The perception-management trap: confusing appearances with reality

The charismatic American Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who now lives in hiding in Yemen and is a target for assassination by the CIA, has predicted: “The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens!

His prediction appears to be coming true.

In the current climate of escalating rhetoric through which hostility towards Muslims is now being unleashed across America, there is a tendency to pay greater attention to the fact that this makes America look bad, than that it reveals real fractures and failings inside American society.

Responding to the Manhattan Islamic-center controversy, Evan Kohlmann, an independent terrorism consultant at Flashpoint Partners who monitors jihadist websites, told the Wall Street Journal: “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”

But what if we could be assured that hatred of Muslims did not increase the risk of terrorism? Should we be any less concerned?

A couple of years ago, ABC‘s Prime Time conducted a revealing experiment to see how ordinary Americans respond to expressions of hostility directed at American Muslims. Watch the video below:

As encouraging as it might be to see that twice as many individuals tried to correct an injustice rather than supported it, the silent majority did nothing. And keep in mind: this was in response to the mistreatment of an American Muslim. Muslims born elsewhere who may speak little or no English can only fare worse in similar circumstances.

The pernicious effect of political correctness is that it exaggerates the value of cosmetic changes. A socially acceptable code can prevail, yet barely beneath the surface, bigotry festers both in spite of and to some extent because it no longer finds free expression.

The current up-swell of hatred towards Muslims in America says, I would contend, less about changing sentiments than it does about people’s willingness to express what they previously thought they must conceal. We should be less concerned about what people are now saying than what this reveals about what they think.

Glenn Greenwald comments on the demonstration that took place in Manhattan yesterday, as shown in this video:

The animosity and hatred so visible here extends far beyond the location of mosques or even how we treat American Muslims. So many of our national abuses, crimes and other excesses of the last decade — torture, invasions, bombings, illegal surveillance, assassinations, renditions, disappearances, etc. etc. — are grounded in endless demonization of Muslims. A citizenry will submit to such policies only if they are vested with sufficient fear of an Enemy. There are, as always, a wide array of enemies capable of producing substantial fear (the Immigrants, the Gays, and, as that video reveals, the always-reliable racial minorities), but the leading Enemy over the last decade, in American political discourse, has been, and still is, the Muslim.

That’s why the population is willing to justify virtually anything that’s done to “them” without much resistance at all, and it’s why very few people demand evidence from the Government before believing accusations that someone is a Terrorist: after all, if they’re Muslim, that’s reason enough to believe it. Hence, the repeated, mindless mantra that those in Guantanamo — or those on the Government’s “hit list” — are Terrorists even in the absence of evidence and charges, and even in the presence of ample grounds for doubting the truth of those accusations.

And there’s no end in sight: the current hysteria over Iran at its core relies — just as the identical campaign against Iraq did — on the demonization of a whole new host of Muslim villains.

This may turn out to be one of the most important tests of Barack Obama’s presidential leadership. His inclination and that of his political advisers is likely to lean heavily in favor of weathering out the storm — especially since he appeared to walk back from his initial intervention. But the test of leadership is the willingness and ability to act in conformity with the dictates of the circumstance and not those of political prudence.

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5 thoughts on “The perception-management trap: confusing appearances with reality

  1. Christopher Hoare

    I’m curious — what form of leadership is Obama to use against this deep seated hatred? Not another speech, one hopes.
    A few public figures have already spoken, to no effect. Actions have caused this issue so it seems that actions will need to end it. The Federal government could build an institution on the site that embraces all faiths, but doesn’t New York already have one? How about ceasing to promote a climate that incubates this hatred of Muslims through assassination programs and terrorism called counter terrorism? How about actually doing something to return America to the respect for laws that it had before Bush?
    Showing these mobs of bigots that the United States itself is going to change and respect international law and its own constitution might just convince these mouth-breathers that perpetrators of racial and religious hatred are not going to get off Scot free.

  2. Fillmore Hagan

    Current Zionist-inspired hatred for Moslems in the US still has a way to go before it equals the fanatical hatred for the Japanese during World War 2. US propaganda and the media routinely depicted Japanese as sub-human apes and baboons. Towards the end of the war a Gallup survey found that about 20% of the US population favored the TOTAL EXTERMINATION of the Japanese race.

    Just in case anyone still does not know why the US public overwhelmingly approved the use of atomic weapons against Japanese civilians.

  3. BillVZ

    Thank you for this excellent post cum film clips and especially for yesterdays post on The Ground Zero mosque that was there before Ground Zero.
    Imam Feisal’s Press Conference, that never made the main stream media, is so important in its content and viewing of the Imam himself for all to see. Instead CNN presents absurd interviews with the likes of Pamela Geller and Franklin Graham. Such ‘news interest’ shows can only lead one to say:
    ‘thanks’ to Pamela Geller and Andrea Peyser two opportunists who handed the right wing conservative and religious movements the ‘flaming torches’ for the media to ignite their propaganda coup that cleverly illumines those alleged wounds of indignity and hurt feelings (that many have so seemingly publicly expressed) as well as the opportunity to turn up the volume for the growing anti-Islam religious mass hysteria of hate and fear that is exemplified in the the perception management clips in this posting.
    As a youngster in Southern California I was aware of the initial internment of the Japanese in near by Santa Anita race track, the films, terms and cartoons used for the Japanese to demonize them – because of the Day of Infamy.
    Thanks to those two women isn’t it- all in all- a minor ‘Pearl Harbor timely moment’ gift for the Republican story line?

