Tag Archives: America

Appealing to the Masses

Great Orator, 1944 by Irving Norman

Great Orator, 1944 by Irving Norman

As we near the end of what may be the longest and most contentious election in US history, I have been thinking a lot about something I read in my college English Composition textbook (which I still have after all these years). It was in a section explaining how rhetoric is used to appeal to a crowd of people, and the importance of using key words that tap into the fears and prejudices of the audience. Anyway, here is the quote:

The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might, and the public is in danger. Yes, danger from within and without. We need law and order. Yes, without law and order our nation cannot survive. Elect us, and we shall by law and order be respected among the nations of the world. Without law and order our republic shall fall.

(Excerpt from speech by Adolf Hitler: Strategies for Successful Writing)

Fear seems to be the driving motivator in this election, and regardless of a person’s political inclination, fear and insecurity are the primary impetuses in candidate selection. People supporting Trump are afraid that they are losing their jobs, that they are not being heard and represented, and that the country is heading in a direction that contradicts their beliefs. On the flip side, people supporting Clinton fear increasing racism and intolerance, increased influence of corporate interests, and loss of women’s rights. Add to that the fact that everyone, regardless of political affiliation, is concerned about terrorist threats and political instability in other countries. Put all this together, and you have an election based upon fear, which is stoked by a media that seeks to capitalize on this widespread sentiment.

I am not going to tell you who to vote for, because it is your choice and you have the right to vote your conscience. I would encourage everyone, though, to take a step back, take a deep breath, and try to make a decision that is less fear based. It is tough—trust me, I know—but it is important.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading and thinking.

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“Revisiting History” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

This essay is included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. Since most of the essay concerns Italian politics and media (a topic which I know little about), the names and references were somewhat meaningless to me. Still, there are a couple sections that discuss fascism and dictatorships that I found interesting.

There seems to be a belief that true political change only occurs through extreme action or revolution. But Eco points out that this is not really the case, that a Fascist Revolution is gradual.

At school they spoke to me about the “Fascist revolution,” but afterward it became clear to me that Fascism hadn’t arrived overnight, like the tanks in Budapest or in Prague, but crept into the country gradually.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 166 – 7)

As the election campaign in the US heats up, the rhetoric and tweeting and social media noise is reaching epic levels. As such, dialog and debate is being suffocated, as I see it. People are no longer open to constructive debate and only seek validation of their already established views, and anyone who expresses disagreement with those views is attacked ruthlessly. This is creating a dangerous environment which, as Eco points out, is ripe for the rise of a dictatorship.

In other words, the absence of political debate spells dictatorship, in which criticism is forbidden and newspapers that don’t toe the government line are closed down.

(ibid: p. 177)

Thankfully, the United States is not a fascist country, nor is it ruled by a dictator, but it would be naïve to pretend that we are not moving close to a precipice that we could easily tumble over. Looking back over the past 30 years, you can see the trend towards intolerance for dissent, factionalism, tribalism, and a stark division between the political right and the left. If this trend continues, it will not end well. I hope that the current ranting will move back toward constructive debate.

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“Foreigners and Us” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

I have to say, I was intrigued by the title of this essay (included in Turning Back the Clock), particularly given the distrust of foreigners that many Americans currently feel. There are some correlations between the essay and current affairs in the United States, but not ones I expected.

The first correlation is in regard to news media. Eco explains how the veracity of news is determined by whether the views expressed support the established views of the reader. This has been taken to the extreme in the US, where people on the left see MSNBC as the source of truth and those on the right assume FOX News is the source of truth. But the fact is that both sources are biased and the truth lies somewhere else.

By this reasoning, if a public prosecutor accuses us of a crime, then he is an agent of the plot, and if he acquits us, he is virtuous and upright. It’s like saying that The Economist is trash because it criticizes the Polo candidate, but The Times is a model of journalism because it is more indulgent toward him. Where will we end up if we fall into such barbarism?

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 158)

Eco also points out that many politicians now rely on negative campaigning to differentiate themselves from the opposing candidate. It’s the “Vote for me because I am not that person” ploy, and it seems to resonate. I hear people saying they will vote for one candidate solely because they do not like the other candidate.

Many politicians have run for office saying that they wouldn’t behave like the Soviet Union, or Haider, that they weren’t Nazis or Stalinists, that they harbored no authoritarian ambitions, that they didn’t want their country to be reduced to the level of those governed by Idi Amin Dada, Francois Duvalier, Saddam Hussein, and so on.

