Thursday, November 6, 2008

Analysis: McCain's "Celeb" Ad Derides Obama's Celebrity

Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign released an ad on July 30, 2008, with this content:

NARRATOR: He's the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead?
TEXT: Obama: is he ready to lead?
NARRATOR: With gas prices soaring, Barack Obama says "no" to offshore drilling,
TEXT: Obama: no offshore drilling
NARRATOR: and says he'll raise taxes on electricity?
TEXT: Obama: new taxes
NARRATOR: Higher taxes,
TEXT: higher taxes
NARRATOR: more foreign oil:
TEXT: more foreign oil
NARRATOR: that's the real Obama.
TEXT: McCain
MCCAIN: I'm John McCain and I approved this message.
TEXT: Paid for by John McCain 2008. Approved by John McCain.
* [YouTube: Celeb (July 30, 2008)]

Along with the above content, the ad displays video of Sen. Barack Obama as well as of celebrities Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, and audio of crowds cheering Obama's name.

This ad focuses on Obama's celebrity, but without making a clear point about it. Clearly, the ad is not praising Obama for his celebrity, and is instead being dismissive of it. But what is the basis for this position?

If the ad is making the argument that you shouldn't go along with someone simply because they are famous, that's fine. In fact, it's a good point.

But we shouldn't be AGAINST someone simply because they're famous, either. The argument that "so-and-so is popular, therefore his ideas are wrong" is nothing more than ad hominem reasoning.

Which brings us to the choice of celebrities that appear alongside Obama in the ad: Hilton and Spears, who are (popularly, at least) regarded as being vapid celebrities, the implication being that Obama's celebrity is similarly unfounded.

But this is an invalid form of argument. You can't force the conclusion that Obama's celebrity is vapid simply by putting his photo up alongside Spears and Hilton any more than you can force us to conclude that he's a great, admirable leader simply by putting his photo up alongside Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.

If the McCain campaign (or anyone else) wants to argue that Obama's celebrity is vapid or baseless, fine. But you have to provide reasons for that conclusion. It's not enough to simply point out that SOME celebrities (i.e., Spears and Hilton) are superficial in order to argue that Obama's celebrity is superficial. Just like it wouldn't be enough to point out that SOME celebrities (i.e., Churchill, Mother Teresa, and Mandela) are deserving of admiration in order to argue that Obama is a celebrity who deserves admiration.

So, this ad by the McCain campaign lacked substance in this respect. They would have done better to focus instead on the merits of Obama's position on taxes and drilling for oil, rather than making a spurious argument about his celebrity.

Was the Ad Racist?

Many people criticized the "Celeb" ad for appealing to racism.

For instance:

"The ad gave us an uneasy feeling that the McCain campaign was starting up the same sort of racially tinged attack on Mr. Obama that Republican operatives ran against Harold Ford, a black candidate for Senate in Tennessee in 2006. That assault, too, began with videos juxtaposing Mr. Ford with young, white women."
* [The NY Times Editorial Board: Say What? John McCain, Barack Obama, and the "Race Card" (July 31, 2008)]

And, more explicitly:

"a political dog whistle sends a message that only a particular constituency will hear (or intuitively understand). [President George W.] Bush has, care of his speechwriters, been dog whistling to his evangelicals for the past eight years; often, when we heathens think he sounds most nonsensical, it's because he's sending a coded message to his Jesus peeps. Often, dog whistles are merely a covert shout-out to a particular constituency ... to quietly speak to subconscious (or conscious) biases and evoke a particular visceral reaction. ... Obama, dog whistles the ad, hitting old racists in the sweet spot, could fuck these white girls ... and we don't want that, now, do we?"
* [Melissa McEwan, UK Guardian: McCain blows the dog whistle (August 1, 2008)]

Any accusation of racist behavior should be supported by evidence, not supposition. The burden of proof should be on the accuser to prove the claim, not on the accused to disprove it. And proving racism has to amount to more than pointing to someone's behavior and positing racism as a possible explanation (since just about anything is possible). There must be evidence that demonstrates that racism is a likely -- or the best -- explanation.

There doesn't seem to be any such evidence clinching that case, here. The claim that "code words" are being used to send "coded messages" is a frequent accusation in politics, but one that is seldom defended in any substantive way. A "code" for anything can be found anywhere if you're willing to entertain different interpretations of a speech. But that's different from proving that the speechwriter was actively and intentionally using a code to communicate to people.

Absent more convincing evidence, those who are accusing the McCain campaign of appealing to racism in their "Celeb" ad are making an unfounded accusation of racism.

-- Civ.

No comments: