Wednesday, September 1, 2010

IN Touch: Electorate Ignorance (Update 2: Letter to the Editor)

On August 23, I posted my sixteenth submission to The Indianapolis Stars IN Touch blog. That post was included in the print edition of The Star on August 25. My post generated several interesting comments and a follow-up letter to the editor printed on August 31, 2010. In this second of two posts (the first post is here), I want to look at that letter to the editor. But first, go back and read my initial post so that this will make some sense.

Before reprinting the letter to the editor, let me explain why I didn’t comment directly to that letter on The Stars website. As of the time of this writing, that letter has generated 199 comments. Many of those comments have been removed for violating the The Stars terms of service (there was a lot of very nasty, very offensive name calling). Moreover, very few of the comments to the letter have anything at all do with the actual subject matter of my post or the letter itself. Rather, those comments are largely nothing more than rants against President Obama in particular or those on the political left in general. And the hate being spewed is simply nauseating and frightening. I’d planned to re-post some of the most offensive comments in order to give readers a sense of what people are actually saying (especially when shielded by anonymity) but most of the comments that I wanted to share have (probably wisely) been removed.

So, with the thoughts from my original post in mind, let’s look at the letter to the editor from Gerardo Larreategui:

A recent poll revealing that 20 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim elicited the usual denunciations of ignorance, fear and prejudice in the Aug. 25 Letters section. I decided to tackle the issue via the sort of "careful analysis" IN Touch blogger Michael Wallack so rightly praises, by actually reading the results of the Aug. 18 Pew Forum Poll.

Wallack and letter writer Carlie Anderson both made the erroneous assumption that anyone who subscribes to the Obama-is-a-Muslim trope must therefore hold a negative view of both Islam and the president. The poll reveals, however, that 26 percent of those who believe that Obama is a Muslim approve of his job performance. About 5 percent of Americans, then, would seem to view a Muslim president in positive terms. Perhaps the real prejudice is with those who automatically assume that the Muslim label -- even when erroneously applied -- is invariably a "bad thing."

So, did you notice anything interesting about Mr. Larreategui’s letter?

First, Mr. Larreategui suggests that I “made the erroneous assumption” that believing that President Obama is a Muslim equates to a negative view of President Obama and Islam. I went back and re-read my post and I can’t find any such assumption, at all. My analysis focused on the question of why religion mattered at all, how and why people were willing to believe proven fallacies, and what it means to our political system when disinformation rules the day. Moreover, my ultimate suggestion was simply that we demand more from our politicians and media and be more careful in our analysis of the facts upon which we rely.

Rather than focus on why people believe in the fallacy and on the real critical question of what the media, in particular that portion of the media that serves, essentially, as the communications arm of the Republican party (remember shortly after President Obama was elected when Fox News’ president identified the network as the voice of the “loyal opposition”), Mr. Larreategui attacks those who worry about people falling for misinformation. I’m not sure if that is technically an ad hominem attack, but in any event, it completely ignores the real problem. By diverting attention to the fact that some people may approve of a Muslim President or that by even raising the issue, I must be assuming that people hold negative views of Islam, Mr. Larreategui seeks to avoid discussion of why people and certain media outlets would lend credence to or actively disseminate false information and the danger that has on our political system. Oh, and with regard to any assumption about negative views of Islam, the protests against the “Ground Zero Mosque” or the arson at a mosque in Tennessee certainly don’t demonstrate any Islamophobia… Mr. Larreategui wants to divert attention and throw around claims of prejudice without examining the real issues.

For the record, here’s the letter from Carlie Anderson to which Mr. Larreategui also refers:

The Star reports that 20 percent of Americans wrongly believe that President Obama is a Muslim (Aug. 19). This is after that belief has been corrected, as it was this morning in The Star, many times. Ignorance and prejudice and fear all feed one another. Unfortunately, I think we are living in times when misconceptions and rumors such as this are rampant.

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