Our hype-driven culture thrives
on confusing reality with fantasy
and on making us afraid
by James Squires and Jane
The American Prospect, April
For a majority of Americans - those who
did not vote for George W. Bush the first time-democracy has
failed to deliver on its promise that the candidate with the most
votes wins. And those who voted for the president-a minority-did
not get what they were promised, either. Their candidate, who
ran on a platform of plain-truth government, fiscal conservatism,
and a safe foreign policy, turned out to be a reckless, aggressive,
big-spending president who delivered the largest federal deficit
in history and the most controversial war since Vietnam. Now,
four years later, it is already clear that the flawed and fraudulent
election of 2000 could well be repeated, and perhaps even etched
into our politics, permanently altering the character of history's
best experiment in self-government.
The one enduring tenet for which American
democracy has been known around the world is the faith we place
in fair and free elections. But as with other aspects of our image,
fairness has always been somewhat of an illusion. Our history
is marked by elections gone awry: Voter fraud in Kansas, certified
by slave interests in Congress before the Civil War, inflamed
abolitionists and convinced many northerners that the South could
not be trusted to uphold American institutions of government.
Similar travesties occurred with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in
1960 and Florida Governor Jeb Bush (and then-Secretary of State
Katherine Harris) four years ago.
The 2004 election could be stolen, too,
as many of the weaknesses in the 2000 balloting process have gone
uncorrected and some reforms, such as touch-screen and other computer-based
election machines, have been shown to be unreliable and easily
manipulated. But the real threat is not that Democrats or Republicans
will steal a critical state again, or that another president will
be appointed by the Supreme Court; it is the possibility that
fear is being replaced in the political process by fear-mongering,
employed in the high-tech world of instant communications by the
skilled and unscrupulous mind manipulators of today's advertising
And the integrity of our political process
is evaporating as quickly as the moral principles that once set
us apart and made us a model for great nations of the world.
Checks and balances were incorporated
into our system by the Founding Fathers to protect the nation
from the concentration of power in the hands of a single person,
group, or institution (because the Founders had seen the abuse
that came from a monarchy). James Madison, perhaps the greatest
political theorist among them, envisioned a democracy where critical
decisions, such as who occupies the White House and whether to
go to war, would be made by educated citizens in a thoughtful
debate he called the "public voice." The theory was,
ultimately, that a classic, linear reasoning process based on
facts-retained from debates and discussions-would yield a consensus.
Such a process had produced the great books of world literature,
including the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. It also resulted
in generally held value definitions and, in America, the political
life that gave us the Marshall Plan and the Civil Rights Act,
not to mention other policy achievements that elevated our power
and status all over the world.
Yet the grim moment when television took
over responsibility from schools and parents for creating educated
citizens was the day that the economic foundation of democracy-capitalism-became
its heart and mind. And, not coincidentally, that may have been
the moment when reason and virtue in our political process gave
way to dollar signs. Madison and his associates could not have
anticipated the public voice ever having to compete with "teaser"
headlines- or finding its way to the national agenda only by crawling
through sales pitches for impotency cures and low financing rates.
Nor, for that matter, could this have been foreseen by Franklin
Roosevelt, who as late as World War 11 could still sit down for
a fireside chat and reason with his constituents on the radio.
It took nearly half a century for entertainment and advertising
to overwhelm the institution of the free press, which used to
function as America's public voice. And it took about the same
length of time for the press's successor in that role-television-to
change the process by which the human brain makes decisions.
Recent scientific advances that allow
the mapping of brain activity suggest that children who grow up
watching television receive and process information differently
and more rapidly than their parents who did not. Not unlike muscle
development, brain development varies with use, so the more different
parts the brain employs, the more efficient it becomes. As a result,
the audio-visual communication of information is more efficient
when employed by those who have grown up watching television.
