McCain’s Anti-Obama Ad was More Than Just Cynical.

Last week, the McCain campaign released a TV ad calling Barack Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world” and comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. I have to say I didn’t really expect John McCain et al. to play clean but this is pretty low, even by their standards. For starters, the ad reaches for the heights of hypocrisy. After all, as Carrie Budoff Brown points out, McCain has been hogging the media spotlight for much of his own career. He’s a regular on the late night talk shows and he even had a cameo in Wedding Crashers. In other words, he has embraced the celebrity moniker. Barack Obama’s response—saying the ad was cynical but not racist—is far too charitable a reaction. Paris Hilton’s mom, Kathy, was actually closer to the mark in her response!

Certainly, we would be naive to think this attack ad is a fluke, or a one-off. No doubt this is just the beginning because, mixed in with the stink of hypocrisy, is the unmistakable stench of Rovian political machinations. Using a candidate’s strengths against him was, after all, a technique perfected by Karl Rove in the 2004 “swiftboating” of John Kerry, and the Obama “celebrity” ad smacks of a similar touch. In 2004, the swiftboat ads used Kerry’s military record against him, and now, Obama’s popularity is similarly being used to diminish his appeal.

So why would celebrity necessarily be bad for Obama? Well, being a celebrity is generally a positive thing in the entertainment industry but it’s not such a great asset in politics. Celebrities are valued for one set of qualities, politicians for another. Britney’s fans may appreciate her looks or her ability to sing and dance. It’s harder to identify which of Paris’ qualities makes her famous, but we can all agree that even the most adoring fan would think twice about voting either of her or Britney women into the White House. What, then, does any of this have to do with Barack Obama? Why compare the presumptive Democratic nominee to a pair of celebutantes? It’s really quite simple. First off, we can be sure that education or educatedness—or whatever other qualities might prepare someone to lead a country—do not rank very high on the list of qualities people love in Paris or Britney. This is not to imply that Britney and Paris are unintelligent or uneducated. The point is only that  these women are beloved not for their being qualified to lead the country. The Obama comparison thus implies that Obama, like Britney and Paris, is popular—because of his looks or some other quality—but not for his ability to lead. Ergo: Barack Obama is very popular but he’s not ready to lead.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. Entertainment—music, film, sports—has been the one area of public life in which Black people have gained the greatest visibility in American society. Black athletes, actors, and musicians have attained tremendous fame and secured professions for themselves by entertaining the American public. In my view, these accomplishments should be seen as a testament to the resilience of Black people in this country. Alas! No good deed goes unpunished so the Black community is repaid with binary stereotypes that place intelligence and athleticism/artistry/musical talent at opposite ends of a spectrum. “Sure,” the argument goes, “Black people are good entertainers but they’re not so smart. This is why there are so few Black directors, quarterbacks, or music executives.” In other words, talent and intelligence become mutually exclusive categories.

There is, however a deeper level to the athletic/musical/artistic talent-versus-intelligence binary. There is often an implicit assumption that Black people are good at what they do because of some inherent, magical talent that enables them to effortlessly excel at something. This view maintains, for example, that a top Black athlete isn’t at the top of her game because she trains hard and is disciplined. Rather, it’s talent that propels her to the top. Likewise, Barack Obama’s rise to the top of the Democratic presidential race is not due to his intelligence, hard work, grassroots organizing experience, and campaign strategizing. No. Like the magical negro, Barack’s success is due entirely to circumstances beyond his own control. In fact, his success is nothing less than magical because it is so contrary to his own abilities. In other words, Barack Obama is succeeding despite himself (Lets not forget that Rush Limbaugh used to play a song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro” on his radio show).

John McCain’s ad is therefore nothing less than an attempt to remind the American people that there is actually less to Obama than meets the eye. Yes he’s popular, just like Britney and Paris. And, just like Britney and Paris, he’s good-looking. But, just like Britney and Paris, he’s nothing more than an attractive package, pretty on the surface but lacking the depth, the experience, the intelligence that would make him capable of leadership. After all, the ad seems to ask us, who would want Paris and Britney—or Barack Obama, for that matter—to lead this country? By overlooking Barack Obama’s other qualities and presenting him as a superficial, one-dimensional caricature (I say caricature because there is certainly more to Paris and Britney than what’s shown in the media), the ads also aim to devalue him by negating his personal accomplishments. After all, Barack Obama is an impressive person and a formidable candidate in his own right. From his organizing days in Chicago, he has experience bringing people together and transforming ideas into action. He’s also a constitutional lawyer and a professor and, lest we forget, a United States Senator. But by ignoring all of Obama’s other traits and focusing only on the external and superficial, the McCain ads seek to convince us that there’s nothing more to Obama than his fame.

