Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On the Failure of Repetition as a Political Stategy: Need for Creative Paradigms

Fascinating commentary these days on the feebleness of the tried and true strategy that has consistently worked for neoconservatives for some time now. This is the strategy of repeating rather than convincing, of restating rather than engaging in dialogue, of parroting instead of engaging minds.

As a blogger responding to my recent open letter to the U.S. Catholic bishops says, “This repetitious imprinting of an 'obvious reality' is symptomatic of the entire program of Conservative campaigning” (http://ncrcafe.org/node/2172; the blogger’s username is WOJO). Repetitious imprinting of an “obvious reality” as political strategy: saying something over again often enough to make it appear obvious, as if it is a reading rather than an interpretation of reality . . . .

Note that this approach has nothing to do with rational argumentation or with thought. It’s about convincing people by coercing them. It’s about framing social reality such that we make others see what we want them to see through sheer repetition of symbols until the repetition appears to be mirroring what is out there rather than imposing an interpretive scheme on it.

We make people begin to “see” that all poverty originates in the lazy venality of the “welfare queen” who rips off the system. We force people to begin noticing that all theft involves menacing black men wearing do-rags. Through repetition masquerading as reading of “obvious reality,” we impose blinders that deprive people of the ability to see that the vast majority of those ripping off the system work in white-collar venues (e.g., on Wall Street) and that those appropriating our earnings in underhanded ways normally wear top-end business suits.

Fortunately, political dialogue as the repetitious imprinting of an “obvious reality” is simply not working in this election cycle—not nearly so well as it has done for several decades now. In Sunday’s New York Times, Paul Krugman analyzes what is happening as a failed marketing plan (“The Real Plumbers of Ohio,” www.nytimes.com/2008/10/20/opinion/20krugman.html).

Krugman notes that Nixon invented a marketing strategy that has carried the day for neoconservative politicians up to this election. Nixon discovered that neocons could mask their plutocratic economic and social platform through a politics of distraction and division that channeled the resentment of angry white males fearful of change. By bombarding us with repeated symbols of those we are to resent, by shouting hate rhetoric at top volume on Fox news or right-wing talk radio programs until it pours out of our ears, neoconservative spokespersons have adroitly convinced us that they have our “real” needs at heart, even as those real needs go singularly unaddressed and, in fact, become more pronounced under neoconservative administrations.

In this election, increasing numbers of us have stopped listening. Unfortunately, however, “John McCain’s strategy, in this final stretch, is based on the belief that the old formula still has life in it.” Repetition of the slogans of distraction and division has become so ingrained in the political movement that rose to power through this marketing strategy, that it is now well-nigh impossible to stop the repetition—even when it is failing.

In an article in today’s Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington characterizes this failed strategy of repetition as an ““antediluvian approach” (“The Internet and the Death of Rovian Politics,” www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/the-internet-and-the-deat_b_136400.html).

As with Krugman, Huffington notes the reliance of the McCain team on repetition of the failed marketing slogans: “And it seems that the worse McCain is doing in the polls, the more his team is relying on the same gutter tactics.”

In Huffington’s view, what has changed in this election cycle is our access to information that breaks the back of the misinformation fed to us in repeated hate slogans. As Huffington notes,

Thanks to YouTube -- and blogging and instant fact-checking and viral emails -- it is getting harder and harder to get away with repeating brazen lies without paying a price, or to run under-the-radar smear campaigns without being exposed. . . .

Back in the Dark Ages of 2004, when YouTube (and HuffPost, for that matter) didn't exist, a campaign could tell a brazen lie, and the media might call them on it. But if they kept repeating the lie again and again and again, the media would eventually let it go (see the Swiftboating of John Kerry). Traditional media like moving on to the next shiny thing. But bloggers love revisiting a story.

The internet—the rise of citizen blogging coupled with tools such as YouTube—has forever changed the way we do business politically in this nation. The strategy of coercion through endless repetition, of framing reality by shouting slogans over and over, can no longer work so well in a technology-driven political world where we can now see the faces, the actual faces, of haters at a political rally. Where can now hear those slogans coming out of the mouths of those faces, and can assess for ourselves, using our own eyes and our own ears, the worth of those hate slogans.

