September 30, 2004

In the presidential debate tonight the American people face a big problem -- their own attitudes.

Tom Leitch, a film studies professor from the University of Delaware, says "what people want from television isn't a civics lesson. They want bread and circuses. Unfortunately, the things that make for the best television also tend to sour people on the process."

We could take Mr. Leitch farther and say that the people don't know whether they want their political leaders to be statesmen or skilled television performers. When they gather in focus groups they mouth the goody two-shoes rhetoric that passes for virtue in America nowadays. But when they sit down in front of their television sets and make up their minds about who's going to get their votes a goodly portion of them want red meat. And in TV land, the bloodiest of red meat comes from the big lie.

Lying is addictive, not only for the people who employ it but also for the people on the receiving end. If you're lied to often enough you not only get used to it. After a while, you start craving it. Nobody in America understands this better than  Karl Rove, President Bush's political advisor. He's a master at giving a majority of the American people what they crave.

When people are gratified by being told lies, about themselves and about the other people of the world, what they're actually saying is they don't believe politics is real. It's like any other melodrama they see on TV  -- the villains are motivated by evil alone, the hero is indestructible, and the complete humiliation of the bad guys is inevitable. Transfer this scenario to international politics and the president becomes a lone warrior, scorning the weaklings and bureaucrats who are always trying to hold him back. He steps boldly into the fray and smashes evil to the ground.

The nasty little truth, though, is that that politics and melodrama are not identical. Politics doesn't get over in an hour. People who want something different from what we want can't swept aside by lionhearted leaders. We are not as heroic and pure as we like to tell ourselves we are.
In the reality of politics, complexity is present whether we like it or not. Effective politicians are those who recognize it and try to manage it, first to avoid disaster for their own people and then, to see if we can take some steps towards equity for all the world's people. It doesn't make for great TV, but that's the job.

If people are going to make up their minds about how to vote solely on the basis of a carefully scripted TV show, their grasp of politics is childish. Yet all the media tell us that such persons are the ones who will  determine the outcome of the presidential race. We can hope the media are wrong.  We can help to make them wrong by listening carefully tonight to discover which candidate pitches the world as melodrama and then pointing him out to our friends and neighbors.

©John R. Turner

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