A satirical campaign commercial focused on a minority character speaking broken English? Now that’s a scenario fraught with pitfalls. It would take an extremely deft touch to produce such an ad without unnecessarily offending people or muddying the ad’s message, and former Congressman Pete Hoekstra’s Super Bowl spot was far from artful.
A satirical campaign commercial focused on a minority character speaking broken English? Now that’s a scenario fraught with pitfalls. It would take an extremely deft touch to produce such an ad without unnecessarily offending people or muddying the ad’s message, and former Congressman Pete Hoekstra’s Super Bowl spot was far from artful. The result of Hoekstra’s first statewide ad in his campaign for Debbie Statebnow’s U.S. Senate seat was a storm of controversy that obscured legitimate criticisms about the incumbent senator’s record on spending.
We don’t believe the Hoekstra ad is racist. It’s clearly a satire designed to needle Stabenow; the young woman in the ad is pictured as a resident of China, whom we wouldn’t expect to speak perfect English. However, the spot does demonstrate a serious lack of sensitivity and understanding. The Chinese stereotypes — the smash of the gong, the peasant straw hat, the imperfect English — echo images used for decades in popular culture to mock, belittle and typecast Chinese and Chinese-Americans. The cultural associations of such symbols were bound to offend many people, regardless of the producer’s intent. It’s not just Democratic activists — who would probably oppose the rising of the sun if Hoekstra came out in favor of it — or Asian-Americans who are upset. It raised the “ick” factor, as one Sentinel reader called it, for people of many backgrounds who are mindful of the malicious use of those symbols in the past.
Here’s one way to look at it. What if we replaced the Chinese woman bicycling through the rice paddy with a resident of Mexico wearing a sombrero, speaking English with a heavy accent? Or with an African tribesman standing by a thatch hut? Would those images be acceptable? Or would any candidate consider it a good idea to run an ad like this in California, Hawaii or another state with a large Chinese-American population?
We’re not talking about being “politically correct” or touchy-feely-liberal here. We’re just talking about respecting other people, and there’s nothing Democratic or Republican about that. A number of readers commenting on The Sentinel’s website have told people complaining about the ad to lighten up, to get a thicker skin. We think it’s presumptuous to tell members of other ethnic groups how they’re supposed to feel about the way they’re portrayed.
Ultimately, as Hoekstra says, the ad is about Stabenow and her record. That’s a legitimate target. The negative effect of our swelling national debt on our economy is an important issue. Our spendthrift habits have weakened our international standing, especially in relation to China and other fast-growing Asian economies. But if the real issue is Stabenow, why all the Chinese imagery, not just in the ad but on Hoekstra’s debbiespenditnow.com website?
This ad probably won’t make any difference in the Senate race. Voters will probably forget about it by the August primary and the November general election. Perhaps by some perverse political calculus the ad “succeeded,” by drawing money and attention to Hoekstra and energizing potential supporters. But it did nothing to advance discussion of real issues, and demonstrated again that we have a long way to go in this country when it comes to understanding the effects of cultural stereotyping.
Holland (Mich.) Sentinel