Tag Archives: elections

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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The X-Files – Issue 4 (Ishmael Pt 1): People on Pedestals

xfiles_iss4_2016

I’ve had this in my pile to read for a while, but have been busy so just got to it. It’s the first installment on a story that explores Dana Scully’s past and her relationship with her father. It’s pretty good, and the artwork is nice, and I love stories that have a connection to Melville’s great novel. But what I wanted to write about is a passage that struck a nerve for me, about putting people on pedestals.

We place people on pedestals and, sometimes, rightly so—but when they reveal themselves to be human we tend to just build a bigger pedestal… instead of allowing for everything they might be at once…

(p. 12)

Dana is expressing her feelings on what happened when she discovered a secret about her father’s past, but this taps into something more universal that I see in society today. We place people on pedestals all the time: sports stars, politicians, writers, musicians, etc. And when these people fail to live up to the expectations we set for them while on the pedestal, there is a tendency to react with anger at what is seen as a personal betrayal. Another thing I see happening is that if anyone challenges or threatens those that are placed on pedestals, people also react with anger, as if it is an attack on them.

I have learned not to place expectations on people. When I do, I am often disappointed. The important lesson here is that no one is perfect and everyone has flaws; but just because someone has flaws, that does not make that person bad or evil, it just makes them human. I think this is something that we should all keep in mind this election season, or before we react to someone’s Facebook post.

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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“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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“For Whom the Bell Tolls: A 2001 Appeal for a Moral Referendum” by Umberto Eco

UmbertoEco

So it’s officially 2016, which in the US means it’s an election year, and already the battle lines are being drawn. People are choosing who they will support and social media is buzzing with political memes. And sadly, I am seeing the beginning of what promises to be a polarizing and divisive election. Who will end up suffering as a result? We will, of course. Which is why this essay written by Eco 15 years ago resonated with me. It’s almost prophetic.

In this short essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Eco looks at an election in Italy, the influence of media on the electoral process, and the groups of people who form various factions of the electorate. One of the categories of voters he calls the Mesmerized Electorate, and this is a group that I see playing a prominent role in the upcoming US election.

The second category, which I call the Mesmerized Electorate, the most numerous, has no defined political opinion but has based its values on the creeping form of “culture” imparted for decades by the various television channels, and not only those owned by Berlusconi. What counts for these people are ideas of well-being and a mythical view of life, not unlike that of the people I would call generically the Albanian immigrants. The Albanian immigrant wouldn’t have dreamt of coming to Italy if the TV had showed him for years only the Italy of Open City, Obsession, or Passion—he would have steered clear of this unhappy country. He comes because he knows Italy as a country where a colorful television hands out easy money to those who know that Garibaldi’s given name was Giuseppe: a rich, showbiz Italy.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 117)

Here in the US, I picture people in this category sitting on the couch, remote control in hand, switching between reality TV, game shows, and FOX News. They are fed a constant stream of how great things are, the threats to their imagined way of life, and how their life should be, yet are distracted from the realities that are growing around them.

While the image of a Mesmerized Electorate is unsettling, I find the Discouraged Electorate to be much more disturbing.

We are faced with the Mesmerized Electorate and the Motivated Electorate of the right wing, but the greatest danger to our country is the Discouraged Electorate of the left (I mean the left in the broadest sense of the term, from the old secular republicans to kids in Rifondazione Communista, down to Catholic volunteers who no longer have any faith in politics). This electorate is made up of that mass of people who know all the things said here (and don’t need to hear them repeated) and are disappointed with the outgoing government. They castrate themselves to punish their wives. They ensure the victory of the de facto regime to punish those who failed to satisfy them.

(ibid: p. 119)

Unfortunately, I know many people who fall into this category: people who supported Obama and felt they were let down; people who think Hillary Clinton is a liar and untrustworthy; people who feel Bernie Sanders is too far to the left; and those who are so disillusioned with politics that they view all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, as part of a corrupt political system which they no longer want to be a part of.

As the rift between voters in this country widens, the debate becomes more vitriolic. Personally, I do not see this as helpful to the advancement of our society. I encourage everyone to read broadly, learn as much as possible, and keep an open mind between now and November. Try not to let emotions, fear, or the media cloud your judgment and lead us farther down this path.

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” (John Donne)

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Doctor Who – Eleventh Doctor: Issue 2 (On Shifts in Government and Environmental Policy)

DoctorWho_02

As I was reading this issue, I couldn’t help thinking about the results of the recent election. Political power can change quickly and the results can sometimes be drastic. Already, it looks like there will be changes in environmental policy that will have far-reaching effects. There is a section in this issue where the Doctor is contemplating the environmental destruction of a planet that was the result of a shift in government.

There was a shift in government, and the new rulers of the system decided that maintaining Rokhandi was an unnecessary expense. And let’s face it, they were right. I mean, what does a hummingbird provide, eh? What do candy lizards manufacture? What profit is there in a canyon that sings? So they sold it all. The friends of the rulers got first pick, of course. Lovely big bonuses all around. There were a few petitions, but there always are, aren’t there?

This is sad, but ever so true. I hate to sound cynical, but every time I see a petition going around Facebook I can’t help but think that it means nothing, and if anything, it is detrimental. Without trying to sound like a conspiracy nut, what do you think happens to your personal information when you sign a petition? It goes into a database somewhere and you are tagged.

I like to balance my cynicism with some optimism. Governments can quickly shift in the other direction, too. I have seen it happen in my lifetime. The pendulum swings both ways. I just hope that it never swings too far that it gets stuck.

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