Feb 12th 2010

T. Boone Pickens: Spoiling a Big Idea

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

T. Boone Pickens has a big idea. It may even be a good one. But when Pickens stoops to using fear and bigotry to sell this idea, it becomes small and unsavory.

"The Pickens Plan", as it is known, proposes the far-reaching goal of ending the U.S.'s "dependency" on imported oil. The plan calls for greatly expanding America's capacity to generate electricity from wind turbines and solar panels, converting truck and car engines so that they are powered by domestically-sourced natural gas, and providing incentives to businesses and homeowners encouraging them to adopt a range of energy conservation measures.

As Pickens envisions it, the plan would create millions of "green jobs", reduce pollution, and save the U.S. from sending "trillions of dollars overseas" to purchase oil - what Pickens calls "the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind". Overall the idea has much in its favor. It is environmentally and fiscally sound and it is innovative, as well. But that's not how Pickens leads his $62 million ad campaign to promote the plan. Instead, he pitches his big idea by preying on anti-Arab sentiment.

Pickens' TV ad, that has been playing for weeks now, begins with Arabic script on a blackened screen, which a voice over narrator translates, reading "Go back to sleep America, the oil crisis is over". The ad then shifts to a rather ominous scene with heavily armed soldiers guarding oil wells, as Arab style music plays in the background. Having now gotten the viewers attention, Pickens introduces himself and in the ad's remaining seconds ticks off the outline of his plan that will stop us from importing oil, adding that "much of it comes from countries that don't like us".

One could argue the facts of Pickens' plan, asking, for example, whether or not any major economic power can ever be "independent" in our increasingly interdependent world? Or whether it is correct to suggest that much of our oil comes "from countries that don't like us", when, in fact the only country that fits that description on the list of our major sources of oil is Venezuela. One might also ask "qui bono?" raising questions about billionaire Pickens' major investments in natural gas and "wind farms".

More disturbing to me, however, is the way the ad campaign crassly exploits anti-Arab bigotry in order to win public support. This of course, is not new with the Pickens Plan. Republican and Democratic politicians have been Arab baiting on oil-related issues for years. During the 2008 presidential campaign, both candidates pledged to end "dependence on Middle East oil", specifically committing, at one point, to end imports from Saudi Arabia by the end of their first term.

Since the entire Middle East accounts for less than 15% of U.S. oil imports, why would politicians single that region (or Saudi Arabia, in particular) out for attack? They do so because as political strategists have argued "it polls well". What they don't acknowledge is that it polls well precisely because there exists a deep-seated anti-Arab bias in Western culture and that is what they are tapping into.

Years back, together with a friend, Mowahid Shah, we studied this issue, comparing anti-Jewish cartoons from pre-Nazi Germany and Tsarist Russia, with more contemporary anti-Arab caricatures found in mainstream U.S. media. They were disturbingly similar in both content and form. The Jewish banker morphed into the Arab oil Sheikh and the Jewish subversive/anarchist/revolutionary morphed into the Arab terrorist. What was equally troubling was the wicked intent behind the use of these negative portrayals-to mobilize and prey on the fears of a concerned population using stereotypes that demonize another group of people.

If it's wrong to win support for a campaign by exploiting anti-black bias, playing on fears of "crime and violence", and if it is wrong to portray Jews as "controlling Hollywood and the banks" then it is equally wrong to try to sell your energy plan using anti-Arab sentiment.

Pickens may have a good idea. I can argue with a few of his points, but not the need to conserve, to end world-wide dependence on fossil fuels so as to address climate change, or to stop sending so much money overseas. In fact, he could win his case on its merits, which makes it even more disturbing that he has cheapened it with bigotry.

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