We love the Academy Awards and the other honors bestowed on entertainers who enhance our quality of life, but we fail to recognize that lessons from the entertainment industry have contributed to the current dysfunction of our political system. As the media for communicating entertainment and news has become more decentralized and specialized, it has become more difficult to get people’s attention. To overcome this impediment, movies have become louder, scarier, and/or more filled with special effects and overt sexuality. Television shows have become more risqué and full of innuendo, or they have revolved around characters that are outrageously obnoxious, crude or stupid. Comedians have “pushed the envelope,” becoming more profane and personally critical of (other) “celebrities.” Reality shows have created melodramas out of people’s everyday lives for our viewing pleasure. Over dramatization, it seems is the solution to public inattention.
Is it any wonder that political performers have employed ever more extreme strategies to call attention to themselves. The Republican presidential candidates have personally attacked each other, while competing with each other to see who can use the most outrageous language in attacking President Obama. Unfortunately, politicians have also learned from the advertising industry that the average commercial message needs to be heard or seen multiple times to be remembered by the public. That has resulted in a plague of attack ads running repeatedly and relentlessly in whatever market a primary is pending.
Sometimes it resembles the efforts of children (“HEY, LOOK AT ME!!!), but we cannot dismiss it as merely juvenile behavior. Our politics have been overtaken by people who are intent on calling attention to themselves by taking dramatic license with the facts. As noted by PolitiFact.com recently:
In our super-heated political discourse, explosive words get tossed around pretty easily these days. Hitler comparisons and terms like Nazi and socialist have become the currency of political attacks not just in the blogosphere but also by elected officials. Texas Gov. Rick Perry launched such an attack at a Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire on Jan. 8, 2012. Asked if he agreed with Sen. John McCain that President Barack Obama “is a patriot,” Perry replied: “I make a very proud statement and, in fact, that we have a president that’s a socialist.”
This statement earned PolitiFact’s worst ranking: “Pants on Fire!” (The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.) As conservative economist Bruce Bartlett told PolitiFact: “Socialism means public ownership of the means of production. Obama does not believe this. Therefore he is not a socialist.” We know that truth is the first casualty of war, and these presidential candidates see themselves as being at war with the Obama Administration.
Unfortunately, it is now commonplace to hear people accuse the President of being a socialist, of working to deprive people of their freedom, and to have the government take over everything in people’s lives. This is an organized effort to demonize President Obama in order to defeat him at the polls. Ironically, this strategy is also in keeping with the one outlined by Adolph Hitler in 1925. Known as the “Big Lie”, it involves the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” Adolf Hitler , Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X (James Murphy translation). To be clear, I am NOT accusing anyone of being a Nazi. I am merely pointing out that this was one of Hitler’s strategies to overcome his critics (he also murdered and tortured them, but that is not what we are talking about here).
It is altogether fitting that we can trace this organized propaganda campaign back to the infamous “GOPAC Memo”, a document issued in the 1990s by the Republican (GOP) Political Action Committee (PAC) run by New Gingrich. Entitled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”, this memo instructed Republican officials and candidates to use “Optimistic Positive Governing words and phrases to help describe your vision for the future of your community (your message) and Contrasting words to help you clearly define the policies and record of your opponent and the Democratic party.” The positive words that the GOP laid claim to included moral, patriot, liberty, freedom, family, strength, prosperity and vision. The Democrats were to be labeled with words like betray, abuse of power, corrupt, radical, self-serving, hypocrisy, waste and traitors. Conservatives were urged to use this language repeatedly, and they have done so consistently to this day. Their campaign was ultimately successful in demonizing liberals and Democrats in the minds of a large number of Americans and shifting the political center sharply to the right.
If we are ever to counteract this kind of shrill, accusatory behavior, we must first become aware that they are strategies to get our attention and to sell us a particular view of the world. Drama is the tool they are using to get us to follow them, and the more outrageous the conduct and the language, the better. Awareness is the first step in reclaiming our political process.
While I’m used to reading complaints by fundamentalist Christians that they are being persecuted by the government and society in general, I was a bit surprised when I saw a commentary by conservative Jewish TV personality, Ben Stein, complaining about the same thing. On CBS recently, Mr. Stein objected to Christmas trees being called “Holiday Trees” and told his audience that he liked things better when everyone wished him a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and governments placed manger scenes on public property. He then claimed that people of faith were “getting pushed around” and that the concept “that America is an explicitly atheist country” was being “shoved down [his] throat.” He went on to ascribe recent events, including terrorist attacks, to our society’s supposed rejection of God. Mr. Stein’s analysis is flawed on several counts and deserves a response.
First is Mr. Stein’s statement that “people who believe in God are . . . getting pushed around.” The truth is that people wish others “Happy Holidays” because they are aware that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but they want to include everyone in their good wishes for the season. Hardly a way to push people around. It is sad that Mr. Stein is offended by people who wish him happiness during the holiday season. Jews were truly oppressed for their religion over centuries, culminating in the Holocaust, and Christians were truly persecuted by Romans, even being fed to lions for spectacle. Those who wish everyone “Happy Holidays” are not oppressing or persecuting anyone. According to scholar Craig James: “In spite of being by far the dominant religion in America, and enjoying more religious freedom than ever before in history, Christian writers constantly appear to be victims of persecution, discrimination, and ridicule.” 1 It is a common tactic of religious conservatives to “ensure that, no matter how well things are going, people have to think they are being persecuted for their beliefs.”2
Next, he claims that the oppression of believers started when people “complained that [they] didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school.” Stein is actually misconstruing the facts. Lawsuits were brought by parents objecting to having their children forced to join in prayers by representatives of the government (their teachers). The Supreme Court held that this constituted a violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting the government from establishing an official religion. Instead of being an example of government persecuting people for their beliefs, it is evidence of the government fulfilling its duty to protect individuals from being told how to pray and to whom. This prohibits the religious oppression of all people, including “people who believe in God” like Stein, preventing them from being forced to act contrary to their beliefs. The only people being “pushed around” by these Supreme Court decisions are those who would impose their religious beliefs on everyone (much as authoritarian religious leaders in many Islamic countries do).
Another flaw in Mr. Stein’s argument is his conclusion that “people . . . trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell.” He quoted with approval Billy Graham’s daughter, who explained how God could allow Hurricane Katrina to happen, as follows: “[f]or years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?” In other words, the problems of the world are somehow caused by Americans’ attitudes toward religion. The response of this loving God is to be petulant and allow disaster to befall the innocent people of New Orleans. Is this really an “extremely profound and insightful” explanation for the “bad shape the world is in”? I don’t think that most people want to think of God as either callous or vindictive, and even fewer want to think of God as responsible for evil and disaster in the world. If this is the God that Mr. Stein believes in, you won’t find me worshiping Him, and I certainly wouldn’t want my son to be forced to, either. Thank God our government protects us from this kind of theocracy.
And at the risk of offending Mr. Stein and others – Happy Holidays!