Sunday, September 30, 2012

Banned Books Week 2012

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the annual Banned Books Week (Sept. 30- Oct. 6).

Throughout the ages, books from Catch-22, The Color Purple, Brave New World, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and even books in the Harry Potter series have been challenged or banned from public libraries and high-schools.

This year to mark the occasion, the American Library Association (ALA) coordinated a "50 State Salute to Banned Books," with each state offering a different video highlighting the societal harm of censorship. While I do not know anything about The Hunger Games and actually like the video Massachusetts submitted a bit more, since I live in Maine it seems appropriate to feature our clip. (The video comes from the Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook.)

For more on Banned Books Week or to view your state's video submission, click here.

Happy reading.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Great Disconnect

I often wonder what future generations will think of life in 2012 when they look back upon us 100 years from now. (That is, assuming there are any human beings still around to engage in such historical reflection.)
What will they think, for instance, of our voracious consumerist lifestyles? Why, they will wonder, did people of the early 21st century continue to deny the destructive, likely irreversible impacts of global warming, when the clear evidence of the phenomenon—in the form of interminable droughts, record-breaking heat-waves, melting polar icecaps and increasingly ferocious hurricanes, tsunamis and tropical storms--was unraveling right in front of them?
We are like Nero, fiddling obliviously while the planet literally burns around us. Indeed, our hypothetical future observers will see that, rather than addressing the climate crisis head on by investing in renewable energy sources and curbing our consumerist habits, we stood, like zombies, in line for hours to be the first to purchase the just-released iPhone 5.
Yet our so-called “smartphones,” and other such distracting devices may have been ironically (if not, prophetically) named. Their increase in popularity has not, alas, lead to any measurable correlation in collective human intelligence. I fear we have experienced quite the reverse, actually.
Case in point is Maine Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers.
During a campaign debate last week with opponents Angus King and Cynthia Dill, Summers was the only candidate to express disbelief in the science of global warming. “Do you accept the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is primarily caused by human activity?” the debate moderator asked. “No,” Summers replied. “I don’t.”
Portland Press Herald conservative columnist, M.D. Harmon cheered his buddy Charlie on in a recent editorial (“When is a gaffe not a gaffe? When a candidate is right,” 9/21/2012), further perpetuating the same ignorant nonsense that global warming does not exist.
The juvenile Harmon mocks Dill’s astute assertion that climate change represents the “biggest threat to civilized society,” writing, “The chance that temperatures might rise on average a couple of degrees over the next one hundred years is a bigger threat to civilization than the chance that Islamic jihadists might get nuclear bombs?” Given the credible doubt surrounding Iran’s alleged nuclear program (which, I assume is what Harmon is referring to by “Islamic jihadists,”), the answer to that rhetorical question would be “yes.” Climate change is a far bigger threat than Iran’s imaginary nukes.
Harmon goes on to make such absurdly idiotic statements like, “If CO2 increases, so will food crops and trees, and that’s not a bad thing,” and “[G]overnments all over the world are declining to adopt programs to limit CO2.” Yes, governments of the United States and China certainly are. But those of most industrialized European and many Central American countries are taking significant measures to lower CO2 emissions.
(Incidentally, I did check out Harmon’s proposed websites containing the “studies confirming [the nonexistence of global warming].” None of them are credible websites. In fact, the first site,, is not even an actual functioning website. Apparently Mr. Harmon did not learn how to accurately evaluate a website’s factual credibility during his time in the military.)
Not that it is news that Harmon is a hack journalist whose columns are routinely devoid of facts, substance or any iota of verifiable truth. But anti-intellectual Op-Eds like his are increasingly becoming the norm, not just in the Press Herald, but in most mainstream newspapers throughout the country. So much, it seems, for the watchdog journalism of Woodward and Bernstein’s era.
Then again, if Harmon is merely preaching to the anti-environmental choir, that choir has grown disturbingly large if recent surveys are to be believed.
Polls in the last few years have indicated a growing majority of Americans either do not believe in global warming, or doubt that human beings are causing it.
Back in July, the Associated Press reported that a majority of Americans born between 1961-1981 (the age group referred to as, “Generation X”) do not believe in the reality of global warming. The poll is surprising, the article observed, given this generation’s abundance of scientific literacy and education. Contrast these unnerving statistics with the more than half of American adults that believe in ghosts, one-third that believe in astrology, three quarters that believe in angels and four fifths that believe in miracles (Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason).
As Jacoby writes in regard to Americans’ abject ignorance of the most rudimentary scientific matters:

One should not have to be an intellectual or, for that matter, a college graduate to understand that the sun does not revolve around the earth or that DNA contains the biological instructions that make each of us a unique member of the human species. This level of scientific illiteracy provides fertile soil for political appeals based on sheer ignorance.

