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October - November 2008


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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Phone:240-895-4795
Anne Arundel 100

The Politics of Rumor in the Heartland
by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor of English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

This summer my hometown made national news, though not for the usual reasons, like a flood or a resident winning the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Instead, Findlay, Ohio, became the poster town for a disturbing trend in the current election: the persistence of false rumors about Barack Obama. Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow went to Findlay to learn why these falsehoods persist, despite being repeatedly debunked by the mainstream press. The resulting article (June 30) made my hometown look like a troglodyte farm. After reading it, I felt like crawling under a rock.

Focusing on a single neighborhood, Saslow reported that the residents got their misinformation mainly from the Internet, and from friends and neighbors. One man was quoted as calling his neighbors “good people, smart people, so can they really all be wrong?” One of those neighbors offered this take on Obama: “I understand he’s from Africa, and that the first thing he’s going to do if he gets into office is bring his family over here, illegally. He’s got that racist [pastor] who practically raised him, and then there’s the Muslim thing.” Obama, the speaker concluded, is “just not presidential material, if you ask me.”

The piece prompted a firestorm in the blogosphere, an indignant op-ed in the Findlay Courier, and Mayor Pete Sehnert’s invitation to Obama to visit Findlay for some sort of reconciliation. The mayor was quoted in the Toledo Blade (July 3) as saying, “I just want him to straighten some things out, smooth some things over and find out we’re not so bad. I don’t want people to read something and get the wrong idea of our town.”

I don’t either: after all, I grew up there. I know that bi-coastal, big-city reporters often get the “flyover” Midwest wrong, missing the nuance of places where not much happens. In this case, however, it was not slanted reporting that made my town look bad, but the residents’ own words. While some of the interviewees claimed to have been misquoted, I can’t imagine a Post reporter getting so many quotes wrong. Saslow summarized the rumors whipping through Findlay as follows: “Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.” What’s the thinking behind such claims? The born-in-Africa rumor probably reflects the notion that African-Americans are still somehow “foreign” – that is, not real Americans. I have no idea how “possibly gay” got in there: maybe these people think that Obama outed himself by being a lousy bowler. “Gay Muslim” adds yet another layer of improbability, given the manner in which conservative Muslims usually interpret the Koran. The charge that Obama is a “racist” is bizarre coming from people whose own racism is so ingrained that they don’t recognize it. And as for Obama’s rumored refusal to say the Pledge, I’d ask my former neighbors this: Would a gay Muslim racist bent on destroying the American way of life hesitate to recite a few words if doing so would get him elected?

The lone dissenter whom Saslow quotes says this about her fellow citizens: “They just believe what they want to believe. . . . Nothing gets through to them.” Even Mayor Sehnert – a Republican – hints at a conservatism so deep as to be baffling. “People in Findlay are kind of funny about change,” Saslow quotes him as saying: “They always want things the way they were.”

But how were things, exactly? What do these people hope to preserve? The answer lies not in a bygone historical era, but in a collective daydream. Officially designated 40 years ago as “Flag City, U.S.A.,” Findlay has always considered itself a place where patriotism and Main Street, Findlay, Ohio“heartland values” are in the water with the chlorine. Many residents see themselves as God-fearing types who have been ignored by a federal government that cares more about angry minorities, dissatisfied women, illegal aliens, and greedy unions than about “regular” folks like them.

If you’re convinced that you live in a Norman Rockwell painting, those whose convictions differ from yours aren’t just wrong, but un-American. I can attest that it’s no fun to be the object of that sentiment. I was 10 when Kennedy ran against Nixon, and when our class held a mock election, only three of us voted Democratic. My father was constantly baited by co-workers, and my mother, who circulated petitions against local real-estate agents who refused to show houses to black families, was ridiculed for organizing sparsely attended Kennedy rallies.

In 1960, the big issue was religion. It was a source of considerable fear in our overwhelmingly Protestant town that Jack Kennedy was a Roman Catholic. I remember a classmate repeating what his father had told him: if JFK got elected, the pope would be running the country. With Obama’s candidacy, religion – reflected in those “Muslim” rumors – has been joined by race. When I was a kid, most Findlayites felt that they didn’t have a “colored problem,” as they called it, because there weren’t enough “colored” people to create one. Nearly 50 years later, Findlay remains 93 percent white. Does the fact that so few African-Americans choose to live there have any connection with how willingly some residents believe false rumors about a black candidate? Few people nowadays, even in Findlay, would openly admit that they’d never vote for an African-American: maybe it feels more righteous to oppose an unpatriotic gay Muslim racist.

Since my childhood, Findlay has lost the home office of chief employer Marathon Oil, as well as numerous factory jobs, and many family farms have been consolidated into larger tracts suitable for agribusiness. Add to these our national woes – gas prices, the economy, the war – and Findlay’s idealized image of itself and the country has been severely challenged. These people are angry, but they don’t know who to blame. To criticize anything about America, its policies, or a Republican president is unimaginable, so they cling to any rumor that reinforces their self-image. What matters is not the truth of a rumor, but its usefulness in reassuring them that they’re still the “real” Americans.

During the primaries, Obama commented that worsening social and economic conditions have made some small-town Pennsylvanians “bitter.” Apparently this also applies to small-town Ohioans – at least in one town that I know pretty well. The real irony is that such bitterness has undermined patriotism in, of all places, “Flag City, U.S.A.” Could anything be more unpatriotic – more disrespectful of our democracy – than choosing to be a misinformed voter? No real American would stand for it.