(ibid: p. 160)

But the thing that stands out the most for me in this essay is a section regarding Americans, how we are a diverse culture bound together by rules of coexistence.

It’s hard to say who the Americans really are, because they are the descendants of the old British Protestant pioneers, Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles, Puerto Ricans, and God knows how many others. But what makes the United States a nation is the fact that all Americans have absorbed a fundamental principle, one that—when the time is right—also fuels their patriotism. The principle is very simple: This is the country where I make a living and allows me, if I can, to become rich, so I must accept some of its rules of coexistence.

(ibid: p. 161)

Maybe this was the case in 2003, but I see a growing disregard for the rules of coexistence in this country. In fact, there seems to be a reaction against the rules of coexistence. A growing number of very vocal individuals appear to want rules of exclusivity that favor one group above others. I find this a frightening trend and one that is bound to end poorly if it continues.

As the 2016 election campaigns continue and the rhetoric becomes more vitriolic, I feel powerless to do much other than share my thoughts and watch how it all unfolds.

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The Pledge of Allegiance

AmericanFlag

Since today is the Fourth of July—Independence Day—I figured I would write a post about the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by a socialist minister named Francis Bellamy. It is important to note that the original was quite different than what is recited today and historically underwent two critical changes.

Here is the original version:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In 1923, “the United States of America” was added and “my” was changed to “the”:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Finally, in 1954, the phrase “under God” was added, particularly in response to fears over Communist threats.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I found it interesting that the Pledge of Allegiance in its current state is essentially a 20th century construct. It makes sense, though. This was a period that saw the rise of nationalism throughout the world, as well as McCarthyism in the US, requiring citizens to demonstrate their loyalty to country. But I think what is most fascinating is that it was a socialist who composed the original words, and that as a minister Bellamy did not include any reference to God. The fact that the mention of God is a fairly recent addition says a lot. Also, it should be noted that Francis Bellamy’s daughter opposed the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Anyway, here is the link to the source material I read.

ushistory.org

 

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“On Mass Media Populism” by Umberto Eco

TurningBackTheClock

This essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, is actually comprised of several shorter essays on the same theme. It’s very timely, considering the media circus surrounding the presidential primaries here in the US.

Anyone who is even vaguely aware of the US primaries will likely agree with Eco’s assertion regarding how a politician can dominate the media.

He makes promises that—good, bad, or indifferent as they may seem to his supporters—are a provocation to his critics. He comes up with a provocation a day, and if they are bizarre or outrageous, so much the better. This allows him to occupy the front pages of the paper and the breaking news on television, with the result that he is always at the center of attention. The provocation must be calculated to ensure that the opposition cannot avoid picking up the gauntlet and reacting vigorously.

(p. 134)

One thing I found enlightening in this essay was Eco’s explanation of how news stories use structure to validate their arguments while positioning their view as the truth in a debate.

Television works this way. If there is a debate about a law, the issue is presented and the opposition is immediately given the chance to put forward all its arguments. This is followed by government supporters, who counter the objections. The result is predictable: he who speaks last is right. If you carefully follow all the TV news programs, you will see this strategy: the project is presented, the opposition speaks first, the government supporters speak last. Never the other way around.

A media regime has no need to imprison its opponents. It doesn’t silence them by censorship, it merely has them give their arguments first.

(pp. 144 – 145)

Finally, Eco asserts that electoral campaigns have become a spectacle focusing on appearances.

The electoral campaign emerges as a spectacle of form, in which what matters is not what the candidate actually stands for but how he appears to others.

(p. 155)

So what is a voting citizen to think about all this? It’s a legitimate question and one that Eco poses as the conclusion of his essay.

When you finish reading, you wonder: Is this really what democracy is all about? A way to gain public favor, based only on orchestrated appearances and a strategy of deceit?

(p. 156)

Ever the idealist, I’d still like to believe that democracy means more, that it is still about advancing humanity and civilization. As always, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read thought-provoking stuff.

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“The 2001 Electoral Campaign and Veteran Communist Strategy” by Umberto Eco

UmbertoEco

While this essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, explores the 2001 Italian election, there is a lot that is relevant to the 2012 election here in the US.

Eco first points out that advertising principles play an important role in electoral campaigns: “From the model of advertising they have taken the constant repetition of one symbol plus a few simple slogans, as well as a shrewd color scheme.” (p. 121) In the US electoral race, this is standard across the board, and every candidate must use some color combination of red, white, and blue.

