It made me think of my own family.
Having coined "O'Bama" for the Irish working-class values that Joe Biden brings to the Democratic ticket, MSNBC motormouth Chris Matthews called his family in Pennsylvania -- where Scranton-born Biden is known as the state's "third senator" in some quarters -- to ask whether now they'd be voting for Obama.
"But he's a Muslim!" That's the reply Matthews told his viewers he got.
The Matthews clan is not alone. Going into the Democratic National Convention, depending on which poll you read, somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of American voters thought that Obama is a Muslim. A Newsweek poll found that 26 percent thought he was raised as a Muslim (untrue), and 39 percent thought he grew up going to an Islamic school in Indonesia (also untrue).
I'm not shocked by Americans' ability to think untrue things. After all, under the relentless tutelage of the Bush Administration and its media enablers, nearly 70 percent of the country thought that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in planning the Sept. 11 attack.
In fact, if you told me that double-digit percentages of voters believe that Jewish workers were warned to stay home on Sept. 11, or that the American landing on the moon was faked, or that every one of the words of the Bible is literally and absolutely true, I wouldn't be a bit surprised. It might make me think about the downsides of universal suffrage, the challenges facing public education, the limitations of "fact-checking" as a corrective to Swiftboating, the coarsening of public discourse, the devolution of news into entertainment, the risks to democracy of Rovian demagoguery -- stuff like that -- but it wouldn't make me question the methodology of the polls.
On the other hand, "But-he's-a-Muslim!" does raise the issue of whether people lie to pollsters when they're embarrassed to say what they really think. This argument -- called "the Bradley effect," after the Election Day disappearance of the lead that Los Angeles' African-American mayor, Tom Bradley, had held until then in the gubernatorial campaign -- says that the percentages that black candidates get in polls should be discounted by the reluctance of no small number of white voters to admit that race is a factor in their choice.
Race, of course, is already an issue in this presidential election, though it has largely been discussed via the proxy issue of ideology -- black ideology, and '60s black ideology in particular. It's way more comfortable to ask whether the Obamas' membership in Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church, and whether the thinking in Michelle Obama's senior-year college thesis, "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community," are evidence of their now-concealed belief in black separatism, black power and black liberation theology, than it is to interrogate our nation's melting-pot self-image, or to figure out why our prison population and our intractable economic underclass are overwhelmingly African-American.
The Muslim issue is a way to talk about race without talking about race, and without having to squirm about saying that race is not an issue. To enough voters that it matters for the outcome of this election, Muslims are as other, if not more so, as blacks. A Muslim running for president of the United States may just as well be the Manchurian Candidate, with al-Qaeda, the Palestinians, the Saudis, your-Islamic-bad-guys'-name-here, playing the role of the brainwashing North Koreans nefariously plotting to plant one of their own in the White House.
It's entirely conceivable that the McCain campaign's harping on Obama's alleged "elitism," his popularity in foreign crowds, is their way of hitting low notes meant to resonate with his otherness. They can't very well come out and call him a Muslim or directly question his patriotism in their ads, but when they charge that his foreign policy is a gift to the Iranians, the Russians or the terrorists, they are deploying the same tactic that labeled John Kerry as "French" -- that is, as a national of the weasel country that opposed the pre-emptive war in Iraq. (MORE)