"In time we hate that which we often fear." - William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
On this Martin Luther King Day and as President Obama prepares for his seventh State of the Union speech, I ponder our political divide and especially how President Obama over these often tumultuous past years has become the focus of that divide, often rearing its ugly head in hate. As a white man, I know that I cannot begin to feel the hate experienced by President Obama and other African Americans, as well as Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, the gay community, transgenders, women and people of different religious faiths (or no faith) as they encounter prejudices and bigotry in their daily lives.
When I was knocking on doors for President Obama during his 2012 reelection campaign, I would try engage people in a friendly conversation, hopefully to sway them on the facts as I promoted my candidate. I met all kinds of good people... some interested, some very passionate, many disinterested and some real haters. One burly bald guy responding to my question as to why he couldn't support Obama, shouted in my face, "because he's a sh**head!", and that was followed by some further four letter expletives as I quickly walked away. Another very senior and small frail woman wheeling her oxygen bottle to the door, responded to me, "I hate that man" as she slammed the door in my face. In the six months of ringing door bells, I got so I could immediately anticipate answers just by the look on their faces as their eyes first gazed upon my "Obama 08" black cap that I always wore while canvassing. It was an educational experience up close, but perhaps just a small sample of hate first hand, not necessarily directed at me, a white man, but rather at the black man that I was promoting for reelection to the Presidency.
Another hater, Ted Nugent, speaking to gun lovers at the National Rifle Association convention in 2012, expressed his views on Obama, "If the coyote’s in your living room pissing on your couch, it’s not the coyote’s fault. It’s your fault for not shooting him." Nugent has made a living out of hate speech against Obama. His January 2014 interview with Guns.org was especially notable as Nugent was recorded as saying, "I have obviously failed to galvanize and prod, if not shame enough Americans to be ever vigilant not to let a Chicago communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel like the ACORN community organizer gangster Barack Hussein Obama to weasel his way into the top office of authority in the United States of America."
I pick on Ted Nugent and his "free speech" rhetoric against Obama as just one example of how politicians, media types, and others have become more emboldened in their hate speech. At a protest rally against Obama's actions on immigration at the Whitehouse on December 12th, one of the protestors was recorded shouting, "Hang the lying Kenyan traitor!" "We've got rope," said another. "Don't snap his neck, you pull him up watch him choke to death," another replied. Wow that's really some extreme hate speech...but it's also free speech, protected by our First Amendment.
Not all Obama haters are so explicit in their rhetoric. Many haters like the anonymity of the web and seek continual assurances and gratification for their hate in the cesspool of some 800 white supremacist hate groups (classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center) whose websites are filled with some of the most insidious comments about Obama and his policies. Not content to share their vitriol amongst themselves, they troll other websites writing inflammatory comments on articles, blogs and forum posts. Interject Obama into any discussion and the mere mention of his name is sure to engage trolls in a Pavlovian type outpouring of anger and hate, while also displaying their outright ignorance of the facts. And it's not only the president, but also Michelle and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, that cannot escape the hate from those so inclined to find fault with anything "Obama".
Is it's Obama's race alone that brings out the worst in some Americans? Or also his so called liberalism and his policies? Or is it economic class...a black man rising up above the stereotype images of what a black man's place in life should be? "Be afraid of the black man" is the message that whites often hear. So they attack him with lies: a secret Muslim, a Marxist, a communist, a fascist, a socialist, a racist, the Antichrist. Whatever the reason, most likely ignorance is in abundance.
When I first heard then Senator Obama speak at the 2004 Democratic Convention, I reacted with "wow, I like this guy." It wasn't just what he said that resonated with me, it's how he said it...with a certain sincere passion and perhaps also naive innocence. Many Americans shared my feelings, but at the same time I know there were many others that had the opposite view...an instant dislike. Without even knowing the guy, they hated him.
Haters represent the extreme of America society, and I like to think that most Americans would condemn much of what they say...at least publicly. However, if you are a white middle class American living in suburbia, and an African-American family moved in next door, would that make you uncomfortable. For many of you, it would raise some discomfort level in your mind...for some very strong immediate reactions of anxiety and fear, but for others maybe just minor ambivalence. But what about hate? Hate is "extreme dislike" and I wonder if people can really be racist in their beliefs, but not necessarily haters...or do many of them think implicitly what Ted Nugent says explicitly? Hate is the product of other emotions...fear, anger, envy, perhaps even love...or a perceived injustice and the need to blame someone else for one's circumstances in life. It is unconscious thought resulting from life's experiences. We cannot easily turn it off.
For many of us there has not been an "either or" extreme reaction to the Obama person, but rather something in-between...maybe a blend of reflexive, which is largely emotional reactions, and reflective thinking...or maybe just apathy. For many of us our racial views are implicit and not overt. That is we cannot help but form prejudices on people who are different based on the pervasive stereotyping that has dominated our society for generations, perpetuated by family, friends, colleagues and a compliant media ...but when asked, we'll say, "I'm not a racist."
For those so indoctrinated it is easy to believe falsehoods like the "Kenyan, secret Muslim" conspiracy. Being tagged as a liberal only enhances the hatred. The anti-liberalism of the far right predates the rise of Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. In a sense, Barack Obama's rise to the presidency of the United States was a perfect storm for right wing ideologues to stoke fear and hate. His race, his perceived liberalism, and an economy that was shedding jobs at an alarming rate when he took office and that was slow to turn around. The fear of losing one's job or being unemployed is a powerful emotion, and for those so affected human nature is to shift the blame to someone, in this case, President Obama...an assignment of blame made so much easier by Republican politicians and the relentless propaganda of Fox News. John Boehner refuses to bring Obama's jobs bill to a vote in the House, and then has the audacity to ask, "where's the jobs President Obama?" It's an easy sell if that's what you want to believe.
On this Martin Luther King Day, we should all step back and think critically and honestly about why we believe what we believe.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." -- Dr Martin Luther King
President Obama could use a little more love.