One thing I have noticed about the 2016 US political race is how aggressive it has become. Eco points out that this was also the case in the 2001 Italian election: “… every opposing point of view was branded as against the people, accompanied by constant complaints about the aggressiveness of others.” (p. 123)

Possibly the most frightening similarity is the stanch refusal to compromise on anything. Politics in the United States has become so polarized that it no longer matters what the policy or idea is—if it was presented by the other party, then it must be rejected completely. This was also the case in Italy, as Eco explains.

The 1968 model also lives on in the tactic of never giving an inch to the adversary, but always demonizing him whatever his proposals are, then refusing dialogue and debate (such as turning down interviews with any journalist seen as a lackey of power). This rejection of compromise was based on the constantly reiterated conviction that revolutionary victory was imminent.

(p. 125)

As I read this, I could not help but consider the Republican refusal to consider a Supreme Court nomination from President Obama asserting that the next president (meaning a Republican based on their victory conviction) should fill the post.

Finally, there are stark similarities between Berlusconi and Donald Trump regarding popular appeal and the reasons behind it, particularly that because he is rich, he is better qualified to be a leader.

Nor should we ignore the populist stamp of some of the arguments with which people, even those of humble origins, used to demonstrate their liking for Berlusconi. The arguments are: (1) being rich, he won’t steal (an argument based on the man in the street’s slipshod equation of politician with thief); (2) what do I care if he looks after his own interests, the main thing is that he look after mine too; (3) a man who has become enormously rich will be able to distribute wealth among the people he governs…

(p. 126)

History has a nasty habit of repeating itself, as is evident when you compare Italy’s 2001 election with the current American one. Sadly, though, people ignore or forget the lessons that history offers. I can only hope that this tendency changes in the future, but, if history is any indicator…

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“Revolutionary Dreams” by Nikki Giovanni

NikkiGiovanni

This morning I read an amazing poem by Ms. Giovanni from her book The Women and the Men. It’s a great collection of poems and I encourage you to invest in a copy. Anyway, I would like to share the poem because I feel it’s important in the current political climate.

i used to dream militant
dreams of taking
over america to show
these white folks how it should be
done
i used to dream radical dreams
of blowing everyone away with my perceptive powers
of correct analysis
i even used to think i’d be the one
to stop the riot and negotiate the peace
then i awoke and dug
that if i dreamed natural
dreams of being a natural
woman doing what a woman
does when she’s natural
i would have a revolution

As the campaign marches on, the rhetoric has become more harsh and combative. Everyone wants to “take back the country,” or get rid of this group or defeat this other group. The focus is on everyone else, and no one seems to be looking within to figure out how they should change. As Nikki so eloquently expresses in her poem, revolutionary change is not forcing others to change to your view or ideology, true revolutionary change comes from within. It is the process of changing yourself and being an example. And let’s face it—that is the truly difficult task. Forcing someone to change or imposing your will upon others is easy. Honestly looking at yourself, acknowledging your shortcomings, and making a conscious decision to change is infinitely harder and requires significantly more courage.

I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Nikki Giovanni when I was a college student. She is an inspiring individual and an amazing poet. If you are unfamiliar with her work, I highly recommend you read more of her poetry.

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“Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 12: Final Thoughts

InfiniteJest

LIFE IS LIKE TENNIS
THOSE WHO SERVE
BEST USUALLY WIN

(p. 952)

So what can I say about a massive 1000-page book that uses tennis and drug addiction to explain life in the millennial age? This book is probably not for everyone, but if you have the fortitude to read it, I’m sure you will gain insights from doing so. Personally, I’m glad I read it. While there were some slow parts, particularly those that gave more detail on the technical aspects of tennis than were possibly needed (similar to Melville’s lengthy descriptions of the workings of whaling ships), as a whole, the book kept my interest and there were certainly parts that I would consider brilliant.

I figured I would say a little about the writing style. Wallace is able to change voices throughout the text, and the language of the various characters is very natural and believable. For me, this is the sign of a skilled wordsmith. I particularly enjoyed the way he played with the words, altering spelling in order to capture the nuances of regional accents.

