December 21, 2005

A Different Kind of Hero

On Monday, David Neiwert talked about the American quest for a hero when he wrote about how Americans have been primed to look for the strong and vengeful hero by a number of Hollywood action movies and about the Boy George Action Hero image that has filled the demand after the shock of 9/11.

Now, to hear folks on the right talk, you'd think that George W. Bush was indeed cut in the mold of Harrison Ford and Kiefer Sutherland, with a dash of Bruce on the side. Don't these wimps complaining about his surveillance of American citizens without warrant or oversight know we're in a war on terror?

I mean, what good is the Constitution if all it does is enable evil terrorists to endanger the lives of us all? Right? We should be able to pick and choose whose rights we protect, because you never know when someone is gonna set off a nuke in your kids' playground.

It's too easy to say that George W. Bush and his cult of defenders on the right have watched too many of these action films. Rather, what is more noteworthy is that this public response taps directly into those well-established sentiments about heroic action. It's actually rather a brilliant stroke: Republicans are appealing to an American public already profoundly propagandized by a steady diet of Hollywood-produced action flicks and revenge melodramas. Movies in which such niceties as civil rights are readily discarded in the pursuit of justice.

On the same day, Jane over at Firedoglake talked about how the Republicans have very effectively used image and emotion to sell America about the righteousness and strength of the Republicans (especially Bush, he-man extraordinaire) in response to the 9/11 challenge. And she suggested an alternate archetype emotional image that could be effective in countering the Republican story.

The GOP really seized its current high ground after 9/11 when they were able to take advantage of national outrage and capitalize on the fact that most Americans felt that their country was under attack. Painting themselves as the Party of Men, George Bush preened in his flight suit and cod piece, called himself a "war president," and used simple, aggressive language to convince the country he was the man to preserve our security. His popularity soared.

When the village is under attack you send in the men; tales of Boadicea and Ripley notwithstanding, this is a fundamental construct of our dramatic culture that appeals to the reptilian brain and causes people to put aside rational thought that might lead them to other conclusions.

[...Yet t]he construction [of] a counter-narrative to the highly successful GOP war drama is extremely tricky. The Republicans evolved their current brand image not only by tapping into white male rage, but by playing on very powerful strains within the American psyche. "America right or wrong" and "might makes right" and "love it or leave it" play very well with the post 9/11 public. Even though the war has turned into a fiasco, the underlying story -- of Men going off to fight to defend the village from its enemies -- is very difficult to deconstruct. And to do so, the Democrats must find an equally powerful, equally limbic emotional narrative that will trump the one that the GOP has fobbed off on the public.

To wit -- the village is on fire. It's time to come home.

[...]Even though Katrina and other recent events offered the Democrats the perfect opportunity to say "the village is on fire," it's still hard to put that across in a way that will not be countered by the message machine of the right as sounding negative and down on America. But the fact is the village is on fire, and people are awakening to that fact. It's time to seize the "Republicans are crooks and bullies" meme, invest in some long term strategies and become a meaningful opposition party. It's the third act, Ma's fed up because the thieves are stealing her crops and she can't feed the kids, the audience is emotionally ready for her to grab the shotgun and run 'em all off so Pa will have something to come home to.

One thing that continually shocks and dismays me is how effective the movie imagery used by the Republicans is in swaying public opinion. We really do need to find an equally strong image that resonates as deeply (or even more so) with people who do not have time to understand the details or pay attention to the meta-tale.

As Maryscott OConner's powerful dKos diary reinforced, when people are busy with their own lifes, they are not paying attention to the subtle and yet ominous changes around them. It is only when they are shocked into looking at the world with new eyes do they realize how much the ground had changed under them. Many people (including our elected officials, both Democratic and Republican) had that moment of shock this past week when they realized how extensively Bush had arrogantly and secretly appropriated power and set himself above the law. Nevertheless, as Peter Daou warned, this scandal will be lost in the onslaught of daily events unless someone finds a way to stop the mainstream current long enough to make the anger and outrage register.

So what archetype will resonate with busy (as well as frightened and angry) people? This has been a subject I've been thinking about as well for awhile. Can we find strong heroes that call to a different emotion and a different strength? Would it be possible to attract people to an incredibly courageous hero like Aun Sang Suu Kyi rather than a faux he-man hero who is actually a coward under the strongman facade? This was the subject I explored in this post on courage on the eve of Bush's war:

Today, the topic of what will be needed to win an election against the Republicans came up. One of Kos's posts today talks about how Dean is now attracting the lies and character defamation so perfected by the Wurlitzer machine in 2000 against Gore.