And our collective lack of knowledge is not limited to the sciences. A 2006 Geographic Literacy Study found an astonishing 88 percent of college students cannot locate Afghanistan on a map. Likewise, a similar majority erroneously believe that stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq, thus justifying the 2003 U.S. invasion. How can we ever hope to adequately address the climate crisis when this is the type of uninformed thinking our education system is producing?
“The mind of this country,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “taught to aim at low objects, feeds upon itself.” A fitting epitaph, it would seem, for a nation whose collective ignorance and inability to accept reality, may well bring about its destruction.        


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Occupy Turns One


As protesters marked the one-year anniversary of the start of Occupy Wall Street in Lower Manhattan Monday, Occupiers in Portland acknowledged the occasion with their own considerably quieter rally in Monument Square.

The local incarnation of the movement has floundered in recent months. Ever since the city shut down the original Occupy Maine encampment in Lincoln Park, the group has struggled to maintain participation and a cohesive presence in the city.
But every grass-roots movement for social change has encountered difficulties and uncertainties in its early stages. Given the aggressive, unwarranted police response Occupy Wall Street and its various local spin-offs have received throughout the nation, Occupy participants must now determine the next phase of its existence.

For now though, Occupy’s message is a simple one: We’re still here.

Nora Tryon unfurled a large banner where protesters wrote slogans, birthday messages, or drew pictures to “celebrate where Occupy has been and where it’s going in the future.”

Sean Donovan, a resident of Brunswick, talked to me about the lack of civic engagement in his hometown and beyond. “People get lost in the minutiae of everyday life,” he said.

Topsham resident, Susan Chandel addressed the crowd on the “People’s Soapbox,” to talk about her battle against home foreclosure. “We don’t know how many people are losing their homes and being evicted [in Maine],” she said, “because these people are so ashamed, and scared, and frightened and isolated they’re afraid to speak out.”

Despite the protesters’ possession of a permit to hold the rally and the overall peaceful nature of the event (this is Maine, after all), it did not take long for the Portland Police to arrive. (Yes, you read correctly: Citizens need to apply for a city permit in order to exercise their First Amendment rights to “demonstrate peaceably for a redress of grievances.”)

Apparently, an anti-Occupy passerby called the cops because protesters had placed signs and decorations on the grassy area around the Lady of Victories statue—which is a violation of the permit’s detailed rules. Curiously, Occupy events are the only occasions in which I have seen this “law” enforced. Every other time I walk through Monument Square, teenagers and guitar-players are sitting comfortably in the very same area, with nary a cop in sight.   

Some claim rallies like this one are meaningless and completely symbolic. Protesters, they argue, show up, give their speeches, wave their homemade signs, chant and cheer and then go home for the day. And while their point is not entirely without merit, voting is symbolic as well. As Emma Goldman famously said, “If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.”

I am certainly not suggesting one should not vote. You absolutely should. But voting, like protesting, is just one small piece of the larger, on-going process of becoming what Ralph Nader calls, a “Full-time citizen.” Too often, progressives tend to focus exclusively on just one aspect of civic engagement be it traditional activism, or electoral politics, often at the expense of the other. I find such narrow focus too myopic, and ultimately limiting. Voting is hardly the be-all-end-all of democracy, but then, neither is marching in the street. As activists, we need to utilize a wide array of tactics.

I do not know what the future holds for Occupy, but I do know that the movement is more necessary now than ever. Between corporate power and wealth inequality, the ever worsening ravages of global warming, our eroding civil liberties and the ongoing wars in the Middle East, it feels as though the world is literally collapsing around us. It is long past time for citizens to stand up to these threats to democracy.

According to French philosopher Albert Camus, rebellion is the “true dimension of man.” He views rebellion as the one single act a person can carry out that affirms the individual’s common humanity. In his book-length essay, The Rebel, Camus envisions a rebel as “a slave who has taken orders all his life [and] suddenly decides he cannot obey some new command.”

