Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Conscientious Objection Part 6: Pro Wrestling Style Politics

I haven't watched pro wrestling since the mid-80s (back when it was still called the WWF, rather than the WWE), but even a 12-year-old could tell the outcome was predetermined, and the media emotion covering it was more or less scripted--the moral indignation was contrived,  inconsistent, and superficial. That the script was just about the same every Saturday morning made it predictable enough to watch with glee rather than horror. Psychologically, one might like to fantasize about hitting someone with a metal chair (though it's not good to do), but it's always nicer to know that, in movies and pro wrestling, it isn't actually real: such is the cathartic effect of drama. The catharsis, however, only works if it isn't real.

Our election script feels disturbingly similar this year, and because it is being portrayed as reality, isn't cathartic at all.

We're given a cartoonish, exaggerated villain who makes scary and dangerous runs at achieving his nefarious goals. Various morally compromising revelations are made against our hero (or heroine), who must battle back against all odds (though none of us really think the odds are against them), and we have the predictable turning point. A great deal of WWF coverage back then was devoted to pre- and post match hype, consisting of blustered recriminations and self-adulation. The verbal 'debates' between bouts were so idiotic, either side could claim victory (and both did). The same holds true here: winners of the 'debates' are declared by the media, often in contradiction even to the third rate bluster we've just witnessed. The polls read whatever the pollsters want us to read, and the political analysis seems so shallow, unrealistic, self-referencing and narcissistic that I'm honestly no longer sure our votes even really count--and I think we should seriously start questioning it.

This year gets odder the farther we go: the country feels to me like the Poughkeepsie Civic Center circa 1984. It's Hulk Hogan vs. Rowdy Roddy Piper. Hulk is the "good guy" because even though he used to be a "bad guy" he's actually a "good guy" now (and that's all the moral reasoning we're gonna ask for or get). Rowdy Roddy is bad because, well listen to him! He's all nasty! Of course Hulk is nasty too, but that's cuz he has to be! He's fighting Rowdy Roddy Piper! But don't worry folks, we all know who's gonna win in the end. This was just to get your blood pumping and make sure you're committed to the action.

The question for the electorate: Was the WWF of the '80s a prophetic work of performance art, warning us of the political climate to come? Or was it just a useful template for the parties?

I once ran into an ad man, brought in to help a friend's business start up. He said that, once upon a time, advertising used to be naive: they would acknowledge that the competition offered a decent product too, and that the customer actually had a choice between goods. The ad man felt this wasted time and endangered the attention of the customer. An improvement, in his eyes, was when a pivot occurred to "good vs. evil" in marketing. The genius of our current marketing trends, he concluded, was we've finally reached the ultimate in advertising, with one last innovation: successful companies have made advertising have the emotional effect of "evil vs. evil", and that marketing your business as the stronger evil, you can really get them hooked, with no rational arguments needed. (Think about that next time you watch a car commercial).

Interestingly enough, the pro-wrestling world seems to have morphed over these lines since I was a kid. So have our politics.

To choose the lesser evil is still to choose evil. In fact it's to participate in evil. It's a no win situation.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Poetics of Militarism

Military recruitment videos aren't the place anyone goes to experience art that plumbs the depths of the human soul or speaks profound truths to our historical situation, so subjecting them to poetic analysis can seem excessive to the ordinary American, who has been trained to think of poetics as an elitist luxury rather then a central necessity of life. But one of the goals of this blog from its inception has been to argue for greater poetic literacy. Without understanding the poetic function, which is inherent to all human beings and a necessary capacity we must all develop, we are easily manipulated and used. That our current educational system is hyper-oriented towards STEM training while virtually ignoring poetics, rhetoric, music, philosophy, and art is not only alarming in the sense that our current generation won't be "well rounded" as people: it's more directly a threat to their freedom, in that they will be completely ignorant to the very real powers of propaganda, persuasion, and coercion that are common practice in this world. Without poetic analysis, we are left at the mercy of rhetoric we can neither decipher nor effectively oppose. We are left adept at manipulating gadgets, but incompetent to reasonably dismantle obvious rhetorical lies.