So I will close out this series on Infinite Jest with an existential question and a quote. Is our life nothing more than an ironic joke? (Note similarities between “ironic joke” (IJ) and “Infinite Jest” (IJ).) I suspect Camus would love to weigh in on this one. With that, I’ll leave you with one last quote from the book:

‘I don’t know that he ever even got a finished Master. That’s your story. There wasn’t anything unendurable or enslaving in either of my scenes. Nothing like these actual-perfection rumors. These are academic rumors. He talked about making something quote too perfect. But it was a joke. He had a thing about entertainment, being criticized about entertainment v. nonentertainment and stasis. He used to refer to the Work itself as “entertainments.” He always meant it ironically. Even in jokes he never talked about an anti-version or antidote for God’s sake. He’d never carry it that far. A joke.’

‘…’

‘When he talked about this thing as a quote perfect entertainment, terminally compelling – it was always ironic – he was having a sly little jab at me. I used to go around saying the veil was to disguise lethal perfection, that I was too lethally beautiful for people to stand. It was a kind of joke I’d gotten from one of his entertainments, the Medusa-Odalisk thing. That even in U.H.I.D. I hid by hiddenness, in denial about the deformity itself. So Jim took a failed piece and told me it was too perfect to release – it’d paralyze people. It was entirely clear that it was an ironic joke. To me.’

(p. 940)


 

Links to Previous Posts on Infinite Jest:

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 11: On Pornography

BehindGreenDoor

I woke early this morning, made some coffee, and sat down to read more of Infinite Jest. One of the protagonists in the story, Hal, was reminiscing about when his older brother Orin got caught by their father as Orin was getting ready to watch “Behind the Green Door.” Their father does not forbid his son from watching the film; instead, the father explains why it would be better if he waited until he had more experience before watching the movie.

But Himself said that if Orin wanted his personal, fatherly as opposed to headmasterly, take on it, then he, Orin’s father – though he wouldn’t forbid it – would rather Orin didn’t watch a hard-porn film yet. He said this with a reticent earnestness there was no way Orin couldn’t ask him how come. Himself felt his jaw and pushed his glasses up several times and shrugged and finally said he supposed he was afraid of the film giving Orin the wrong idea about having sex. He said he’d personally prefer that Orin wait until he’d found someone he loved enough to want to have sex with and had had sex with this person, that he’d wait until he’d experienced for himself what a profound and really quite moving thing sex could be, before he watched a film where sex was presented as nothing more than organs going in and out of other organs, emotionless, terribly lonely. He said he supposed he was afraid that something like The Green Door would give Orin an impoverished, lonely idea of sexuality.

(pp. 955 – 956)

There is no doubt that many young people learn about sex through pornography, especially in the age of the internet, when access to porn is a click away. And while I personally have nothing against pornography, Wallace is correct that it establishes a lonely idea of sex. Pornography removes intimacy from sex and transforms it into a solitary, isolated experience for too many people.

I cannot help but wonder if the proliferation of online porn is having a negative impact on our society. It seems that there is a growing sense of alienation and isolation as people become more engrossed in virtual experiences, experiencing life vicariously instead of actually engaging in the experiences that life has to offer. I can’t say for sure, but these are my musings this morning.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share your thoughts.

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 10: Art and Being Hip

InfiniteJest

I live in Asheville, which is considered a “hipster” city. As a result, I see people who work very hard and spend a lot of money perfecting their non-conformist images. I like to say that these people “conform to the established idea of non-conformity.” Not that I am passing judgment. Everyone has a right to express themselves in a way that feels right, but I suspect that some impressionable individuals buy into the idea of non-conformity that is promoted through the arts and social media, especially young people.

With this in mind, I’d like to point out an interesting passage in Infinite Jest.

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip – and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, to be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion.

(p. 694)

This rang true for me on several levels. Certainly, the hipster “conforming to non-conformity” I mentioned at the beginning of this post, but also the need to belong, especially in one’s adolescent years. I was like that, and I’m sure we all were to an extent. I dressed the part of the crowd that I was hanging out with, listened to the same music, went to the same places, all to be a part of a group and to avoid having to be alone. Because what happened when you are alone? You have to face yourself, and that was hard for me as a teenager and I suspect it is difficult for others too.

Anyway, as I have gotten older, I am more comfortable with myself and no longer feel the need to be a part of a particular group. I do what makes me happy, and whether I do that in a group or alone, doesn’t make that much difference to me. But Wallace taps into something that is almost universal for people growing up. We all want friends and we want to be a part of a group, and we look to art to teach us what is cool and how we should be if we want to fit in with the hip crowd. It makes me wonder if we have some tribalism hidden away in our collective consciousness.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day!

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