As a progenitor of the existentialist philosophy of the “absurd,” Camus believes individuals have a moral duty to persevere and fight back against political and societal forces of oppression, even if the odds of success are not in one’s favor. He wrote:

A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object. But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.

Or, as a favorite Occupy chant puts it, “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.”

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Moratorium, Please, on Questioning Climate Change

Re: "In debate, Maine candidates differ on energy issues," Portland Press Herald, 9/14/2012.

We did not need this debate to learn that Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate, Charlie Summers is an ignorant moron. That much has been apparent for years now.

We also should not waste too much time worrying that Summers will become our next Senator from Maine because A) Independent Angus King has had this race wrapped up from the moment he announced his candidacy (unfortunately...), and B) Summers is a born loser, having lost three previous Congressional bids.

What frustrates me about this debate, however, is the very question, "Do you accept the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is being primarily caused by human activities?"

Climate change is a scientific reality. Period. End of discussion. In fact, the United State is the only industrialized nation in the world in which there is any sort of debate surrounding the science.

This summer was one of the hottest on record. The polar sea ice is melting at an alarming rate. And states in the South are experiencing one of the worst droughts in decades. All of the so-called climate change deniers in the scientific community have been roundly discredited. Anyone who doubts both the reality of global-warming, and humans' role in facilitating (and accelerating) the phenomenon through the burning of fossil fuels, is simply scientifically ignorant.

This is not a "left" versus "right" issue. It is fact.

Debate moderator Jeff Thaler may as well have asked the candidates if they "accept the scientific consensus" of gravity, or that the earth and other planets rotate around the sun. Or perhaps, "Do you accept the mathematical consensus that 2 + 2 = 4?" ("No," Summers would likely still answer. "I believe it's five.") But such questions would be absurd. Climate change should be no different.

What is really at fault here, I believe, is the media's false lens of journalistic objectivity, which attempts to divide the world into neat, polarized "he said, she said," divisions. I would direct readers to David Mindich's Just the Facts: How "Objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism (2000), the best book I have read on the subject.   

Thursday, September 13, 2012

In Solidarity with Teachers

Guerrilla Press stands in solidarity with the striking teachers in Chicago. Having worked as an educator myself, I understand their grievances. I have also witnessed, firsthand, the degradation of our nation’s education system.
But first, it is important we fully understand the nature of the strike. It is not, as many media pundits have insisted, exclusively about teachers’ salaries.
While pay and job security are certainly two pressing concerns, the teachers are also protesting rigid teacher evaluation procedures, narrow curriculum in which teachers are essentially forced to teach to the test, overcrowded classrooms and the overall nationwide degradation of teachers in recent years. (You can read the Chicago Teachers Union’s complete list of demands, here.) The teachers are not, as New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera claims (9/10/2012), striking to maintain the “status quo.”
However, in keeping with their pattern of anti-union bias, the corporate media have instead glossed over the teachers’ detailed and articulate demands, reducing the strike to little more than a battle of wits between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis.
A front-page article in Wednesday’s New York Times (“Teachers’ Leader in Chicago Strike Shows Her Edge,” 9/12/2012) focuses more on the two figures’ caustic personality traits than any of the substantive motives behind the strike. It reads:

She [Lewis] is biting, pushy, witty, unwavering. He [Emanuel] is biting, pushy, witty, unwavering. Like him, she appears to hold almost nothing back… She has called Mr. Emanuel a “bully” and a “liar,” someone whose “billionaire friends” are driving his educational philosophy. And that was only last week.