The following U.S. Army recruitment videos, currently airing, serve as good examples of creeping militarism in advertising. They were launched in 2015, but I recently saw them pop up when surfing YouTube, and was shocked by their message. As works of recruitment propaganda, they are well executed. Stylishly filmed, they deftly blend a sense of epic majesty with the personal and heartwarming, and extend that to even the technical. Entitled "Narrative 1", "Narrative 2", and "Narrative 3", they work as a progression of thought. The music is patterned off of what is by now a well known cliche--majestic, open voiced orchestral music, with a reflective,  resolved, 'patriotic' sounding brass motif, culminating in a figure reminiscent of John Williams's Olympic Fanfare. This type of music is a staple of every Hollywood war film, generally used at a 'reflective heroic' moment in the plot. [note: for a more detailed discussion of the music, composed by Hollywood composer Mark Isham, read Jordan Newman's "Sounding Military Identity through US and Canadian Recruiting Videos." Ethnomusicology Review, Vol 18 (2013)].  It's worth pointing out that what we view as drama these days is mostly what people of past eras would have called "melodrama"--drama which is so thin as to need musical support for the emotions expressed on stage. In most of the films we consider classic, melodrama plays an important role. Remove the soundtracks from them, and witness how empty the dialogue and acting actually are. Once upon a time, this was understood. Now, more often than not, people uncritically accept the emotional experience, thinking the plot, acting, or camerawork was actually profound, when it would have failed without the extra boost given by the music. Musical ignorance ends up dumbing down a nation emotionally and cognitively.

This digression aside, these recruitment ads would fall flat without the music, and without the skillful montages depicting a little girl rescued, and attractive intelligent young recruits hard at work. Those are so skillfully weaved, that one barely notices the shocking message of the words.

The words themselves are carefully shaped little poems, using techniques well worn by American poets and script writers. In them we hear similarities to Whitman, Sandburg, and even Pinsky.

"Narrative 1" begins with a strong 'call and response' style opening:

The challenges facing the country never stop. 
So neither does the US Army.

This is followed by rhythmic listing, in threes, similar in cadence to Whitman:

We train, adapt, and get smarter. 
Every soldier, every unit, every day. 

And as so often with Whitman, there is a rhythmic pivot to emphasize the next, crucial line:

Not to keep up with change, but to drive it.

This is the shocking line of the ad. In the history of the U.S. Military, there have been many technological breakthroughs, it is true--and this ad emphasizes that with the imagery flashing before our eyes.  But the language is nebulous and elemental. "Not to keep up with change, but to drive it" doesn't imply technology or even military tactical theory but, especially in our recent political climate, something more like progressive campaign rhetoric. Now I don't wish to be misunderstood: there is nothing inherently wrong with people wanting change. But to suggest that it's appropriate for the military to drive it is very dangerous. The military's basic mission must be to protect and to serve. It cannot espouse a role of driving change without being in some ways antithetical to a free society.

The ad ends by retreating, quickly, from this point, and pivoting in message altogether:

Nobody knows what problems tomorrow will bring. 
But we do know who will solve them.

There is, of course, a logical inconsistency here. If the Army is going to drive change, someone in the Army will, at least in some ways, be able to predict at least some of the problems of tomorrow. There is a misdirection here that is not altogether honest or comforting.

"Narrative 2" dangerously suggests that the Army is the underpinning, rather than the defense, of the nation. It is arguably the tightest poem of the three videos, in many ways. It's three sentences, interlocked by subtle rhyme if not by reason, mask the jaggedness of the message:

Before there could be a nation
there had to be people willing to fight for it:
to take on the world's greatest challenges
whatever they might be.
So the US Army masters not only tactics and strategy
but also physics and chemistry
we make battle plans and create breakthroughs 
in medicine, science, and engineering. 
Our next mission could be anything
so we prepare for everything. 

Note the rhymes linking "be...strategy...chemistry" and at the end, the rhythmic surety of the last three lines, with their resolved sounding, identical suffixes: "engineering....anything....everything." That these devices interlock over various ideas gives the text a sense of cohesion that it doesn't actually have, logically. Rhetoric, which in many ways is the application of poetic diction to ideas, can sway our opinions without making rational sense. This ad isn't necessarily that bad (it can be read, as all poetry, in multiple ways), but it makes certain emphases that are not carefully separated from dangerous ideas--and should be in a U.S. Army recruitment video.   

The "Narrative 3" text reads (and sounds) like it might have been alternate dialogue for a less temperamental Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men--at least in some lines. The voice-over artist even delivers the first very similarly in contour to Jack Nicholson.

When it's your job to protect the world's greatest nation,
it's your responsibility to solve the world's greatest challenges.
This is why we search for the best and brightest,
why we train for every eventuality;
on land, in water, in the air, space, and even cyberspace.
We operate in a complex world, with one simple mission:

In a very short window, this ad manages to flatter both the nation and the recruit, pivot to brag about the Army, then acknowledge the world's complexity only to immediately oversimplify to one, basic idea, framed outside of any ethical structure: to Win. If "Narrative 1" sounded like current left wing political rhetoric, this sounds like current right wing political rhetoric: to Win, unreflectively, at all costs. 

