Who’s Afraid of Aqua Buddha?

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, but haven’t had a strong enough opinion to make it worth blogging about until now. The other day I was re-watching this ad, which Jack Conway is running against Rand Paul in the Kentucky Senatorial election:

I hate this ad. I just hate it. But until recently I’ve had trouble putting my finger on exactly why.

To be clear, the ridiculous sounding claims in the ad are actually pretty much true, or at least corroborated by eyewitnesses. The very last claim, about Paul wanting to cut federal dollars for faith-based programs, is a sketchy-at-best extrapolation of something he said in a different context. But that’s hardly the centerpiece of the ad, and since the bulk of the shots taken at him seem to be true, I don’t hate it because I think it’s a case of disingenuous swift-boating.

I also don’t hate it because I think it’s attacking a good man. I have some libertarian tendencies at times and I’ve been known to like some of what the Paul family has had to say in the last few years, but I’m definitely no Rand Paul supporter at heart. I think he’s just way to radical to be a force for good in Washington, and more importantly, I don’t feel like I can trust him to speak candidly about his opinions. A lot of his previously-held positions have magically moderated themselves since he found himself in the mainstream spotlight, including his sudden profession of Christian faith, which seems wildly at odds with the discipleship of atheistic Ayn Rand  that his words and deeds have evinced in the past*.

No, I would love to see Rand Paul taken down by an ad reminding folks that he’s actually quite new at this devoted-Christian schtick. But I noticed something yesterday while watching this ad that finally convinced me this was not that sort of attack at all.

What I noticed was the creepy, vaguely-Arabic-or-Indian-but-certainly-not-from-Western-culture music that floats menacingly behind the vocal track in the advertisement. Now what’s that about? Do they expect me to believe they just innocently chose this as a tie in to the one and only one word (“Buddha”) in the ad with some eastern connotations?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think the ad plays just like some of the crap that was run against Obama back in 2008. It’s purpose is not to discuss whether or not Paul needs to explain more fully his sudden change of position on various issues and claims of personal beliefs, but rather, it’s one big attempt to make him look like a scary guy with foreign connections.

Now, this may be a sound political tactic. It’s a well-documented fact that folks in the Appalachian states have soma distrust for Obama, much of which may be connected with the perception that he’s “Un-American” or “Un-Christian.” Indeed, at one point, a poll showed that nearly 15 percent of voters in Kentucky (30% of Republicans) erroneously believed Obama was a Muslim. So something like this that paints Rand Paul as a potentially suspicious guy who might spend his time hating on the bible and meditating in front of that big picture of a Buddha statue that floats in the backgound could probably be a reasonably effective ad.

Still, I’m 100% positive that if an ad like this were run against a democrat, people everywhere would be screaming things like “What do you care what his religious beliefs are? There’s no religious test for public office in America!” and “Why are they playing that spooky-sounding foreign music in the background? That’s just a racist tactic to make him seem like a shady character with dangerous foreign ties that might include terrorists, even though no evidence exists to suggest that!”

And such things should be shouted if that were to happen. So I’m shouting them now. I know people can and should vote for candidates who share their religious views, and that’s their prerogative. But it’s not even remotely acceptable for a candidate to try to re-paint his opponent’s religious beliefs just by sticking him in an ad with an eerie soundtrack and pictures of religious icons that folksy Kentuckians aren’t supposed understand. And while we’re at it, why does the Arabic-sounding music start during the part about Paul’s old college society “mocking the bible.” Is it supposed to make sense to me to equate Muslims with wanton criticism of the Christian holy book? Because last time I checked, there were lots of Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc. who manage to get through life just fine without calling the bible “a hoax.”

The good news is, current reporting suggests that, to the extent that Paul is being hurt by these ads, he’s being hurt by his unwillingness to address the charges directly more than by the associations raised by the ad. But that doesn’t change the fact that to me, the ad is a despicable attempt to get people to vote against him by (1) painting Paul as some sort of threatening adherent to some sort of mixture of Muslim and Buddhist  and (2) playing on a prejudice in voters not to vote for Muslims, Buddhists, or in general anyone whose religious music involves quarter-tones and ney flutes. The first part is simply the perpetuation of a falsehood and the second part is the intentional evocation of some prejudices you’d think a guy like Conway would agree shouldn’t be encouraged.

I’m sure I’m overreacting a bit. But I’m disappointed that the left-wing blogosphere hasn’t been more willing to criticize this spot. I’m serious, all you have to do is switch Paul for Obama and the “Aqua Buddha” story for the one about Obama’s church giving an award to Louis Farrakhan and I think you’ll see that it would suddenly become unpalatable to you. But what’s changed? Both stories are technically true. Both demand a forthright explanation from the candidates.

And yet this ad is not interested in procuring an explanation. It’s just interested in trying to make use of a preexisting prejudice.


*he is not, however, as some have claimed, named after her.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

2 Responses to Who’s Afraid of Aqua Buddha?

  1. Moominmamma says:

    Yeah, it’s a pretty despicable ad for the reasons you discuss. I have read a number of “lefty bloggers” who are willing to overlook that because they are glad to see a Democrat play the same kind of hardball Republicans play, finally. I think Dems are so sick of the deluge of lies the Republicans dump every day, endlessly, round and round, over and over, that they are unfortunately losing sight of some of their own principles.

    What do you mean when you say “people can and should vote for candidates who share their religious views”? It’s the “should” that confuses me. Reading that reminded me of an interview I heard on the radio, where a woman from North Dakota said she would vote for George Bush because he was a good Christian man and that she therefore knew he would make wise decisions and nothing bad would happen to the country. Those comments haunt me, even these many years later.

    • Colin West says:

      I suppose I should, to be fully accurate, have said that people can and should feel free to vote for candidates based on whether or not they share religious beliefs . In that way it’s really just an extension of voting for people who share your ideological beliefs, because who’s to say where one stops and the other begins.

      I agree things like this get messy at times, and situations like the anecdote you mention always give me pause. The thing is, I’m a person who happens to believe that good public policy can be justified without arguments stemming from my personal religious opinions, so it’s easy for me to wish that other people would be similarly willing to ignore how a candidate spends their Sunday morning’s when they’re marking their ballots. But some people’s religious beliefs, of course, don’t allow for that possibility, and in cases like those, it’s not their right to vote based on their religious beliefs that I object to, it’s their religious beliefs themselves. And I suppose that’s how I’d respond to the case of that North Dakota woman– I can’t rightly say that she shouldn’t vote for someone because he shares her beliefs. After all, it’s important that you and you candidate of choice agree about things like ethics and morality, and for some people those things are inextricably tied to their religion. But I would love to ask her where in the bible she found the claim that all Christians are granted infinite wisdom and their followers granted protection from all possible harm. I don’t remember that particular line; in fact, I remember instead a lot of letters to various early Christian churches counseling them on how to stay strong in their faiths in spite of the trials and tribulations they were facing.

      Ah well. I suppose it’s all academic. Still, there are times I wish I could meet every person on the planet one by one and get to argue my point of view with them, even if just for 30 minutes each. I think I could change enough minds that I’d feel a lot better afterwards. Probably not many, but even one, I think, would give me hope that people were rational, persuadable actors and not blind adherents to whichever ideology reaches them first.

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