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Ever since KHOW talk-show host Dan Caplis began attacking the presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee, Senator Barack Obama, he's received a steadily accelerating barrage of hate e-mail. That's nothing new for Caplis, who's grown accustomed to criticism during his sixteen years on the radio, nearly four of which he's spent alongside cohort Craig Silverman in KHOW's afternoon-drive slot. Still, the screeds penned by the Obama faithful have some distinctive characteristics.
"It strikes me as having been written by people who've probably had every level of education they could possibly enroll for," Caplis says. "And yet they channel it into this really self-defeating line of attack, where if you report these facts about Obama, you're a racist." In his view, the effect is simultaneously "very sophisticated" and "ignorant."
Such characteristics will no doubt bubble to the surface frequently between now and election day. Over time, the mainstream press has tended to treat race as the Great Unmentionable — a topic so likely to stir anti-intellectual passions that it's to be avoided at all cost — and throughout his campaign, Obama has followed suit, doing his best to usher the electorate into a post-racial era. But that's easier said than done.
Obama's success, coupled with his ancestry, has brought race to the forefront of national discourse in a manner that's likely to be even more profound and far-reaching than the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For that reason, many potential voters who consider Obama to be a living, breathing example of America's ability to move beyond its heritage of slavery and discrimination are apt to see anyone who opposes his rise through a racial lens, whether it's justified or not.
This puts critics in a difficult position that's compounded by an unfortunate truth: Even if their negative opinions aren't racially motivated, they'll become heroes to genuine bigots sure to assume that, deep down, their thought processes are the same.
Peter Boyles, who helms the morning block at KHOW, has been down roads like these before without straying off course. He has a tendency to hop onto subjects and ride them until they do an Eight Belles impression — remember his incredible devotion to the JonBenét Ramsey case? — and in recent years, he's applied the approach to illegal immigration. He faults local, state and national officials for not doing nearly enough to stem the tide of would-be workers from Mexico, in particular, and favors get-tough measures for individuals sans a green card, who are presumably depleting scarce government resources with each tick of the clock. But even as he's emerged as a leading voice for strict immigration reform, he's become a prime target for ideologically divergent callers and e-mailers convinced that he must be motivated by prejudice.
"I've been called a xenophobe, a Nazi, a Klansman, a fascist. You know the list," Boyles says. But in his view, such terms are used in too cavalier a manner. "There really are racists out there, there really are neo-Nazis, there really are fascists," he acknowledges. "George Bush is as close to a good fascist as we've had in a while. But a lot of the guys who use these words don't even know what they mean."
Boyles does: "Lord knows I lived through it when they murdered my best friend" — a reference to talk-show host Alan Berg, slain in 1984 by a white-supremacist group called the Order. But instead of crying foul, he prefers to challenge the assertions directly. "If someone charges me with racism, I'll immediately call the person and invite them on the show. And they won't come on. The Tina Griegos, the Diane Carmans, the Butch Montoyas — they never even return our calls," he says. Hence, he has considerably more respect for foes who willingly enter the lion's den, including Re-create '68 activist Glenn Spagnuolo. "I probably disagree with him on every single issue, including what color the sky is, but I admire him for doing the show," he admits.
These days, Boyles says he's hearing fewer allegations of racism than he did a year or two ago — a change he credits to shifting public opinion and a growing acceptance of his immigration positions. "There are more and more rational people who see there's an argument here that has nothing to do with skin color or ethnicity," he emphasizes. But plenty of detractors remain willing to label him a racist, and he has little tolerance for ones who do so on the air. As he puts it, "If that's all you've got, the conversation ends."
KOA's Mike Rosen shares this philosophy. Rosen is as conservative as they come, and because he expresses antipathy for both Barack Obama and liberal immigration policies, he, too, comes in for racism indictments on occasion. But he doesn't take the insults personally. "That's a tactic some people use — and there are other people who might have a hair trigger for taking offense," he allows. "But I'm not a firebrand or a shock jock. I'm not outrageous for the sake of being outrageous, and frankly, I have no tolerance for hypersensitive people who want to rein me in with a politically correct whip." Nevertheless, he goes on, "I'm not defensive about it. Sometimes I'll ask the caller to define racism, and usually they're canards — such as any negative treatment of someone who's black makes someone a racist, which is preposterous. And, of course, I can cite my enthusiastic support for blacks like Tom Sowell and Walter Williams and Ward Connerly and Clarence Thomas. I support them because of their ideas and beliefs just as I've criticized Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright for what they've done and said."
With that in mind, Rosen pledges not to shy away from censuring Obama when he thinks it's necessary even if some listeners may interpret his comments as racist. After all, he points out, "I've also criticized some things George Bush has said, and I don't think that makes me anti-Texas. It doesn't make me a Tex-ist."
For his part, Caplis has gotten his head handed to him by people on both sides of the racial divide. He's less doctrinaire about immigration than Boyles or Rosen, and whenever he voices his conviction that "most illegal immigrants should be given a chance to stay here if America can put them to work," he's soon inundated by what he describes as "racist nut" e-mail, the majority of it far less erudite than the stuff from the pro-Obama crowd. "There are a lot of misspelled words, and the grammar isn't very good," he reports. But when he harps on Obama, he's fingered as a minority-hater, not a minority-lover, by a different segment of his audience.
Even so, he refuses to let the prospect of more racism claims alter the way he does business. During a show a few weeks back, he described a specific Obama policy as "spooky" — a problematic turn of phrase given that "spook" is a slur against African-Americans, albeit one that's no longer in common usage. When this is brought to his attention, Caplis concedes that he has a distant memory of "spook" having once had an offensive meaning in certain contexts, but he maintains, credibly, that he didn't mean to and would never deploy it in that way. At the same time, however, he refuses to retire it from his Obama-bashing lexicon.
"It's a word I use pretty regularly when it comes to describing lots of other scary liberals and their wacky ideas," Caplis says. "I've used it to describe John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Joan Fitz-Gerald locally, and I think it's a very accurate and fitting way to bring home just how frightening some of these liberals are, including, right now at the top of the list, Barack Obama. So I'll use it to describe him that way again" — not out of obstinacy, but because "I don't treat people differently because of their race one way or the other."
To put it another way, Caplis believes that in sticking by "spooky," he's striking a blow for racial equality. It's an interesting theory — but one that probably won't put a stop to those nasty e-mails.