Judging from my friends’ reactions (and the level of unrest in the Blogosphere and Punditstan), Sarah Palin’s nomination has unleashed a tidal wave of fear and despair large enough to sweep defeat from the jaws of victory—unless we can master this reactivity and get on with winning the election.
I have lost count of the emails I’ve received from panicked progressives. Most of them take one of two tacks. Some attempt to counter the Big Lie strategy of evil genius Karl Rove by refuting each lie with documented fact or first-person testimony from people who know the candidate. This example is from Paul Krugman’s elegant little screed on the subject in Thursday’s New York Times:
Did you hear about how Barack Obama wants to have sex education in kindergarten, and called Sarah Palin a pig? Did you hear about how Ms. Palin told Congress, “Thanks, but no thanks” when it wanted to buy Alaska a Bridge to Nowhere?
These stories have two things in common: they’re all claims recently made by the McCain campaign — and they’re all out-and-out lies.
Others use a kind of outraged humor to show the disparity in how candidates are being treated:
Black teen pregnancies? A “crisis” in black America. White teen pregnancies? A “blessed event.”
If you grow up in Hawaii you’re “exotic.” Grow up in Alaska eating mooseburgers, you’re the quintessential “American story.”
Similarly, if you name you kid Barack you’re “unpatriotic.” Name your kid Track, you’re “colorful.”
The refutations are by and large accurate (a list of books Sarah Palin allegedly wanted to ban from the Wasilla, Alaska, public library is false and there are doctored photos being circulated as well). But none of them conveys the heightened terror, the outrage and fits of weeping I’ve seen. Why are people so fearful and desperate? Here are a few reasons:
- Many people are shocked by the way the Big Lie strategy has exposed a deep reservoir of irrationality beneath the seemingly rational surface of politics, by the prospect that an election will be decided by people who are so easily manipulated as to not see through such lies. The cognitive scientists and framers have been telling us that progressives’ ideal of politics as cerebral calculation—careful study, weighing up the facts, forming a reasoned conclusion—does not actually describe how many people cast their votes. Instead—especially if they have not examined the processes of their own minds and corrected for emotional manipulation—they are likely to be swayed by imagery, symbolism, by the feelings evoked by a particular notion or a particular keyword. Progressives have trouble wrenching their attention from how this decision-making process should unfold to how it often does work. Their difficulty in accepting this reality has created a kind of deer-in-the-headlights freeze that I hope will thaw soon, so we can get on with it. (Last week on the Huffington post, Jeffrey Feldman had a nice column about how such symbolism resonates with people.)
- Some people, especially women, are deeply shocked by the sight of a woman speaking with such venom and taking such hard-line, intolerant, uncaring positions. “She’s so mean,” I keep hearing, and it’s true: the glee in her voice, the gleam in her eye as she ridicules Obama and his supporters make me uncomfortable, and I don’t think it’s just because I disagree. I wouldn’t like to see Obama licking his chops with quite so much relish either. The Republicans, including Palin, are showing a ruthlessness that chills me: for instance, in Scrooge-like fashion, midwestern Republicans are compiling lists of foreclosures and planning to station people at polling stations to prevent them from voting at the addresses they no longer inhabit.
I think this probably goes to George Lakoff’s theory of family paradigms driving politics: the right enshrines the “strict father” model with clear lines of authority from the top and obedience as a chief value; and the left enshrines the “nurturing family” model prizing equality and participation, where everyone’s feelings count. Viewed through this lens, Sarah Palin’s nomination is quite a coup, strict father and nurturing mother rolled into one luminescent package. Perhaps my shock is not so great because I don’t share the illusion that women are somehow superior, less mean, more compassionate, that they naturally default to the nurturing family model. A friend of mine is a therapist who works with kids. She says they have a name for students who take sadistic delight in victimizing others: “mean girls.” When kids ask her to talk about mean girls, she tells them “Remember, boys can be mean girls too.” So as far as this one goes, maybe it’s just time to get over it.
- Many people are dumbstruck by the unfairness of it all, especially the media’s treatment of blatant lies. It’s so easy to check out the Big Lies the McCain/Palin campaign is issuing; why are they being repeated so often? Why isn’t every reporter advocating the truth? This is from the same Paul Krugman column I quoted earlier:
“Why do the McCain people think they can get away with this stuff? Well, they’re probably counting on the common practice in the news media of being “balanced” at all costs. You know how it goes: If a politician says that black is white, the news report doesn’t say that he’s wrong, it reports that ‘some Democrats say’ that he’s wrong. Or a grotesque lie from one side is paired with a trivial misstatement from the other, conveying the impression that both sides are equally dirty.
“They’re probably also counting on the prevalence of horse-race reporting, so that instead of the story being ‘McCain campaign lies,’ it becomes ‘Obama on defensive in face of attacks.’”
Again, there is the way progressives would like the commercial media to work—an independent search for truth, a fearless devotion to defending it against lies—and the fact that people find it very difficult to release that wish and confront the actuality, which Krugman has described so well. If we accept the truth that at the moment these are the ways of operating that dominate mass media, what do we do about it with respect to this election?
