x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Republican chic

An Alabama politician blames Sheikhs for soup prices.

Share the wealth: Harri Anne Smith wants guys dressed like this to show some gratitude to America.
Share the wealth: Harri Anne Smith wants guys dressed like this to show some gratitude to America.

The second congressional district of the US state of Alabama has a poor record of producing politicians capable of talking about the Middle East without sounding silly. Take Terry Everett, the district's seven-term Republican congressman. In the autumn of 2006, just a few months after Everett voted to extend America's occupation of Iraq, a journalist asked him whether he knew the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite.

"One's in one location, another's in another location," ventured Everett, then vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence. "No, to be honest with you, I don't know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something." After having the basics explained to him, Everett said: "Now that you've explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we're doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but in that whole area."

Last September, Everett announced his plans to retire, and the battle over his seat commenced. The race has received some national attention, but only because of the possibility that a Democrat (Bobby Bright, the mayor of Montgomery, whose conservatism stretches the term "Democrat" to its breaking point) might win the district for the first time since 1964. Meanwhile, on a few bemused corners of the internet, observers of politics with too much time on their hands have been sharing a chuckle over the Everett-esque rhetoric on passing display in a campaign ad posted to YouTube by Harri Anne Smith, a three-term Republican state senator vying for the seat. The ad begins with Smith - who has financed her campaign by loaning it a quarter of a million dollars of her own money - roaming a grocery store bemoaning the rising cost of bread and milk. In one bizarre shot, she takes a can of Campbell's chunky soup from the shelf, turns the can over to look at the bottom (which is seems to be blank), then puts it back and walks away.

"We complain about gas prices for our cars, but everything costs more when fuel prices go up," she observes. The ad then cuts to two men in traditional Arabic dress smiling and looking out over a nondescript town in the desert, then to some stock footage of busy oil pumps. Smith knows who is jacking up the price of her Cheerios. "It's about time those billionaire Middle Eastern sheikhs show us some gratitude by lowering their oil prices," Smith continues, using a tone of voice more suitable for saying "It's about time you started sharing those toys with your sister." To those not familiar with the character of speech in the American south, it sounds at first like she is reprimanding something called a "bee-yon-air Middle Eastern chic".

Exactly which sheikhs are meant to be showing gratitude, or for what, is unclear (her campaign office did not return my calls, perhaps because I was calling from "a newspaper in Abu Dhabi"). In fact, it is unclear what exactly Smith (currently ranked as the most conservative members of the Alabama senate) thinks about most serious questions of national policy. The links to the "issues" pages on her website don't work, so all visitors can learn is that she approves of economic growth and isn't too fond of "radical Jihadists" or "undocumented illegal immigrants". "What part of illegal don't they understand?" she wonders aloud in another ad.

On Tuesday, Alabama held the first round of its congressional primary elections. In the Republican primary, Smith came in a distant second to Jay Love, a state representative who has financed his own campaign with half a million dollars in self-loans, and spent most of his campaign talking about ... cutting taxes and deporting illegal immigrants. Love and Smith will compete in a runoff election next month. Perhaps before then, Smith will see fit to name names, to explain exactly which sheikhs owe the US so much gratitude. Or perhaps she will decide that vague nastiness informed by resentment and fear is no way to address the problems facing America and the world.