Given the divisiveness that has pervaded politics and race relations in America for most of its history, it comes as no surprise to observe pundits and political commentators resort to exaggeration, extremism and reductionism when delivering their particular flavor of the news. Be that as it may, in my observation, many of today's mainstream conservative talk show hosts, in particular, have taken these simplistic, unbalanced forms of commentary to new lows.
Rush Limbaugh and some of his right-wing counterparts come to mind. Instead of using his platform to inform viewers and listeners, inspire democratic debate and intelligent discourse, Mr. Limbaugh seems to delight in using his position to spew vitriol and promote fear and distrust of those who have the boldness to express ideas that are at odds with his own.
This is a real shame -- not only to Mr. Limbaugh and his colleagues, but also to Americans and world citizens who believe in freedom -- because with great power comes great responsibility. Furthermore, it represents wasted talent and a lost opportunity to uplift humanity, appreciate the beauty and diversity of God's creation, and build on common strengths. What Mr. Limbaugh and others seem not to realize is that each time they choose to tear down others, they reveal their own cowardice and ignorance.
Recently, Mr. Limbaugh has levied his distasteful attacks at the first lady of the United States for doing the unthinkable -- caring about and taking action to reduce the alarming epidemic of obesity in America. Apparently, our conservative political observers view Michelle Obama's "agenda" as something so reprehensible and insidious as to warrant a full-scale attack on her and her husband, the president of the United States. Specifically, it appears that Mr. Limbaugh is upset that the first lady continues to encourage Americans to become more active as a means to healthier living, avoiding diet-related sickness and disease, and reducing the staggering costs of health care in America.
In an effort to undermine the sincerity of her campaign, some conservative media outlets have publicized photos of President Obama eating a hot dog or other "junk food." I think we can all agree that the president, given his weight and active lifestyle, can afford to eat a hot dog. He doesn't indulge in hot dogs as a routine matter. On the contrary, he seems to have a particular fondness for the broccoli that George Bush senior abhorred!
Since the beginning of recorded time, people have held and have expressed differences of opinion about ideas, values, behavior, policies and politics. This is an inherent part of the human condition, and it is natural for people to disagree, even in the most harmonious of environments. At the other end of the scale are mean-spirited attacks that ignore the central matter and focus, instead, on personal attributes. When it comes to the Obamas, Rush Limbaugh's comments appear to fall in the latter category.
I am not sure what fuels Mr. Limbaugh's particular passion for ridiculing the president and first lady, but having observed the American political scene for a long time, his tirades seem to have an extremely single-minded, distasteful angle. His criticisms appear to transcend mere policy and politics.
The American political landscape is one of the world's best arenas in which democracy, freedom of speech, and responsibility of the press can operate. Intelligent dialogue and debate should reign. Unfortunately, more often than not, this is no longer the case. Tune into almost any political talk show and you will soon find yourself subjected to angry rants by so-called experts who seem to have an opinion on just about everything, as long as they can belittle someone else. Any armchair psychologist can tell you that these talking heads display classic symptoms of having more (unresolved) problems with themselves than their targets. In Limbaugh's case, I interpret his snide comments as nothing more than dog-whistle politics meant to invoke ethnic stereotypes among likeminded persons, who some might regard as racially challenged.
Having participated on the front lines of politics for years, I know personally how it can bring out the worst in people, especially when ambition, pride and ego take their place on the front line. Meanness becomes part of the game, and I am not surprised when I see it. However, politicians are people too and no matter how high up the ladder you may be, mean-spirited attacks can hurt and anger. That is why even political leaders need a boost at times when attacked by the unconscionable behavior of others.
So to you, Madam First Lady, I encourage you to keep on keeping on, because you have embraced some great programs, including Let's Move, and your work with military families is an inspiration. When your enemies are unhappy, be happy because you are obviously doing the right thing.
Dog-whistles are blown by cowards who prefer to fool themselves into believing no one sees them for who they are when the truth is so obvious. But alas, let civility reign.
Zhivargo Laing is a former finance and economic development minister of The Bahamas. He is now Chief Executive Officer of the Laing Consulting and Research Group which offers business consulting, market research, training and public relations services. A graduate of economics and finance from the University of Western Ontario and Washington DC's George Washington University, this businessman, author and professional motivational speaker lives with his wife and four children in Freeport, Grand Bahama.