As more and more people have used audio-visual communication over
the years, and as technological sophistication has increased,
the structure of capitalism has also changed. When television
became the marketplace, people began to gather in front of the
screen, ready for their brains to be washed. And no institution
in society keeps up with moving targets as well as the American
Members of a well-educated but less hurried
society, for example, might reason that a diet of burgers and
fries would produce an obese generation short on energy. But watching
the thin, young, quick-footed dancers in the "l'm Lovin'
It" McDonald's campaign produces a different, more enticing,
and distorted picture. Thus does emotion overpower reason. Our
political choices, unfortunately, now come in the same misleading
packages-and are, not unintentionally, aimed at the most vulnerable
among us. There is marketplace for our commerce; it is the marketplace
of our ideas. No matter how serious the issue, it is now resolved
the same way we buy cars and hamburgers.
America is so addicted to hype that it
can no longer tell what is true from what's not. In the recent
four-hour telecast of the Super Bowl, CBS ran 54 commercials,
each costing more than the total annual revenue of the average
small business that once constituted American capitalism. Many
of these spots were funny. None of them was true. In one, a horse's
flatulence burned the hair off a woman sitting in a sleigh. In
another, an ad for a cure to erectile dysfunction implied that
the product might produce a four-hour erection
that would require medical attention to
arrest. During half-time, a preplanned "wardrobe malfunction"
resulted in the baring of Janet Jackson's ample, star-studded
breast. And at the end of the game, a team won by just three points.
In that four-hour span, television offered
at least three kinds of entertainment: humor, titillation, and
athletic competition. And who knows where real ended and unreal
began? This is true about television in general, including, sadly,
even the news.
When the World Trade Center fell in 2001,
it looked like something achieved by movie makers. From television's
standpoint, this horrendous event was as successful a piece of
programming as could be concocted by the best fiction writers.
And had the Super Bowl been scripted, the exposing of the scandal
would have been just as lucrative as the event itself- perhaps
even more so than Jackson's breast baring. In a culture that elevates
stock values above all else, executives are judged only on financial
performance, not on how well they educate viewers.
So who cares what is true or not? The
public-service mission of the old "free press" has been
replaced by the modern media imperative not to bore the audience.
Special effects such as those in The Matrix movies are so impressive
that human capabilities are underwhelming. That hardly anyone
who saw The Matrix can explain what it's about says a lot about
a marketplace where even technological wonders, like pictures
of Mars taken by a robot, cannot compete with hip-hop sex videos.
Virtually all of this exciting communication
is mere commerce for the corporate culture and the preserve of
a half-dozen vertically integrated media behemoths. Special effects
of The Matrix and news images of Mars are brought to you by the
same group of people. And like proverbial giant alligators, they
sleep wherever and with whomever they want to; answerable to no
one for their behavior.
The media giant Viacom, for instance,
owns both CBS, which broadcast the Super Bowl, and MTV, the producer
of the game's half-time show. No one at either company took responsibility
for the Janet Jackson fiasco, which slid all the way downhill
to the shoulders of the waning rock star and her barely adult
disrober, Justin Timberlake, a skinny kid from Memphis too young
to even grow a real beard. And no one was even asked to take the
blame for the sleazy commercials-because the one characteristic
of the global corporation is the compulsion to close the sale,
whether the product is pure gold, equity, or smut.
Historically, the strength of capitalism
as an economic underpinning for democracy has been its appeal
to the human spirit. Nothing quite satisfies the natural instincts
of mankind like achievement and reward. But no individual has
ever been as rigid and fanatical about unregulated capitalism
as the publicly held corporation. In the last 20 years, buying
and selling equity-a form of gambling-has become easier than developing,
selling, and servicing a product. But whether marketing widgets,
intellectual property, or shares, the selling is accomplished
the same way: by creating a favorable impression in the minds
of a customer base that has the attention span of a flashbulb.
It is the instant impression, the emotion
felt by the receiver of the message, that drives the engine. Television
demotes reason and argument to pure irrelevance. Except for C-SPAN,
a little-watched cable channel, and some public-television news
programming, the public voice now consists of television news
and talk radio-two squawk boxes increasingly held to entertainment
values and profit expectations by corporations whose allegiance
is to monopolization and profit. Once upon a time these corporations
were run by people who learned their values the old-fashioned
way; now they are run by people for whom television and television
values are second nature, who never question priorities or worry
about the differences between citizen and consumer. Their only
peer pressure comes from fellow profiteers in the world of marketing,
where no successful technique of consumer motivation has gone
untried or underdeveloped.