American society has been force fed the notion, enshrined in Vince Lombardi's insane dictum "Winning is everything, it's the only thing" for several generations now. In many ways, this saying has supplanted the common and more ethical, older American proverb "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." This final U.S. Army "Narrative" washes away any notion of ethical or moral concerns. Duty and honor are not discussed. Change and Winning are the goals, supported by the notion expressed in the middle video that the Army is the basis of the country; that the country--then and now--owes its existence to the Army. 

These videos are markedly different from the recruitment ads of the 1980s; the "Be All You Can Be" campaigns which emphasized self-improvement (socially, educationally, and financially) through Army service. Those tended to offer the Army as an advancement program: the recruit would help themselves while serving a worthy cause. That's not what these ads are. I believe they are creeping militarism.

We shouldn't expect that military recruitment videos be great works of art. But we should take seriously the poetic devices they use, what they suggest, and whether their "narrative" is true and healthy to the nation they ought to serve.    

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Conscientious Objection Part 5: Presidential "Debates"

Each election cycle there is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing from the media and intelligentsia that the election process,  and the country at large,  has been "dumbed down" to a dangerous degree. There is always a nostalgic sense that elections from just a few cycles back featured more intellectually capable candidates, or more substantive debates. Perhaps these guardians of the American Intellect have been around long enough to remember the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but frankly, I don't know if any disinterested observer of any intelligence would conclude that our televised presidential debates of the past several generations were won by 'substantive' arguments. They are more geared to photo-op style entertainment, and victory relies more upon posture, catch-phrases, and spin than upon serious issues of political philosophy, ethics, or morality. In actual substance, both parties resemble each other more closely than is generally observed. No matter who is president, we will continue a path of global economic expansion, social decadence, and militarism. The big differences will only be who gets the most power and profit. As Bill Clinton once (too accurately) mocked George W. Bush in the 2000 election, the debate seems more over whose fraternity will get control than serious issues.

If anyone doubts this, consider the presidential debates since 1980. Does anyone remember anything substantive about any of them? Let's consider who 'won' the debates and why, just based upon generally accepted popular memory.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan scored a rhetorical victory, showing no profound political or philosophical depth, by muttering "There you go again." It was without substance, but 'won' the debate.

In 1984, Reagan once again routed his opponent by not holding his opponent's 'youth and inexperience' against him.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush told the lie America wanted to hear about taxes.

In 1992, Bush was foolish enough to check his watch (for some reason it's difficult to find a YouTube link for this), and Bill Clinton felt our pain.

In 1996, Bob Dole couldn't convince "Soccer moms" that he knew who they were, while telling them he cared about their vote.

In 2000, Al Gore failed to intimidate George W. Bush, play-ground style. This major faux pas was enough to convince America that Bush had won the debate, it seems.

It's hard to imagine a series of debates more focus-group tested and safely played than 2004. The major concern of both candidates seemed to be to avoid 'gaffs' or faux pas. They succeeded so well that none of us remember much of anything at all about them.

In 2008, Barack Obama sidestepped issues of human rights, science, and anthropology by saying they were above his pay grade.  That was good enough for the electorate!

In 2012, Mitt Romney revealed his strategy for women voters: binders of women!

In 2016, Donald Trump is attempting the Jerry Springer style, and Hillary Clinton is taking no risks of substance.    

People of America, these are not real debates. We should demand more, but if social media is to be believed, we actually ask for even less. These are media spectacles; shallow popularity contests. And because they are run by the major parties, who insist on the format of the debates, and ensure no real challenging issues or actual point by point follow ups, we will continue this until the electorate refuses to participate.

Ultimately, our 'debates' are merely another chance for candidates to tell the public why their plan to make us richer and destroy our enemies surpasses their opponent's plan, which is inevitably dedicated to those same goals. The goals themselves are never seriously challenged, and the electorate seems not to care. Contrary to this, I personally believe the electorate does care, but are funneled to these goals throughout the entire election process. We keep choosing the 'lesser of two evils' all the way to the endgame of our ethical dilemmas being all but completely ignored by the time of the general election. And we accept this outcome cycle after cycle. The end result is informative: we are the most powerful and richest nation in the history of the world, and yet this is what we're discussing. Shouldn't we be more reflective and responsible than this?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Conscientious Objection Part 4: Foolish American Proverbs

The respectable man...adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving he is himself available for any purpose of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of the unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought. 