I've always said I will support the candidate that can best fight back against the Wurlitzer, since 2004 will be nasty. Remember that Rove hopes to amass a $250 million war chest to pummel the eventual Democrat nominee to the ground.

I agree with Kos. Whichever candidate wins the Democratic nomination must be capable of withstanding this type of assault. And they must be willing to fight for the American people.

Today, the American public is understandably frightened. They feel vulnerable and they are looking for someone who they can rely on during these shaky times. Unfortunately, the 2002 election showed that the voters trusted the Republicans more than the Democrats on the issue of national defense. Why was that? I believe that a primary reason that the public feels like this is because the Democrats were so easily rolled by Bush. (Even more so than the fact that Democrats are more likely to be anti-war than Republicans.)

Why is it that the Democratic leadership seems to be so wimpy? What allowed them to pass a resolution that ceded all power to send our troops into war to George W Bush with less discussion than that found in Turkey? What is it about the anti-war movement of Vietnam that is still festering in our country which does not allow thoughtful dissent to a pre-emptive, unprovoked invasion without being branded as appeasers and traitors? And most importantly, how do we get beyond this?

One thing I believe is that we have to stop being cowed by those who believe that the Americans betrayed the military when we finally ended the Vietnam war. The military was not betrayed by the American public, but by the leaders that took them into war, and Vietnam was always a mistake. No matter what people say or believe today, these things are still true.

The other thing we need to do is to show that it is possible for Democrats to show real courage and to help the American public to find their own courage that they will need for these unsettling times.

The Republicans and this White House expect Americans to sit back and let them handle all the difficult problems. They also purposely terrorize the public so that they can move their unpopular agenda while saying that this is the only way to gain safety.

But there is a different type of leadership and a different type of courage that we need the Democrats to show and for them to ask the public to also try to display. The British people during the blitz showed real courage because Churchill asked them. And the civil rights organization also called forth remarkable courage from ordinary people, because they were asked and also trusted by the people who were leading the movement. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things and they can face down the most horrific events when there is a need to do so. And they can do this without losing their humanity and compassion for others.

The key to this is that someone with real integrity and who they trust must challenge them to do so and to be willing to stand with them when they take up that challenge. Martin Luther King knew this. Robert Moses of the Voting Rights movement in Mississippi, 1963, knew this. Gandhi also knew this. Today, when there is so much to be frightened about, we especially need to find ways to draw out the good and brave part of the American public rather than having them succumb to fear, resentment and a belief that they alone are entitled to a world without trouble. And we need to have leaders that will ask people to display courage and compassion.

The Democratic candidates and leaders must first find their own deeply held convictions (and courageously opposing the unjust war is a very good place to begin even after the war starts) and then find a way to call forth that best and most courageous part of the American public. I believe there are times when it is more important to fight and lose than it is to hang on so you can fight again. Most Americans would agree that Germany in the early 1930s was one of those times. And for Frodo in Lord of the Rings, waiting until things weren't as scary was also not an option. I think we are facing one of those times now. We all need to show courage and try to overcome our fear.

And we Democrats need to make sure that we help support our Democratic leaders when they take courageous stands. We need to make sure that the right-wing radicals will not destroy them when they act courageously.

For too long we have allowed those who believe that it is only through military power we gain security go unchallenged. We've allowed the right-wing zealots who hated the legacy of Vietnam and who worked to sell war as the solution to problems to assert that they had the high ground. We've allowed them to glorify war and to belittle institutions such as the United Nations that were setup to provide a forum for nations to collaborate on shared problems. Their idea of leadership is the lone gunslinger who comes into town and shoots up the bad guys. Knowing when to use power and when to use diplomacy is something we should ask of our candidate. And I'd want our candidate to realize that real courage and real leadership is finding ways to encourage people to be brave and compassionate even when things are desperate. I know I'd vote for any Democratic candidate who understood the limits of force and could show that type of courage and leadership.

So, what archetype do you think would work to immunize Americans from the demagoguery and false answers of the right?

Posted by Mary at December 21, 2005 12:30 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |

Upon reflection: I'm a bit taken aback as to why this is suddenly 'in the news', or why it is news. Perhaps this has been more obvious to me as a non media participant, so to speak - I don't watch television (been known to shoot them) and rarely go to movies. So, from the outside looking in, I've long held the industry to be not so much a propaganda device but as a brainwashing machination. Digby's masthead say's it all.

Posted by: Thomas Ware at December 22, 2005 07:50 AM