Unfortunately, institutions that have not anticipated these developments are marginalizing themselves in the world coming into being through these new technologies and the political realities they generate. This is among the reasons I have noted that the U.S. Catholic bishops’ continued reliance on simplistic sloganizing (“pro-life,” “baby killers,” “intrinsically evil”) is not merely ineffectual: it is a failed pastoral strategy. This way of doing business no longer conveys the values bishops claimed to want to convey to the faith community and the public at large through these slogans.

In fact, the repetition now does the opposite. It foreshortens thought, ethical analysis, and political responsibility. It draws people together around slogans now contaminated with the toxins of hate, since the same mouths shouting “baby killer” are also shouting “commie faggots” and “kill him.”

Because of my background in higher education, I’m interested as well in the failure of many educators with whom I’ve worked to foresee how quickly information technology would refashion the political playing field in postmodern culture, and how important it was to prepare for that cataclysmic shift, if we want to continue transmitting core civic values to a new generation.

In this regard, Shannon Rupp’s half-satirical, half-serious article “Could We Blame the Financial Crisis on Too Much Testosterone?” on yesterday’s Alternet blog captivates my attention (www.alternet.org/workplace/103502/could_we_blame_the_financial_crisis_on_too_much_testosterone_harvard_researchers_say_yes).

Rupp reports on the Excess Testosterone Effect theory (her phrase) developed recently by Harvard scholars Anna Dreber and Coren Apicella. In an article in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, Dreber and Apicella report research findings suggesting that men with high testosterone levels take greater risks than those with lower testosterone levels.

Rupp proposes that testosterone-driven risk taking may have served a useful function in the evolutionary process at one time, when social groups required “just enough practitioners of hormone-driven irrational acts to provide us with some regular protein.” Now, not so much.

Now, “male politicians trading on an appearance of strength are actually the guys who, in evolutionary terms, have outlived their usefulness.” Our current economic crisis indicates the downside of testosterone-driven risk taking for the human community as a whole. What we now need more crucially are thinkers, nurturers, people with talents to build teams, harness the energies of groups of people, work collaboratively, generate new ideas for a world on the edge of disaster.

I say that Rupp’s article sparked my thinking about the failed strategies of some educators (who have been under the spell of neoconservative political figures) for a very specific reason. As I have noted in previous postings, one of the astonishing experiences I have had in my academic career was being informed that I lacked the “aggressiveness” to be a successful academic leader.

To be specific: at one of my workplaces, I was repeatedly informed by my supervisor, an African-American female, that I was not “aggressive” enough to be an academic leader. This same supervisor brought in an African-American male to “evaluate” me—a much younger man who had never met me before, who did not know me or my work. A Baptist Sunday School teacher who writes homophobic articles about the social construction of black masculinity . . . .

I mention the racial context because I had naively thought, before running into this web of prejudice and deceit, that many African-American women might share the interest of gay men to critique and overcome the oppression worked in the lives of women, people of color, and gay folks by "aggressive" men. I had naively assumed that African-American women might understand (and so shun) the harm done to the souls of another human being when we employ demeaning phrases like “not aggressive” to control those we supervise.

As I noted in several meetings with this supervisor, “not aggressive” was a code term for “gay” when my supervisor used the phrase. It is a term designed to marginalize, to bash, to demean a person's dignity. The real core of my supervisor's objection to me was clearly that I was a gay male who would not hide my identity.

I put my objection to my supervisor's use of this term into letters that I asked to have placed in my personnel file. As these noted, I objected as well to her “evaluator’s” characterization of me as “not aggressive.” My letters noted that no best-practices manuals for an academic vice-president emphasize aggression as a desirable quality in an academic leader.

In fact, the opposite is the case. Successful academic leaders (those successful in contexts not poisoned by homophobia, as this university was, through its president) deliberately work against aggression and towards collegiality. Successful academic leadership takes place when an academic vice-president gets people working together in a synergistic way that releases the better angels of their nature.

Why bring this up now? Because it’s related to what’s going on in our political life. Those who have invested everything in failed paradigms—models of masculinity centered on males as aggressive risk-takers, for example—are not seeing the pronounced cultural and political needs of this moment of our history. When those who are failing in this way are educators and self-professed transformative leaders in educational life, our future is imperiled.

The old paradigms aren’t working any more. Shouting slogans that divide us has waning power to move us to build a better world. Merely repeating ideas or symbols that once appeared to work but no longer demonstrate effectiveness is not going to solve the problems we face now. They’re real problems, and they’re complex. They require the best energies we can all give them collaboratively.