And of all the staples of modern television
marketing, none is more reliable or often utilized than fear-mongering.
Watch a day of commercials and you will see an amazing array of
fears being exploited-of being fat, of having the wrong credit
card or wireless network or Medicare provider, of drinking beer
with no taste, of being unable to control diarrhea or your bladder
or your appetite.
With such morally bankrupt commercial
entertainment as its forum, political decision making has become
a reality show as ripe for exploitation as bachelors and bachelorettes.
Over the years, the presidential-election image makers and media
"spinners" have successfully raised public hackles with
the specter of all sorts of fearsome election outcomes, both real
and imagined: the unpredictability of Barry Goldwater's hand on
the nuclear button; the racism of George Wallace; the dovishness
of George McGovern; a spineless Jimmy Carter under the thumb of
the ayatollah; Michael Dukakis setting free rapists, or even disappearing
under his tank-driver helmet; Ross Perot going bonkers in the
Oval Office. Fear is easy to recognize and exploit. Even something
as serious as the response to the September 1 l attacks was orchestrated
for grab'em-by-the-nerve television-audience impact.
The Clinton White House was masterful
at manipulating the public mind. Bill Clinton himself was a man
of words, full of arguments, beliefs, eloquence, and a desire
to appeal to reason. Ronald Reagan was a man of words as well,
although many of his best ones were written by Peggy Noonan. Unlike
Clinton, though, he was never regarded as intellectual or scholarly.
Yet he was a man of values formed by linear reasoning. And his
rise to political leadership came from his ability to deliver
speeches based on principles, not on advertising.
But from the day George W. Bush was created
by the Republican Party's right wing as the born-again fundamentalist
alternative to an embarrassing Clinton legacy, he has been a nearly
perfect advertising image, if a far from perfect president. All
presidents spend their first terms running for re-election, but
the Bush administration has relied on the principles of advertising
unceasingly, almost without recourse to any other mode of communication.
And so far that's been its crowning achievement.
Once America was attacked, a president
who did not respond quickly and vigorously would have ensured
himself only one term in office. So the war in Afghanistan was
a no-brainer. Unfortunately, though, retaliation became the emotion
that has defined the Bush presidency and has threatened the foundations
of our freedom, perhaps more than the acts of the suicide hijackers.
Now gearing up for an important election, we are still responding
to our own fear-mongering.
The question of whether Saddam Hussein
deserved attacking is probably not nearly as important to understanding
our future direction as whether the brains around Bush knew what
they were doing and why. So far, all the evidence suggests that
Iraq was picked as a target for the demonstration of our military
might and nation-building expertise primarily because Hussein
was so villainous that even the Arabs wouldn't mind him being
eliminated. What is new about this kind of White House decision
making is that, for the first time, American war planners used
instant communications as a weapon of war the way they've long
been used in politics.
Not surprisingly, they settled on an ad
slogan-"shock and awe"-with "fear" as the
target emotion, betting that character assassination of those
who disagreed with the war and the firepower would spread the
right messages at home and abroad. After all, that kind of fear-based
strategy had stopped John McCain in South Carolina in 2000, when
his heroism was denigrated and his stability questioned. In fear-based
decision making, alliances, standards of conduct, and, indeed,
common sense go out the window. Whether the opponent is a congressional
candidate or an international terrorist, the idea is shoot him
before he shoots you. You'd think people who know so much about
guns would understand the problem with hair triggers.
Once a war-or an election-is over, however,
such victors don't seem to have a clue what to do. Arrogance and
stupidity are self-defeating, eventually. Massive firepower and
feelings of omnipotence aside, those quick to war, perhaps responding
to their own advertising, have been feebly unable to put Humpty
Dumpty back together again. That the illusion of our goodness
was lost on the liberated and that some Americans now want a return
to reason has left them shocked, if not awed. True, the people
of Iraq have been freed from Hussein's prison of tyranny, but
America appears hopelessly imprisoned in Hussein's land, caught
in the disparity between advertised illusion and chaotic reality.