  4. Barney

    Why it is that Western culture postures as believing in fairness, equality, respect and freedom — then savages and brutalises any cultures and nations that do not agree with its ideas? Why do the West’s concepts of justice and equality only seem important when dealing with some countries and not others? Why is it , that the West, after centuries of seeking knowledge and wisdom, now seems so lost and directionless,shallow and ungrounded? Why are all of the West’s philosophies and ways of seeing and being held in thrall to the power of the market and values of materialism?

    Why is it that relentless ego centric self seeking and the pleasure principle seem to underpin all of the West’s aims and objectives and cultural expression, at every level? Why is everything in the West ultimately measured by , and reduced to exchange value, monetary profit and sale reward at the cost of everything else? Why are values of decency, community, dignity and spirituality repeatedly trampled on in pursuit of those aims; and why are those aims considered the highest value, indeed, so desirable that they signify ‘the end’ of all other values, the end of all alternative seeking — ‘the end of history’ no less?

    That is why the West demonises Islam — it rejects the above outright — as unworthy, corrupted, unspiritual. The West can’t tolerate that rejection, and has to crush it, discredit it.

    The problem is, the West has been spectacularly unsuccessful in doing so.

    Too many Americans still believe unquestioningly in the innate superiority of free market, Laissez fair capitalism and the ‘moral monopoly’ of American fundamentalist and European Puritan based Christianity, still believe in the superiority of the West’s philosophical traditions, from the German thinkers of the 18Th century to the neo con Machiavellians of the 21st century.

    What we are really witnessing though — underneath America’s bravado and chest beating, and behind the crumbling ruins of European posturing — is a lost and degenerating Anglo American culture; a way of life and thought mired in endless craving for immediate satisfaction.

    And the Muslims know that is the case.

    The truth is, Anglo American culture has failed to build on or develop worthy values, ironically, at the same time as their own understanding of their own historical narratives rapidly unravels.

    Islamic philosophy at its core longs for a world not governed by shallow materialism ,and longs for a justice system that is not controlled by hypocritical and selective “one rule for us, another for them” thinking.

    The insights of the Post Modernists have shaken the confidence in the earlier wisdom of the West — yet those cracked foundations have not been replaced by anything of value by Westerners; rather Europe and America have continued to perpetuate and export by force, more of the same relentless materialistic values — even though many of us can see that those values have failed, again and again.

  5. scott

    Our political culture is certainly perverted by the notion expressed in the song, “It money that matters.” Liberals won’t cut the Pentagon, Conservatives won’t cut entitlements–all to pander to the rusty, ossified notions of our senior citizens who are ignorant, frightened by change and refuse to discuss these difficult issues.

    As our economy forces difficult choices that we are unwilling to confront, I’m reminded of TS Eliot’s apocalyptic dichotomy–will we go out with a bang or a whimper? I fear that we will find it easier to scapegoat poor powerless brown people.

    If we bomb Iran, I think that will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I don’t think China or Russia will try to stop us. So, will we ratchet up our military? We literally need NO military. Who could attack us? Even if the armies of the world all gathered to attack us, they’d have a hell of a time. Our gangs and rednecks could freeze any putative occupying force. Hence, no one would try. Of course, no empire was destroyed from without, they all rotted to shell’s of themselves. Couple that with our geography, and the American people will dwell in this land so long as we have electricity.

    If electricity were to fail, white people, those living in cities would perish rapidly. Again, rednecks and Mexicans would inherit this country. It’ s all about clean water first and foremost, food next. A country boy can survive, as can the Mexican. Before that happens, will we let our people starve to keep our military might up? I know who has lobbying influence in Washington.

    We could see a dissolution of the USA. A bankruptcy if you will, a return to a loose federation–and a repudiation of our debt. This will mean we will have to balance our budget, as no one will loan us money. So, what will we spend our budget on? We could see more regional autonomy ala Articles of Confederation. It seems our power grid is more important than even individual states. (Texas has it’s own power grid, good luck to you other suckers.)

    None of this is conceivable until it becomes the path of least resistance. If we don’t reform our gov’t, get serious debate, constraint of budgets, it could happen sooner than we could ever imagine. Of course our politician will do EVERYTHING to avoid this, as will most Americans, though it isn’t necessarily as dire as it seems, just beyond our capacity to imagine. But all those who make their living off the state–how many people do you know who don’t anymore?–have all their chips on the status quo.

    The problem is that this giant ship of state is steaming towards the rocks and we haven’t decided to turn left or right. Meanwhile all those in the royal court in Washington are busy listening to their concerto on the poop deck, drunk and bloated with greed.

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