The River

Friday, September 17, 2004

Is our candidate learning?

A while back, the Happy Tutor suggested we need to replace our pundits with art critics.

I thought, yes. And if only English majors ruled the world. But that’s beside the point.

The point is, we live in media space, and it’s far different from what we might term reality. Reality is intransigent, the school of hard knocks, cause and effect, aging, death – you might not like it, but you give your life meaning by dealing with it. By contrast, the media environment can be manipulated, and our once modern, fixed reality is now a post-modern media creation. Meaning and values barely register.

If it’s true that you best deal with reality or reality will deal with you, it’s also true that you best deal with the media as post-modern, or the post-modern media will deal with you.

Nobody knows this better than the Happy Tutor, or for that matter, Karl Rove. Rove would appreciate the following from the Tutor:

Operation Iraqi Freedom, The Patriot Act, The Clean Air Act, Shock and Awe, Operation Infinite Justice, the Armies of Compassion - what are these but fictions in miniature, script ideas to be pitched? Rubes might ask if they are true, but let us ask if they are tasteful, intelligent, well-made, compelling, believable.

We might also ask, do they work? Do they mesh with the media and our myths? And they do – on the surface, but the surface is all we’re dealing with. They aren’t tasteful or intelligent, but as surface phenomena they are well-made, compelling and believable.

I don’t think you can fight them by simply calling them wrong, pointing to the lies and corruption, because media debate doesn’t work that way. It’s too fluid for that. Facts are always changing, and in any case recognition of the importance of undisputed facts is missing. You need refutation of the other side’s myths, but you’d better have a strong presentation of your own, which should take for granted that the opposition is wrong.

So in the Swift Boat case, it’s fine to say the vets are tied to Bush and they are engaged in egregious lies and dirty politics, as the Kerry campaign did, but your most high profile and potent response would be to hammer your counter narrative. Let campaign operatives make noises about dirty politics, but have Kerry embody the counter narrative by saying things like, “I served honorably in Vietnam and I’m proud of that. My experience with the difficulties of war make me the candidate in this race who understands when to go to war, and once the decision is made, how to conduct it. My actions would enhance America’s reputation, not tarnish it.”

Compare that to “Bush is wrong about the war.” The audience is left with the idea he or she should be against Bush and Iraq, but for….what? Kerry doesn’t make a case on what they should be for.

Kerry has to give the public a counter narrative, which is all about that hot concept right now -- framing.

So far, Kerry seems to want to concentrate on Bush, to break down Bush’s narrative. But that’s a fool’s errand, because after four years, the Bush story is too well established. Your trying to sell a new product. If the new one looks so good, the old one is automatically going to suffer. Besides, there are enough liberal newspaper columnists, reports from Iraq, economic reports, etc. to chip away at the Bush facade.

The Republican team seems to intuitively understand this need to always move forward, to disregard facts and forcefully put forth your image, your narrative.

When they were under attack for Swift boat lies, they performed the necessary damage control, but they mostly ignored the charges and kept to their “strong, decisive war leader in the present” theme. And they offered a competing and self-serving story: “Bush calls for halt of 527s.”

When it was time for Bush’s Vietnam-era service to come under attack, they offered a competing narrative – a forgery scandal. Right now, liberals should be ignoring the forgery charges while hammering Kerry’s main themes dealing with the present. Kerry should say, “I showed courage and conviction during Vietnam (as opposed the TANG story that casts doubt on Bush’s character), and I will bring my experiences to bear while leading America through challenging and troubled times today.”

People seem to be waiting for Kerry to be bold and declarative. All but the right wing brand loyalists know that Bush has screwed the pooch. We look to Kerry, but he is running as not-Bush, and it’s hard to buy a negative.

It’s no wonder so many lefties on the Web are practically screaming for the Kerry campaign to establish a theme and drive it home. Suggestions abound. You can almost feel the collective will urging Kerry on, because so many of the aware and the discerning – the art critics – can see beyond the Bush public image, and the reality it masks is truly a sad spectacle.


UPDATE: The Kerry campaign needs to get a clue. Look at the stories coming out of Kerry’s appearance before the National Guard. They are terrible for Kerry. They emphasize Kerry accusing Bush of living in a fantasy world of spin. He says we deserve a president who can face the truth and tell the truth. Not sure who that is, because Kerry is incapable of making a strong, declarative statement. He doesn't say,“As president, I will face the truth and I will tell the truth to the American people. We can do better.” No, that would be something an undecided voter could identify with. You can’t just try to shoot down the fantasy world of spin, which is backed by the media, you have to offer a better fantasy world.

