Arab or Decent?

McCain’s weak denunciation of woman’s comment didn’t get enough press pushback

On Friday, a woman at a McCain rally in Minnesota said she didn’t trust Obama because he was “an Arab.” McCain took the microphone from her hands and replied, “No ma’am, no ma’am. He’s a decent family man.” Since then, many a report has cited this grabbing of the microphone as an example of McCain turning away from the McNasty syndrome he’s exhibited of late, and more than a few articles have boasted some variation of the eye-catching headline “McCain Defends Obama.”

But on her CNN blog yesterday, Campbell Brown aired her own opinion of the event— and put into words what was lacking in McCain’s—and the press’s—response:

Now, I commend Sen. McCain for correcting that woman, for setting the record straight. But I do have one question — so what if he was?

So what if Obama was Arab or Muslim? So what if John McCain was Arab or Muslim?…

When did that become a disqualifier for higher office in our country? When did Arab and Muslim become dirty words? The equivalent of dishonorable or radical?

Whenever this gets raised, the implication is that there is something wrong with being an Arab-American or a Muslim. And the media is complicit here, too.

We’ve all been too quick to accept the idea that calling someone Muslim is a slur.

Brown’s point is, as she said, obvious, and yet, reports of the incident, which gathered steam over the weekend, showed a remarkable lack of distinction between McCain’s response and the more appropriate one—one that wouldn’t create the ludicrously false dichotomy between being Arab and being decent. Phrases like “to his credit,” “McCain defends rival,” and “crowd boos” float through these news reports and the subsequent commentary; there’s less accountability than CNN’s Brown would like, and that we should see. Here are some of the accounts that appeared without any additional parsing (my emphasis):

The AP: McCain drew boos at a town-hall meeting Friday in Minnesota when he defended Obama

A column in the Kansas City Star entitled “Ignorant Republicans embarrass McCain, their party”: “To his credit, McCain replied…”

Syndicated political columnist Susan J. Demas at McCain “did the only thing he knew how to do: He recoiled and set them straight.”

Ron Elving, writing at, praised McCain for correcting the woman, and said it “suggest[s] the McCain of old is still in there.”

Reuters, via Washington Post: “McCain, an Arizona senator, spoke up on the weekend to defend Illinois Sen. Obama as a ‘decent family man’ after supporters at rallies called Obama an Arab, a Muslim, a traitor or terrorist — inaccurate descriptions that some critics see as coded attacks on his race.”

The Economist: “To Mr McCain’s credit, on Friday he began to discourage such outbursts and told his supporters that his opponent is ‘a decent family man with whom I happen to have some disagreements.’”

Mary Mitchell, a Chicago-Sun Times columnist: “To his credit, McCain forcefully shook his head no. He went on to tell the woman that Obama is a ‘decent man’ with a ‘good family.’”

The Los Angeles Times: During a town hall Friday in Minnesota, a woman referred to Obama as an Arab, leading McCain to correct the misperception and defend his opponent as a “decent … family man.”

While McCain’s response was, as Brown stated, commendable, the way the press covered it also suggests a dangerous apathy concerning what types of corrections (and record straightening) are required or expected of a candidate. McCain stepped forward, but he didn’t go far enough. It was more of a symbolic move—this grabbing of the microphone—than an effectual one; as author Khaled Hosseini stated in the Washington Post, “Simply calling Obama ‘a decent person’ is not enough.”

Surely this is true. But reporters should also refrain from unduly critiquing McCain’s good faith, impromptu effort. What they could have done, however, is added an extra line citing the discrepancy, or called the moment a missed opportunity on McCain’s part to truly set the record straight. As Juan Cole at Informed Comment wrote: “McCain should have said, ‘there would be nothing wrong with being an Arab, but Obama is not.’ The way he put it strongly implied that he had a low opinion of Arabs.”

And similarly, Michael Young at Reason Magazine took issue with the confusion of fallacies, and raised the possibility that the trickledown of the GOP ticket’s recent greasy politicking helped create a justification for the woman’s comment:

…you would have expected him to answer in a million different ways than the way he did, instead of just focusing on Obama’s personal qualities. He could have, first of all, corrected the woman’s inaccuracy, the confusion of one fallacy (that Obama is an Arab) with another (that he is a Muslim), before adding: “So what?”…denouncing someone because he or she is an “Arab” or a “Muslim” all too often seems fair game in American popular political discourse, with little visible backlash.

And if it’s not fair game, then it would be useful to see the country’s prominent politicians affirm that with a bit more conviction.

Young is right. McCain should have denounced the woman’s false assertion with more conviction and also called out the bigotry inherent therein. But barring that, reporters themselves should have taken no prisoners in clarifying why McCain’s response was dissatisfactory.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.