At least half of all Americans still believe
that the Iraq War was a good idea and that somehow the Iraqi dictator
had weapons of mass destruction and something to do with past
and future terrorist attacks. Yet the evidence needed to support
such conclusions remains as difficult to find as Osama bin Laden
or the truth in a Super Bowl commercial. Whatever reason the Bush
administration had for doing what it did, if such a reason exists,
has been hopelessly lost in the fear-mongering and drum roll of
patriotism. Yes, we have established in the public mind the image
of a sincere and involved president rallying his country after
an attack. But few TV-educated voters can be counted on to discuss
intelligently and coherently the implications of the Bush doctrine
of preemption-a radical departure from a bipartisan principle
of American foreign policy that had distinguished the United States
as a benevolent world citizen.
The notion that we use our might only
in our defense was once a cornerstone in our culture. Even in
the moral wasteland of television, Marshal Dillon never drew first.
Yet the moment that Bush Junior's bombers took flight over the
Persian Gulf and tanks began to roll toward Baghdad, this country
opened a new chapter in world history. In retrospect, we may realize
that it was the final step in the destruction of our finest and
most important image, a bold and scary departure in America's
foreign policy. Most disturbing, it was a change of immense magnitude
made without meaningful debate, shrouded in a catchy advertising
slogan, and launched by professional public-relations spinners
in a cloud of fear via the miracle of modern communications. And
alas, but perhaps not surprisingly, Saddam Hussein did not turn
out to be as fearsome as advertised.
Undoubtedly, the best we can expect is
more of the same; the questions before the American electorate
will sadly be couched in the vernacular of the modern advertising
culture. Which should America fear the more, the president we
have or the one who might replace him? The competing images are
already set in place. In their primaries, the Democrats have already
spent hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it attempting to
set in the American mind an image to fear-that of an incompetent
and intellectually incurious president, aloof from the economic
concerns of the average person, beholden to the rich special interests
and fundamentalist rightwing Christians, recklessly mortgaging
the country's future.
And far earlier in the contest than usual,
the incumbent's election machinery has already defined its most
salable issue: in this case, "national security," aka
fear of changing commanders in chief in the middle of war. We
are being sold a "wartime president," leading his country
not only in the war against Muslim terrorists but also against
cultural enemies like gay married couples and other godless liberals
of the left. And being a wartime president means never having
to explain record budget and trade deficits, or why exporting
jobs is good for both corporate America and displaced workers
in New Hampshire and Ohio.
Repeated terrorist alerts, new assessments
of reinvigorated bin Laden minions, and resumption of the culture
war leave little time for dull, irrelevant economic and social
truth. So the Republican strategists' idea of the perfect presidential
debate would be an image face-off: a doctored photograph of the
probable-Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, attending an
anti-war rally with Jane Fonda, in contrast to two 15-second film
clips of the wartime president, one with him in a flight jacket
aboard an aircraft carrier and the other of him leading "NASCAR
dads" in prayer at the Daytona 500. The Democratic strategist,
of course, prefers another juxtaposition of images: that of young
war hero Kerry in combat gear moving through a Vietnam jungle
while, to the sound of car-bomb explosions, a smirking Bush challenges
terrorists to "bring it on" in Baghdad.
Of course, none of these images approaches
the whole truth, which remains as elusive in our system and among
our leaders as nobility and statesmanship. But in election 2004,
they might be the closest the democracy can come to substantive
debate in our current climate of fear. And this is why, back in
another time, when images were slower and truth easier to find,
an unquestionably great wartime president warned us that of all
our enemies, the most real and dangerous is fear itself.
JAMES SQUIRES covered politics for The(Nashville)
Tennessean and the Chicago Tribune, and was editor of the Tribune
from 1981-90. He is the author of Read All About It: The Corporate
Takeover of America's Newspapers and Secrets of the Hopewell Box.
JANE SMILEY is the author of many novels and several nonfiction
books. Her novel about the 1980s, Good Faith, is coming out in
paperback in May.
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