They might as well have just come out and reminded us that he’s nothing more than a talented Black entertainer.

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11 thoughts on “McCain’s Anti-Obama Ad was More Than Just Cynical.

  1. Pingback: Voices without Votes » Global: The art of gaining votes

  2. RGD,

    Thanks as always for posting an insightful comment.

    What can I say? I’m human. I’ve got limits. I can’t let everyone with more internet access than brains come on here, question my intelligence, tell me my logic is out of wack, nitpick at ridiculous things like my reference to TV shows, and then not even bother to respond to my questions. No. That’s too much. Too much, I say.

    I have no problem with people wanting to engage in serious discussion but I can’t take seriously someone who sh*ts on me for referencing Law & Order and CSI and then turns around and quotes from The Princess Bride—and s/he can’t even get the character’s name right! I mean, if you’re going to challenge someone’s logic, at least come prepared with something more than conventional wisdom. After all, challenging conventional wisdom is precisely what T’ings ‘n Times is about.

    A little knowledge is indeed a terrible thing.

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  3. LN,

    I’m getting the impression that you’re nothing more than an internet troll, stalking other people’s blogs and leaving idiotic comments you hope will be received as debate. I regret having spent any time responding to your questions.

    Next time you decide to critique someone’s writing, please come prepared for a real discussion. Parroting cliches and repeating inane questions does not pass for intelligent debate on my blog.

    You’re living proof that there’s often a huge chasm between having access to a computer and having something intelligent or even interesting to say.

    I guess you live and learn.

    Thanks again for being a colossal waste of my time.

    Here’s an homage from The Onion: http://www.theonion.com/content/node/84023

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  4. LN,

    I have to say I feel a little disappointed by your continued silence.

    And—for what it’s worth—I’m a little puzzled as to why you criticized me for alluding to Law & Order and CSI in my most recent post about Luis Ramirez, yet you had no qualms about quoting a character from The Princess Bride, which is a fairy tale. Incidentally, the name of the character you quoted is Inigo Montoya, not Diego.

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  5. LN,

    Apologies for coming off as hostile in the last paragraph. That was not my intent. Clearly I’m not as open to criticism and new ideas as the other bloggers out there.

    We’re arguing back and forth on this issue and it doesn’t seem like we’re going anywhere. Perhaps I should clarify that I think Barack Obama is intelligent, talented, hard-working, experienced, and well-educated. In other words, I think he’s fully capable of leading the country should he win in November.

    I’m just going to ignore all the Law & Order stuff because I think it’s pretty silly to keep going back to that after I’ve already explained myself. You agree with my assessment of the official handling of the Luis Ramirez killing but you don’t like the pop culture reference. Got it. But I gotta move on with my life.

    As for the Obama ad, I’ll try to sum up my problem with it and maybe get to the gist of what I’m trying to say. You have to consider the source of the ad in order to be able to extrapolate meaning from it. The ad comes from an opponent, who says Obama is a celebrity, like Britney and Paris. What do you make of this comparison? What does that comparison say about Obama’s capability to lead the country? I’ll say it again: The ad says Obama’s a celebrity not because he’s an incredibly talented politician (which would actually be an asset in a presidential campaign) but simply because he’s famous! That fame, the ad insinuates, is not sufficient for the presidency. Why does the ad say nothing about why Obama is so famous? It doesn’t have to. The answer to that question lies in the comparison to Britney and Paris. As I see it, the ad wants me to believe Obama’s fame comes from the same source as theirs.

    So I agree that McCain’s not going to focus on Obama’s actual intelligence, experience, and education in the ad. Rather, the ad will focus on Obama’s popularity alone and present it as the same type of fame enjoyed by Paris and Britney—or a talented running back who just doesn’t have the “leadership” skills to quarterback—in order to cast Obama in a negative light.

    I would be curious, however, to hear your thoughts on the rest of my response, particularly with respect to Black success and the talent-versus-hard-work dichotomy. If racism maintains that Black people are neither intelligent nor hard-working, how then can successful Black people be explained? Is it possible that the same word, “talent,” could take on different connotations? Like when someone says a Black football player is a “talented athlete” who “just doesn’t have what it takes to be a quarterback.” Can we read anything into a statement like that? Is it even possible that a common-enough statement like this one is a thinly coded version of the talent-versus-intelligence dichotomy?

