Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Victory of Caricature

This week’s Time magazine brings comparisons of the writing sold by the four candidates for the US presidency and vice-presidency. The sales figures are somewhat telling: Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father have sold 1.8 million copies while his Republican competitor, John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers has struggled to break a half million copies. Sarah Palin’s biography Sarah has sold 325,000 copies while Democrat VP candidate Joe Biden’s Promises to Keep has managed to sell just under 200,000.

If the votes of readers meant anything in this country, It would look like the campaign for change waged by Obama and Biden would sweep November’s elections. Of course, such a prediction would be based upon a shaky presumption – that American voters actually read. If the college students entering universities and colleges are any barometer of their parents’ habits, the shaky presumption is revealed as false. Most of the surveys suggest that time spent reading has dramatically decreased over the past decade of increasing computerization along with reading comprehension.

We live in a day where intellect and education are actually disadvantages to being elected president, a rather sad reflection of an American electorate marked by mediocrity. Indeed, in the 2000 debates when Al Gore responded that Merleau-Ponty was his favorite philosopher, most Americans had no idea who he was talking about. Ironically, George Bush’s naming of Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher indicated both that he did not understand philosophy and that he either hadn’t read or didn’t understand much of the book in which Jesus’ thought actually appears.

In an age where news staffs have been gutted and where crusty old papers like the local representative of the Chicago Tribune chain increasingly look and sound like the National Enquirer, the focus is increasingly on entertainment. Reading requires time. It requires engagement of the material. It requires thoughtful consideration of that material if the investment of time is to be worthwhile. Entertainment tends to be superficial, requiring little of the passive recipient other than money paid. It requires little engagement and discourages any kind of thoughtful reflection if nothing else than by the rapid movement from scene to scene, image to image. Occasionally entertainment can prove provocative enough to cause people to reflect on current issues. But with the wide range of entertainment ranging from corporate/collegiate sports to channels devoted to golf and cooking to the constant mind numbing from music piped in via earplugs which keeps reality at bay at all costs, any kind of thoughtful engagement is the exception and not the rule.

This is the context in which the candidacy of Sarah Palin arises. The night of her naming by John McCain I was grading papers and half-listening to the television with one ear. I kept seeing a character there that I thought looked familiar. Was it Karen Walker from Will and Grace? Was it a character who had escaped from Saturday Night Live? When would the laugh track kick in? It was only after 10 minutes of ongoing speaking by Ms. Palin that I realized this caricature of a leader was actually being nominated for the vice presidency of the country. The Republicans had one-upped themselves on Dan Quayle.

Last night I was able to remain conscious through the opening 15 minutes of Saturday Night Live. After a day of watching the destructive effects of Hurricane Ike on the Texas coast, it was a welcome respite. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps opened the show with a funny monologue about unwelcome corporate endorsements and his cheerleading mother played by one of the SNL characters ending with a recognition of his own mother sitting in the audience. Her devotion to her son was inspiring during the Olympics and her recognition by her now famous son on national television brought tears to my eyes.

But it was the opening sketch by Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin that took my breath away. Fey had Palin pegged. Indeed, for awhile I actually thought Palin might be making a guest appearance. Fey had the irritating voice down, the smarmy good little girl with the librarian’s bun and the scalpel who compensates for her own numerous inadequacies for the job for which she has been nominated by attacking others. It’s a play right out of Republican politics from Nixon to Quayle to Rove. And nowhere does that attack mode occur more often than in those candidates who have little or no substance of their own upon which to rely.

This week Deepok Chopra wrote a very insightful column at his website about Palin and the Jungian shadow. In all honesty, he is not a source I am prone to cite. But what he laid out in this essay was very revealing. Essentially he said that where Obama is calling Americans to grow, to become, to evolve out of our parochial, self-indulgent blinders and engage the world in a healthy manner, Sarah Baracuda appeals to America’s shadow – our reluctance to grow, become and evolve. It is an appeal to our ongoing sense of entitlement to a much larger portion of the world’s resources than we need, an appeal to our xenophobic tendencies and the internecine scapegoating of the culture wars. Americans know better than this. At heart we know that our self-focused, aggressive tendencies are destructive and ultimately will come back to haunt us. But candidates like Sarah Palin speak to our shadow qualities and give them permission to come out to play.

In the past few weeks I have wondered if American politics have always been afflicted by caricatures. Could a candidate as superficial and poorly qualified as Palin have been nominated and taken seriously in American history? One thinks of the succession of “no-name” post-Civil War Republican presidents up through the Roaring 20s and wonders. Conversely, one wonders if someone with as poor as speaking voice as Thomas Jefferson or as poor an appearance as Lincoln (and thus as poor a television appearance) could be elected in this day of entertainment confused for news and sound bites confused for political debate.

What continues to trouble me as I ponder these questions is a more fundamental concern: whether democracy can actually work in a culture which defines itself increasingly as consumers rather than citizens. Classical democracy has always insisted upon an educated and informed electorate and increasingly neither of those things are true. Democracy is based upon a notion of equality of opportunity but the ability of corporate and wealthy patrons’ money to dominate the airwaves (all the while cynically trying to legitimate this hegemony under First Amendment free expression rights) means that all but the wealthy and those willing to sell their souls to them are barred from running for office. And democracy depends upon an understanding and embrace of the common good, as the Preamble notes, not the headlong pursuit of self-interest at the expense of the whole. Ronald Reagan’s mantra of 1980 signaled a changed in American priorities: “Are YOU better off than you were four years ago?”

Are we doomed to election as farce with caricatures from television sit-coms and televangelist prayer meetings as candidates? Are we doomed to elections determined by attack ads paid for by wealthy sponsors protecting their vested interests in the status quo? Is there a place for substance, for reasoned consideration of issues and the integrity of the candidates, for those of us who actually DO read and think in American politics? Sadly, I find the answers are increasingly troubling.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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