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Arabian Blights
Lynching Obama, the Arab

You have a problem with that?

In the late 1970s, the FBI decided to test the corruptibility of congressmen. It was easy, and slightly unfair. Congressmen are moths to corruption’s flame, and bribing at the time hadn’t yet been entirely disguised as “campaign financing.” So all the FBI had to do was hire an ex-felon to set up a rickety con and videotape congressmen taking the bait. Most Americans’ sense of fair play would have taken offense, as courts did, at the sliminess of the FBI’s entrapment. But the FBI’s one stroke of genius was to disguise the bribers as Arabs representing a rich, oily sheikh. It worked. The public would forgive “policemen’s presents,” as Mark Twain called kickbacks. They’d never forgive consorting with Arabs. One senator, five congressmen and a few other lesser moths were convicted in what became known as the Abscam scandal (the FBI’s front company was called Abdul Enterprises”).

Why dress up Arabs as the bad guys? For the same reason that Ann Coulter and like-minded racists have started referring to Barack Obama as B. Hussein Obama. The middle name’s Arab origin is supposed to provoke self-evident revulsion. It works, pushing all sorts of bigoted little buttons in the mind of the American voter whose ethnic tolerance for things Arab draws a line at hummus. That voter will never go for the combination Arab-Muslim-Saddam cocktail that “Hussein,” with a little help from the Coulters of the world, evokes. CNN has been doing its bit, too, splaying a “Where’s Obama?” graphic on the face of Osama bin Laden (in a piece about bin Laden’s whereabouts). That inspired MSNBC last week to put up a picture of bin Laden when Hardball’s Chris Matthews was talking about Obama. (Right-wing smear sites like Newsmax.com think nothing of baiting search-engine surfers with the Obama-Osama combination.)

I don’t doubt that whichever interns are responsible for flashing graphics don’t mean to make the mistake. But the mistakes aren’t the problem. The problem is that, judging from Internet campaigns, calls and letters to editors and pinheaded punditry on network television, the mistakes strike a fairly good number of presumptively respectable Americans as closer to truth than the facts. It’s prejudice by reflex, programmed into people’s mindset since well before there was an Obama or a war on terror, as the Abscam scandal showed. And by no means is the repugnance confined to conservatives.

Three years after winning the case that desegregated schools, Thurgood Marshall (who’d eventually become the Supreme Court’s first black Justice) got in a public feud with Malcolm X, charging that black Muslims like him were “run by a bunch of thugs and organized from prisons and jails and financed, I am sure, by some Arab group.” ( Marshall was wrong about the funding, but accuracy would have impeded his racism.) When Muhammad Ali — one of those Muslims Marshall had vilified — became the heavyweight champion in 1964, former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, a Catholic of Medieval tempers, vowed to “take the title from the Black Muslim leadership” and bring the heavyweight crown “back to America.”

More recently, Frank Rich, as liberal a columnist as The New York Times tolerates anymore, pointed out the “plethora of foreign contributors, led by Saudi Arabia,” for Bill Clinton’s presidential library. The secrecy behind Clinton’s money machine is a problem. But what’s the singling out of Saudi Arabia got to do with it other than to imply, Thurgood Marshall-like, that dirty-Arab taint? The Saudi royal family gave Clinton’s library $10 million, the same amount it gave for George H.W. Bush’s library — a paltry sum compared with the $1 billion a week American consumers like you and me send the Saudis so we can drive to Wal-Mart in our Japanese cars and buy Indonesian products with our Chinese-funded credit cards.

Maybe indignation over Arab money’s influence on American symbols is a way to save face when foreign money bails out the American economy every day, the way recoiling at all things communist once had the ring of a loyalty oath. But it’s phony indignation, like Rudy Giuliani, when he was New York’s mayor, melodramatically rejecting a $10 million gift to the 9/11 families fund from Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud, a self-made, Warren Buffett-like billionaire (yes, Virginia, there are rich Saudis who did not inherit their wealth or make it from oil). Bin Talal’s crime? Saying that “the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance towards the Palestinian cause.” The inhumanity of the guy.

But anti-Arab chauvinism is still accepted currency in most political circles, especially when it appeals to that other deranged strain in the national psyche — that the most powerful country on earth is somehow besieged, alone and vulnerable to sleeper cells snoring in Arabic. In this calorific stew-pot of paranoia, “B. Hussein Obama” is a bait made to order.

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