    For what it’s worth, I don’t expect you to agree with this analysis, and you’re free to say that it doesn’t apply to the case of the celebrity ad. And, while I understand that you don’t think my logic is solid or sequential (which isn’t in any way insulting to my intelligence), I have to say we’re really not getting anywhere if you question my logic, I attempt to explain myself, and you just ignore a huge chunk of my answer and simply repeat your question. After all, being open to new ideas is a two-way street.

    Again, apologies for coming off as hostile. I await your response.

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  6. “I would have thought that this would be comprehensible to someone who’s often placed at the opposite end of the athleticism–intelligence spectrum.”

    Whoa, why the hostility here? Sounds to me with all your talk about the “people who know you” who understand your blog in a way I don’t that you’re not looking to reach an audience outside of the one you’ve already captured. If so, apologies for infringing–I know it’s tough hearing criticism when you’re not accustomed to it or expecting it. Usually, blog writers embrace the new opinions, they don’t, you know, insult the intelligence of people who comment.

    In any case, while local bias and the resistance of authorities in deeming the Ruiz case racially motivated are suspicious, and I agree that it’s telling that these white authority figures were willing to comment so early on that they believe the crime wasn’t racially motivated, backing this up with the equivalent of “One time I saw on CSI/L&O/etc.” doesn’t really do the situation justice. And the fact that Law & Order is sometimes based on real news stories doesn’t make it any more credible than any other “Based on a True Story” fiction piece out there.

    Additionally, your treatment of talent again leaves something to be desired. In the words of Diego Montoya, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” Anyone performing at the top of their field is described in terms of their talent rather than how hard they worked or practiced to achieve because the thing that separates them (the genius performers in whatever area–here, we mean oustanding musicians) and us is that with equal hours practicing or studying, we would still be unable to achieve that level of excellence. Because we lack the talent they have. This is not a negative thing.

    What I’m saying here is that your communication of your ideas is all jumbled up. You set talent against intelligence and education/experience , ignore the fact that peple are aware Obama went to Columbia/Harvard/U.Chicago (what “talent” do you think people believe he used to get himself in those schools without calling on his experience and obvious intelligence?), then say that leadership is not a talent, but something derived only from experience (which is odd–look at JFK, who only had 2 or three years more experience than Obama has now). Just think of, say, a genius computer programmer. You start learning the same programming language at the same time as they do; they understand it intrinsically while you’re still struggling to remember its “vocabulary”. They take less time and effort to do the same assignments as you, and still manage to do it with more skill and finesse. Your logic would say that people prejudiced against this person see them as talented at computer programming but not as intelligent. Because they also didn’t [have to] study it for as long, they also have less experience. This “Racists think black people lack intelligence and experience, but not talent” tale you’re spinning doesn’t quite make sense all the way through.

    McCain is hardly going to endorse an ad whose message is that Obama is an enormously talented man, albeit, lacking in education (which isn’t true, because look at his degrees) and experience (this part of your interpretation of the ad toes the McCain party line so it does make sense).

    Anyway, you can go back to your assumption that “everyone’s experience is similar to mine and […] my readers would have understood the point I was making” now. Who needs debate when you can just talk to all the people that already agree with everything you say, right?

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  7. LN,

    Thanks for reading my blog and leaving a well-thought-out but somewhat smug comment. I’ll try to address your points one by one, and I hope I can fully answer all your questions.

    First off, about the CSI/Law & Order bit. I write my posts as if I were having a conversation with someone who knows me (a lot of people who read my blog know me personally) and I like to throw in easily-recognized references, like pop culture, for example. Those who know me and are familiar with my thinking would have quickly understood what I was getting at.

    The TV show reference was not meant to trivialize the issue but to make the point that even in fictional television programs, a defense attorney and police chief would not agree so strongly on something. TV programs have artisitic license to do whatever they want but even they—despite specializing in the fictional—wouldn’t dream of showing something as ridiculous as a cop and a defense lawyer publicly agreeing about the motive of a defendant. Which all goes back to illustrate how ridiculously the Shenandoah authorities have been handling Luis Ramirez’s killing. And, for what it’s worth, Law & Order plotlines are based on actual news stories so they’re not completely fictional.