- Finally (not to say this exhausts the topic, but enough for now), there is an aspect of feeling many people find difficult to comprehend. Nietzsche, of all people, had a word for it (though he borrowed it from the French): ressentiment. My dictionary defines it as “a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self-abasement.” Obama is merely a man, undoubtedly sharing the weaknesses of his kind. But when I look at him, I marvel at our luck to have a candidate who so strongly embodies a kind of integration that gives me hope: his ability to rise above the fray, his willingness to bring the personal and political together in a way that resonates so strongly with other human stories, his intelligence and grace, the apparent integration of his mind, body and spirit.
These qualities draw me to him and allow me to hope that in an Obama administration, we will see a little bit more of what people are capable of summoning at our best, and a little bit less of our worst. But there is a terrible truth, that many people see these same qualities and feel put down by them. They contrast his grace and eloquence with their own self-doubt, and they feel small. Feeling small, they lash out. They are willing to adopt positions counter to their own self-interest (for instance, to be part of the 80 percent that thinks the country is heading in the wrong direction, and then vote for the team that will take them farther and faster down the same path), if only they hurt the source of their perceived injury, the person who makes them feel this way.
So, facing these realities, what are we to do? It is necessary to address the underlying feelings, the symbols and images that evoke them, as well as the facts. I have three ideas, and I urge you to chew on them a little bit, even though they may be hard to swallow. If you have good ideas, write to me and if I like them, I’ll share them.
- First, although it is deeply challenging for progressives to deploy language we associate with unscrupulous people like Joe McCarthy of Red Scare fame, we need to portray McCain and Palin as un-American. They are taking repugnant political ideas—afflicting the weak, bloodthirsty belligerence in international relations, indifference to the fate of the planet, government intervention in the most private matters of personal life—and clothing them in the American flag. I believe we have to point out how counter to the best intentions of the founders these positions are, and how shockingly un-American it is to pretend these extreme positions are normal and acceptable. McCain and Palin like to portray themselves as “mavericks,” but I think the accurate term is “renegade.” Both have betrayed core democratic values of pluralism, participation and democracy, of personal liberty and collective responsibility, values sadly honored more lately in the breach than the observance. The Democrats, obsessed with fairness, have a tic of describing McCain as a hero and an honorable man whenever they give a speech; that has to stop.
I keep thinking of those Red Scare movies of the fifties: the way they always start is with some type of Boy Scout movement that teaches children to be loyal, clean and brave—then moves on to training them to rat out their parents’ thought-crimes to the authorities. These plots turn on the moment of shock when what has been represented as the American way is exposed as a very dark, surreptitious movement to co-opt good intentions. That describes McCain and Palin, and we need to let people know.
- Second, the Big Lie strategy has a lineage, and it needs to be exposed. Whether he admits it or not, Karl Rove cribbed it from Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich’s Minister of Propaganda (perhaps by way of Joe McCarthy). Ironically, Goebbels’ first articulation of the principle came in the form of an accusation against the English. This is consistent with the McCain/Palin habit of accusing their opponents of the tactics they themselves have embraced. Here’s how Goebbels explained the principle in a 1941 article: “[W]hen one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” Sound familiar? Let’s give people some powerful, highly colored information about this strategy and why it works. Not everyone will be persuaded, but some may be shocked out the trance.
- Third, we need to pull back from the details and remind people of the big picture. A friend turned me on to a column by distinguished economist and associate editor Martin Wolf in the Financial Times. Wolf, who is by no means a man of the left, explains how the results of the U.S. presidential election affect everyone, not just Americans. He goes on to draw what from his perspective across the Atlantic seems the greatest distinction between the two candidates: “the instincts for conflict and for co-operation. The first instinct seeks enemies and the latter deals. The former is manichean and the latter conciliatory.” He goes on to say, “Neither Mr McCain nor Mr Obama will, in practice, embrace just one alternative. Nor will just one approach be the only answer. But the difference in tendency is clear. Is the US girding its loins for another great crusade against evil? Or is it prepared to sit down with the rest of the world and talk? The right approach for today’s complex world is not that of those who see agreement and appeasement as synonyms. The choice seems clear. It will shape our era.” Now it needs to be made clear right here in the U.S., where it has so often been overlooked in favor of a preference for strong-man pronouncements, for a terrible fear of appearing weak if we don’t pick up the gun at the first sign of displeasure.
- Finally, I want to call on my fellow artists to take up these tasks. Those of you in my age cohort may remember Barbara Garson’s 1966 satire MacBird! It portrayed Lyndon Johnson as Shakespeare’s Macbeth (and Ladybird Johnson as his wife), playing to huge audiences and acclaim. I keep waking up with the kernel of a play in my mind. It could be based on A Christmas Carol or Dante’s Inferno or even a turnabout It’s A Wonderful Life—a story in which a protagonist falls into a dream world and is taken on a tour of the damage his or her lies and misdeeds have done. I see Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party’s founder, as the tour guide for John McCain and Sarah Palin, and so far as the scenes of devastation go, the only problem would be keeping the play to a manageable length.
Who will write it? To counter this moment of shock and despair, we need to engage symbols, feelings, moods, images that are more profound and affecting than mere facts. This is the territory of art: musicians, graphic artists, filmmakers, playwrights, poets, all artists, we need you now more than ever to rise to the occasion, as only you can, speaking deeper truths in languages the heart can hear as well as the brain.