Saturday, December 8, 2012

It's the Imagery Stupid!

In the aftermath of the US elections, as my friends were celebrating and I was breathing a sigh of relief, I couldn't help but wonder how it could be that nearly half the voters of the US actually voted for a vulture capitalist and a sociopath, paragons of the forces that have consigned most of those same voters to the economic scrap heap. Why do so many people vote against their own interests?

Tastes may explain the phenomenon as much as do economics. My aesthetic preferences could have as much to do with my being a Democrat as do any ethical, economic or practical concerns. As a kid, without any real political considerations, I thought that elephants were much more appealing, both as symbols and as animals, than jackasses, so my early instincts pushed me toward being a Republican, but with time I've gotten over it and learned to draw Republican leaders with elephant feet. I guess if cats were the Republican symbol and dogs were the Democratic symbol, I'd still be calling myself a Republican, no matter how I voted.

Growing up in a white Protestant family in a white Republican suburb, I may now be considered by some in the family as a traitor to my origins but it didn't start with politics. The pop culture of my youth focused on movies starring Doris Day and John Wayne, and cartoons by Walt Disney. Despite the heavy handed indoctrination, I grew up with a lasting distaste for professional virgins, white-hatted cowboys, and rodents. From about the age of 14, I was bored to death by the sylvan suburbs. The persistent images I keep from there are of the acres of perfect lawns, battle grounds of the on-going War on Crabgrass, and the twice daily parade of gray-suited, briefcase toting men walking between home and the train station.

More interesting memories remain from visits to grandparents in industrial Paterson, where one grandfather terrorized the family with required Sunday afternoon country drives in his gorgeous pre-war Packard. Once he even drove it through the back wall of the garage. The other grandfather would take me to the magical firehouse where he had worked to see the two-driver hook and ladder. While nowadays everything from video games to Twinkies is described as “awesome” by children of all ages, the Passaic Falls did inspire awe in me, and the Victorian silk mills were far more imposing than the stateliest of homes in Ridgewood's fabled heights. Grandma's Sunday chicken came from her chicken coop, not the supermarket, and how could anybody not love a grandma who shot rats off the chicken coop fence with a b-b gun from her kitchen window and who had made dandelion wine through the dark days of the Prohibition era.

We're all exposed to a constant array of images and most Americans, indeed most people, seem to prefer bright, sunny, happy images, especially when surrounded by a grimmer reality. Perhaps, growing up in the privileged suburbs, I craved exposure to the earthier side, just as many of my fellow Americans living in tornado ravaged trailer parks in the plains states may need a sunnier vision. “My Favorite Things”, which I believe was introduced by Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”, became one of my favorite things only when I heard it played by John Coltrane. No matter how often I've heard Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” I still get goose flesh when I hear it, and I keep going back. No one will ever confuse her with Doris Day singing “Que sera sera”.

The last time I was working in New York, I was called on the carpet twice for being too honest with clients. “When they ask you something about schedules, costs, etc., never admit that we don't know. Just make something up. You may be wrong but we'll cover you.” That was good advice, probably even better in medicine or politics than in architecture. People just want to be reassured and they like reassuring images.

In the earlier phases of the overlong presidential election campaign, I was concerned that Mitt Romney would get the Republican nomination. Not because he was more misguided, stupid, or repulsive than Rick Santorum, Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich, but because he was better looking (Rick Perry may object) and might actually win. Mitt is one inch taller than Barrack Obama and, although a long career as a vulture capitalist has left him looking a little like a caricature of an undertaker, at sixty-five, with his whitened temples and jutting jaw, he still conforms to popular notions of a handsome man. His wife, despite a history of serious health issues, retains the classic look of the pretty, untroubled blond American, which recurs in cheerleading squads, centerfolds and popular telefilms more often than in real life. In a country where 3/4 of the population is overweight and about 1/3 is morbidly obese, a couple like that is reassuring. We all want to be like them, tall, handsome or blond, and rich.

The people at Fox News have understood this better than most. While they have their share of celebrity repulsives, most of the routine propaganda is read by remarkably good-looking young women, more or less out of the same mold as Mrs. Romney. The Wall Street cable channels have all emulated them. No matter how many Gordon Gecko-like swine appear on them, virtually all their shows are hosted by shapely, well-dressed, soulless thirty-somethings.

At reunion time every five years or so, I get a number of emails starting with: “remember when.....” followed by images from the 50's and 60's meant to conjure up happier times, although I haven't yet seen Charlie Parker appear in any of them. I do remember these images and artifacts; they just don't stimulate the intended nostalgia. Among the Americans I've most admired were Thomas Jefferson who, besides being father of the Declaration of Independence, the separation of church and state, and the University of Virginia, also apparently fathered a long line of less than pure white Americans, and then, from my own lifetime, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jim Brown and Michael Jordan, all IMHO the best ever in their respective fields. Later, my personal American Idols were headed up by Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane so it may not be so surprising that, unlike the majority of my old white male American peers, I would support a man for president who is only half white (although the media continue to insist, per American tradition, that he is black).

Changing demographics are blamed by many Republicans for their recent lack of success at the polls. They are partly right but I'd say that the only thing that's kept them in the game at all is the old imagery and appeals to the values of Ike's America, which the oligarchs, the new owners of the GOP, have been able to bombard the public with, courtesy of Citizens United. If you live in an area where most of your neighbors are cows or pigs, you may prefer old Saturday Evening Post images of America to the ones likely to show up on the evening news.

For their part, if Democrats want to help poor people, unemployed people, homeless people, and there are still a few Democrats who do, then they'll have to realize that desperate people aren't usually as photogenic as Mrs. Romney or the Foxettes, so their images will have to be used discretely. It can be done! We've all been moved to compassion by images of beautiful Afghan waifs with missing parts; not so much by images of older Americans subsisting on cat food, or educated young Americans, debt-ridden, unemployed and angry. Maybe the party is more savvy than I give them credit for. Neither poor people nor global warming were ever mentioned at the Democratic National Convention, nor were they mentioned during the campaign. While morally reprehensible, that may have been tactically sound. Nobody wants to see nasty images or hear bad news or be associated in any way with the unfortunate. While we're at it, I see we've kept those messed up suicidal war veterans mostly out of sight while the NFL military flyovers and musical tributes to America's heroes keep getting bigger and more frequent.

Both major parties have spewed an amazing quantity of phony optimism this year. Thank God the election is over. Now it's time to see if the Republicans will continue to create obstacles to the economic recovery or if Democrats will grow a spine and stand up for the people they've been elected by. With a little luck we might yet get to see some positive images derived from reality rather than hype. There are signs of hope. Rand Paul, of all people, has taken a big step to burnish his image. He gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor last week calling for the elimination of American citizens being subjected to unlimited detention by the government without trial. Amazingly, the Senate voted with him, cleaning up their own image a bit as well.

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