    As for talent vs. hard work/intelligence, I could probably have written the Obama/McCain post more clearly. Or perhaps I was writing under the assumption that everyone’s experience is similar to mine and that my readers would have understood the point I was making.

    Ultimately, I don’t think the intelligence/hard work vs. talent dichotomy is that difficult to understand. American racism has for centuries decreed that Black people are stupid and lazy. Elsewhere, I’ve blogged about the former, specifically regarding Dr. James Watson’s pronouncements on the intelligence of Black Americans and Africans.

    So if racism maintains that Black people are both stupid and lazy, how can it explain those cases—rare, to the racist’s mind—of Black people excelling at something or making it beyond the point at which racism has determined they should fail? In other words, how does racism explain the cases in which Black people beat the odds? After all, success in our society is traditionally viewed as the reward for intelligence and/or hard work, the two qualities racism denies Black people. And, because racism relies on circular reasoning, Black people’s laziness and stupidity guarantee their failure, and their failure is further proof of their stupidity and laziness. So how does racism respond to Black success, considering that racism presupposes that Black people have neither the intelligence nor the industriousness to succeed?

    This is where talent comes in. The great Black jazz musicians are always described as incredibly talented but, despite the fact that they also studied and practised music, are never described as intelligent or hard-working. Only talented. Hence the magical negro whose talents—with which he was born and over which he has no control—allow him to succeed, to beat the odds, despite his own negritude which, in the racist’s mind, ought to prevent him from succeeding. These are precisely the circumstances beyond Obama’s own control to which I allude in my post. In other words, the ad attempts to show him as a candidate whose success is the product of something he was born with (talent, a la Britney) rather than the very leadership qualities (acquired through experience and education) that he needs to lead the country.

    The whole argument hinges on the perception that the qualities one needs in order to lead this country go beyond mere talent. A candidate also needs acquired characteristics like experience and education. One can surmise from the ad that talent—or whatever it is that makes Britney and Paris famous—may be good enough to make celebrities out of them but it’s not enough to make them presidential material. In other words, Britney’s and Paris’ celebrity comes not from such character-building, acquired qualities like education or experience—and certainly not from hard work—but from something they did not have to earn (e.g., beauty, talent, wealth). Ultimately, the ad would have us believe the same holds true for Obama.

    I would have thought that this would be comprehensible to someone who’s often placed at the opposite end of the athleticism–intelligence spectrum.

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  8. I came across your blog from a random google search and while I enjoy the topics you cover, I’m having some issues with your extrapolations. You come on with some very strong coverage and then lose a little credibility with weak support, like the CSI remarks in your latest post about Luiz Ramirez (which is what I came on this blog to read about); trying to apply the logic of a primetime television show’s completely fictional and often sensational plot to a real-life case? While I don’t doubt that there’s something fishy going on there with two white officials making public statements denying the relation of the attack to racism, the CSI bit, while being true, I guess, just detracts from the strength of your observations.

    Likewise, here, I agree with you that the McCain ad is trying to imply that Obama is trying to make up with celebrity what he lacks in real-life experience. However, you go on this tangent about an athletic/intelligence binary where, somehow, you determine that this is being applied to Obama and I feel at this point you’ve just extraoplated too far (or haven’t explained enough maybe?). It reads like a jump in logic, a random conclusion, rather than a logically contructed argument.

    I think the break comes in your contrasting hard work and talent–which for some reason you cast in a negative light. One would assume that talent means you have a natural proclivity towards something, and at the highest levels of competing, say in the Olympics or the American presidential race, you would assume that you need a healthy dose of talent as well as intelligence. So why do you see people viewing Obama as naturally good at politics as a negative thing? It’s much like how the prowess of an Olympic athlete is developed–I could practice for just as long as they do, but because I lack that natural talent, I would never achieve the level of success they have achieved. In addition, what exactly do you propose are the “circumstances beyond [Obama’s] own control” here?

    I speak as an Asian person whose ethnic group is often placed on the opposite site of that athletic/intelligent binary. I understand the issues involved with people assuming you’re smart (or athletically gifted) without having to put any effort into it but I don’t see how you’re spinning this to be a detriment to Obama here. Basically, I’m not seening a logical tie between this whole intelligences topic and the McCain ad at all (I think the McCain ad is insulting, but not along the lines you’re arguing with this intelligences tangent).

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