As a Jewish American, and as an author, my imagination is sometimes influenced by my cultural upbringing. It helped me write one of my first articles and it enables me to put myself in the shoes of other ethnic groups. I wonder how I would feel if someone said a public figure "looked Jewish" and then explained that this was "totally unacceptable." Furthermore, I'm particularly aware of how words are utilized to demonize and marginalize people; especially when seemingly commonplace observations exploit bias and prejudice.
Bill O'Reilly said Bergdahl's father "looks like a Muslim." What's wrong with that? When political context is taken into account alongside an observation of someone's physical appearance (or facial hair, dress, and language), then such statements should be scrutinized. As quoted in Adolph Hitler: Biography and Character by Southern Utah University, Hitler wrote about the day he first saw Jews in Vienna:
"One day when I was walking through the inner city, I suddenly came upon a being clad in a long caftan, with black curls. Is this also a Jew? At Linz they certainly did not look like that. Secretly and cautiously I watched the man, but the longer I stared at this strange face the more mind reshaped the first question into another form: is this a German?"
Hitler goes on to explain how the appearances of these Jews tarnished the city. This first, seemingly ordinary encounter set the stage for far greater observations on the differences between Jews and everyone else.
As for the correlation between bias and the appearance of a political rival or enemy, Harvard University's Karthik Narayanaswami analyzed the oftentimes nefarious link between prejudice, bias and the appearance of a targeted group. In "Analysis of Nazi Propaganda," he explains the link between marginalizing the appearance of a political enemy within propaganda posters:
By exploiting existing stereotypes and the sentiments of the German people, Nazi propaganda sought to target those whom it considered either an enemy or unworthy of being a citizen...
There is a reason why the Nazis chose such a portrayal, and why this even worked in the first place. By picking only relatively unpleasant looking Jewish attributes, and by choosing to portray Jews in only an unpleasant manner, the Nazis applied Selection Bias to elicit several other cascading biases. By taking advantage of the Negativity Bias inherent human nature, wherein we pay more attention to negative images, the Nazis succeeded in associating Jews with those unpleasant mental images...
To this end, once again the Nazis used the familiar theme of "Us vs. Them" to elicit a Self-Serving Bias citing Lebensraum, or living space, as the reason.
Therefore, in our analysis of how the Nazis used propaganda to Define the Enemy, we find that they sought to elicit one or more of these biases...
The author of Pinheads and Patriots and Culture Warrior is no stranger to the "us vs. them" theme and the utilization of biases to delineate rival and ally, but he's no Adolf Hitler. He's not a Nazi and Fox News isn't the reincarnation of Nazi propaganda.
Conservative media pundits like Bill O'Reilly and lawmakers do, however, utilize the appearance, or attributes, of their political opponents in order to define them as "the other." The Republican Willie Horton ad is an example that initially comes to mind. Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson has a beard, but he's not chastised by Bill O'Reilly. There is an overt reason for choosing to focus on Bergdahl's beard but not the beards of Duck Dynasty stars. Conservatives have gone so far as to try to rename French fries into "Freedom Fries," so symbolism is extremely important to some people.
Whereas Bill O'Reilly has accused others of taking a page from Joseph Goebbels, in reality, he and other conservative media pundits and lawmakers utilize prejudice associated with a political rival's religion or ethnic background. Think Michele Bachmann's accusations of Anthony Weiner's wife Huma Abedin, the Ground Zero mosque uproar, and the tens of thousands of times Fox News has uttered the words "Islamic terrorists" (without mentioning the tens of thousands of Muslims they kill). Conservative pundits like O'Reilly overtly utilize the passions of many conservative voters, under the guise of simple observation, while knowing full well such statements are fueled by xenophobia and hatred.
How do I know this? Well, if you're reading this and think Bill O'Reilly is simply making a benign observation about Sgt. Bergdahl's father, then read the explanation of his original comments in The Washington Post:
O'Reilly: "A: he absolutely looked like a Muslim. B: he talked in Pashto, the language of the Taliban. And C: he thanked Allah. I thought the appearance was totally inappropriate. I said it. I will stand by it. Why am I being injected into that?"
Then, after reading the explanation, utilize the same comments in a different context, and see how these words sound. If the words (attributed to different ethnic groups) convey a different meaning, that's Mr. Goebbels smiling from a fiery inferno down below.
So let's have some fun; Bizarro Superman kind of fun. Imagine this is 2008 and Wall Street has collapsed, the economy is close to a depression, and a man named Bernie Madoff is shown on television. Imagine Bill O'Reilly putting up an image of a New York Post cover showing Maddoff with the caption "The Most Hated Man In New York." Imagine for a moment Bill O'Reilly is referring to this cover, in the context of financial turmoil, and saying the following:
"He absolutely looked Jewish, wearing that black brim hat and black overcoat. He knows how to read Hebrew. He's thanked God, or at least his view of God, before. I thought his appearance was totally inappropriate. I said it. I will stand by it. Why am I being injected into that?"
How does that sound, if times and political correctness were different? There's nothing overtly hateful, but it would of course sound blatantly anti-Semitic.
The reason it's "totally inappropriate" to look Muslim or speak Pastho (ironically, we've been in Afghanistan for over a decade helping people who speak Pashto) is because such sentiments pander to the prejudice and biases possessed by certain viewers of Fox, as well as certain Republican voters. When seemingly simple observations are made within the context of the passions and prejudices of people who assign negative emotions towards a certain ethnic group, we have Bill O'Reilly's latest comments.
When the political winds ever change (or revert back to where they were for centuries), and it's acceptable to say the things conservative media hosts and lawmakers say about Muslims in relation to Jews, then we'll know when such a precedent was set. The more we allow influential people to denigrate one group, the easier it will be in the future to denigrate Jews, and other groups who've suffered from centuries of persecution.