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

If you don't vote, you're a part of the problem and You have no right to complain about our government if you refuse to vote are two foolish proverbs, that have been predictably leveled at me over the last several weeks. As someone who has voted in every presidential election since my coming of age (dating back to 1992), and nearly every local election as well, I can't be accused of apathy to the voting process, and confess that I am by this point immune from such nonsense, but surprised by how such phrases are uncritically thrown around, and how many otherwise intelligent people accept them without scrutiny. These proverbs are uttered constantly, every election cycle and in between, but I have yet to meet the person who, having once said them, can defend them.

Taking the Second Foolish Proverb first, let's do something radical. Let's actually consider whether it's reasonable to assert that a citizen has no right to complain about the government without participating in the voting process. 

On a purely legal level, of course, the proverb isn't true. The first amendment guarantees our right to complain, whether we vote or not. Because of this, my firm belief is that, if I'm found railing against our system of government on this blog come Wednesday November 9th (a likely bet), no jackbooted goons will break down my door and take me away. This is admirable, and says something positive about our system to this point. It also shows that our proverb is wrong on a concrete level. But what about the other implications? Suppose I concede the proverb actually means that, reasonably speaking, one who disengages from voting is forfeiting their chance to effect the system. Is that also true? What does history say?

As usual, the history of slavery and women's suffrage are instructive in separating Mythical America from Real America. Is there any serious student of American history who would suggest that the opinions and actions of all women and most black Americans prior to their political enfranchisement were useless, ineffectual, and without justification? Would we seriously suggest that Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe had no right to complain, as they had no right to vote? And would we dare to suggest that these two monumentally influential women had no effect on the nation because they didn't participate in the voting process? Is the sum total of our political life the casting of a vote? Or does it entail much more than that? On a deeper level, is to be an American really only about casting a vote once every four years? I raise these questions merely to demonstrate that the proposition is ludicrous. Not only do I hold that their opinions mattered, and were of political importance surpassing many of the thousands who actually voted, I believe that the opinions of others in the world beyond the United States mattered then, and matter now,  to our political situation. Voting isn't necessarily the summit of political activity for the average citizen, and it surely isn't the only legitimate activity.

Beyond this, my contention since this past July 4th has been that the two parties in America have throttled the people and our process with immoral and corrupt choices. It is emphatically not by playing along with their system that we make a positive political contribution, but by withholding our participation in outspoken, meaningful, creative, and constructive ways. Once again, it is essential to realize and embrace the fact that politics lies beyond mere voting: it is about voices in the public square, at town meetings, opinions being freely shared through any and all means, and putting pressure on our political leaders to actually embody the values we hold, independently of their coercion and manipulation. Voting is only the final stage of ratifying chosen power, and only has legitimacy (in a democracy) if there is a willingness of the electorate to participate at high levels.
Consider for a moment if our drinking choices were as limited as our political choices. Imagine a country where only Coke or Pepsi were ultimately available. If you ask for root beer you are told "Well, Barq's is owned by Coca Cola, so you get Coke by asking for root beer." You insist that you'd rather have root beer, only to be told that asking for root beer means you must really ask for Coke, because the two big soft drink companies who own all the drinks in the nation have decided to stream line their businesses (similarly, if you wanted Gatorade, you'd be told to request Pepsi). Imagine you get more irate, and demand a root beer. The waitress then brings you a Pepsi--your penalty for not even asking for Coke. This is our political system, and its range of choices.

Americans, who would be outraged with such a  soft drink policy, are yet so pre-conditioned to accept whatever their political system tells them, they won't even question this very scenario when their vote yields the same result. Yet instead of the stakes being the cravings of our taste buds, they are related to wars around the globe, public welfare and safety, and the future of our children.

All of this leads us back to our First Foolish Proverb: If you don't vote, you're part of the problem. If ever there was a false proverb in our current situation, this is it. The people who vote, especially those who can't stand either Coke and Pepsi but go along with it anyway, are the real problem. By not demanding a change, and by a refusal to withhold their consent, they perpetuate the system.

No sane American would say that unless you are willing to be coerced, lied to, and abused, you have no right to speak out against coercion, lies, and abuse. No sane person would suggest that unless you play along with coercion, lies, and abuse, you are a part of the problem. But that's what our foolish political proverbs say, and they are repeated uncritically by voters and leaders each election. Why would we accept as a matter of government what we wouldn't accept from any other aspect of our lives?