin work on the process of defining their candidate. Right now, he is all bright colors and broad strokes, a stand-in for our fondest hopes and dreams. By the time the Republican attack machine is done, he will be, in the minds of many, something else entirely. First and foremost, the Obama camp has to understand that they could, despite their manifest advantages, very well lose to John McCain in November if this election gets sidetracked into a discussion of what it means to be an American.

To avoid this fate, Obama and his handlers must find some way to deal with the hypothalamus and the merciless partisans who will appeal to that primitive organ without regard to the damage they might do to the country.

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