Look at how well Cheney deflected Kerry’s charge: while Mr. Kerry said "leadership starts with telling the truth," Americans "also know that true leadership requires the ability to make a decision." Simple to understand. We offer true, decisive leadership. Fits their theme. Assumes that the charge against them is bullshit. Slides the focus from truth telling to “true leadership," from Kerry's story to theirs. Kerry is getting his ass kicked.

Appeasement of terrorists is a poor solution, Mr. Cheney! I am John Kerry and I will not hand recruiting victories to al Qaeda. I offer security and competence and I can win the war on terror for considerably less than Halliburton charges.
Kerry's dilemma is how to oppose Bush while continuing his policy of abject subservience to Israel.
It's getting absurdly bizarre, watching nominally intelligent sincere minds somersault around the idea that two presidential candidates with virtually identical stated goals for the most important conflict of the last 30 years can still be distinguished from one another.
No one wants to even touch the idea that if Bush & Co. really are as evil as they seem to be on paper, which they are, and you know they are, then it would seem their opponents just might not be evil, after all.
So that this "we" business may be a grotesque scam with mortal overtones.
There's a romantic view of the Native American conflicts that soundtrack the US' early history, noble savages, now that they're safely out of the way. But the facts are simply stateable: white man wrong - red man right.
That's it. No equivocation, no mumbo-jumbo. As bloody and genocidal as it ever gets, it was the decimation of a living people driven by greed, pure and simple. Criminal, genocidal, wrong.
Yes, it gets colored-over by reciprocal vendettas, and the Hatfield-McCoy impossibilities make it easy to wash your hands of it, but that's only because one side is essentially missing from the dialog. And don't start with the casinos.
The point is that the defense of their "homeland", on the part of those savages, was justified.
And yet that defense was used to justify the eventual conquest, retroactively.
Why is al Sadr fighting, why is al Qaeda fighting, why are the Taliban fighting? Why are any of the "terrorists" fighting; and who is it exactly they're trying to eliminate?
The trope is they're just nasty destructive crazy bad people who don't like nice good people; which is naturally a frightening thing for naive good people to hear; and hear it they do - daily, monotonously.
The American people think they're the targets of "terror", but it's only because the real villains are hiding behind them.
On this blog, at least, we're aware of all that, Anonymous. Support for Kerry is based on the reasonable assumption that he won't appoint insane fundamentalist judges and he's less likely to politicize science. It's not a lot and I, at least, expect nothing notably good will come from a Kerry presidency.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about a second Bush term. I would be all for it if I could be certain he'd melt down in a spectacular fashion and take the rapacious and greedy right wing collectivist mindset with him.
I can feel the anger and frustration in your comment, Anonymous, because, as Harry said, I (we) get it. It causes me great despair that the only alternative to Bush, thanks to our two-party, non-proportional system, and thanks to the lockdown the media has on real dialogue, is Kerry. But, for those reasons Harry mentions, I'm looking for Kerry to at least hold the line on some of the insanity while a real progressive movement develops. Then again, as Harry and Mark Morford of the SF Chronicle suggest, it may take a civic meltdown and disaster to wake Americans up to the monstrous crimes being carried out in their names. This, of course, can happen even if Kerry is elected. In fact, I fear it's likely no matter what.

I appreciate your comment, and particularly like the well-turned phrasing of: "The American people think they're the targets of "terror", but it's only because the real villains are hiding behind them."
Conventional wisdom suggests that any preznit must pay a smidgen more than lip service to the ideals of his constituents and that even in a barely representative democracy there is some accountability. But on the national level, I've only seen that from a tiny group of people and John Kerry, despite all the cheerleading, is not one of them. I can't get around his affinity for neoliberalism and the homeland security state any longer. I suspect his candidacy has the secondary goal of diverting funds from progressive projects.

My support has been tepid and fickle, and the people I like who support him are not "nominally" intelligent. They are way too smart to be suckered in to series of disappointments. Support for Kerry is liking buying your junkie friend one more fix so he can evaluate his problem in the moments of relief it brings. I've been there too many times.
I dislike never having anything to add, and =yet I must say ... damn, you're good.

We should figure out a way to get you to take over from Scottie McLellan as Bush's spokesman, and fool 'em all.
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