Based on the Times’ account, one gets the impression the strike amounts to little more than the “toxic relationship” between two egocentric public officials. As it is, that last part of the second sentence quoted (about Emanuel’s “billionaire friends”) is probably the most accurate of the paragraph. Keep in mind, this is the same former Obama Chief of Staff who, a few years ago, publicly derided progressives within his own party as “fucking retarded.”
Our nation’s education system is a travesty.
The traditional goals of education—to create informed, engaged citizens, and foster in young minds a thirst for lifelong intellectual inquiry—are rapidly being replaced with utilitarian, strictly skills oriented curricula. The lofty aims of a traditional liberal arts education—the idea, as Socrates famously put it, that the “unexamined life is not worth living”—are now viewed as superfluous, impractical, even elitist. The only knowledge worth having, this new corporatist educational attitude insists, is that which can get one a high-paying career.
Schools, in other words, no longer teach students how to think—they train them for work. And with the increasing reliance on privately-owned, for-profit charter schools, and trade-oriented community colleges, this degradation of education is only likely to continue.
Schools—both high schools and colleges—now routinely churn out what journalist Chris Hedges calls “systems managers.” Students are trained in narrow, highly specialized skills (nursing, business, public relations, journalism), but remain ignorant of great art, literature, music or philosophy.
These staples of the Humanities allow us to ask the big questions about life and think critically about society, politics, and the world around us. Great books like King Lear and Lord of the Flies along with thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Sinclair Lewis allow us to reflect upon our own lives and our place in society. They hold up a mirror to the universal truths of human nature. Students denied such a liberal arts education, according to Hedges, become “products of a moral void.”
“At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life,” media critic, Neil Postman, writes in The End of Education, “which is quite different from how to make a living.”
When I worked as an adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, I received no health care, no benefits and no job security. I was paid $35 an hour which is low in comparison to most adjunct rates. I had to sign a new teaching contract every semester—that is, assuming I was able to get any courses in the first place. During the summers adjunct faculty members were forced to fight over the few courses that were offered, with preference always going to those with seniority.
Since adjuncts are essentially contract workers, they can be fired at any time for any reason. And, since CMCC, like all community colleges, is first and foremost a for-profit business, student (read: customer) satisfaction is paramount. Therefore, if a student complains to the dean that he does not like a professor’s class, the dean is all but contractually obligated to side with the student. In order to avoid this scenario, most adjuncts at CMCC simply do not require anything of their students. As long as the work-load is light, easy and devoid of any intellectual rigor, students will not complain. Witness then, the complete degradation of education into entertainment.
For these reasons, as well as a variety of others, I quit CMCC in January. I love teaching. Education has been for me a source of liberation. But I refuse to compromise my educational standards. So I know where the Chicago teachers are coming from. I understand their grievances and their desire for meaningful education reform.
“Education,” Yeats famously proclaimed, “is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”
Here’s hoping the Chicago teachers can light the spark for real educational reform.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Frustrating Debate


I find debates like this one (from Democracy Now!, 9/07/2012) incredibly frustrating. After laying out, in meticulous and eloquent detail, all of the reasons Obama is the more "effective evil," Glen Ford concedes by the segment's end that he will be voting to re-elect Obama anyway. No mention of Stein, or for that matter, any third-party candidates. Dyson asks Ford if he will be encouraging people to "stay home" on Election Day rather than vote for Obama, as if those are the only two options. A frustrating, cop-out of a conclusion to an otherwise intelligent, spirited discourse.

Update: It has been brought to my attention that I may have misunderstood Ford's statement in this video. He does not actually say that he plans to vote for Barack Obama. His actual words, when asked by Professor Dyson, "What do you encourage them [voters] to do [on Election Day]?" are:

"Well, we are certainly not encouraging people to vote for the more effective evil [meaning Obama]. But, however, members of my family and friends and people that we at Black Agenda Report deal with closely, politically, will vote for President Obama. All we ask of them is that they not tell any lies about his record in the process..."

Ford does not include himself in that list of people. Nowhere does he, as I erroneously indicated, say "I will be voting for Obama." However, I believe his statement that "members of my family" are supporting Obama--despite all of the clear reasons, which he lays out, not to--is vague enough to make my error understandable. That being said, my point about the lack of acknowledgement of any third-party candidates still stands.

Like Mr. Ford, we at Guerrilla Press are dedicated to telling the truth, and portraying the facts accurately.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Hollow Men (Politics as Spectacle II)

In my last post I lambasted the cant and banality of the Republican National Convention and Guerrilla Press is nothing if not an equal opportunity offender. So now let’s take on the Democrats.  As I noted last time, “I fully expect… [the] Democratic National Convention in North Carolina to be just as abysmally insipid.” And indeed it was.

The convention, which amounted to little more than a glorified campaign stop for the president, was filled with soaring, altruistic rhetoric, most of which was divorced from reality. As always, President Barack Obama proved himself a highly skilled and engaging speaker. If only President Obama more closely resembled Candidate Obama. As Naomi Klein wrote in The Guardian back in 2010,

The problem is not that Obama is using the same tricks and tools as the superbrands… The problem is that, as with so many other lifestyle brands before him, his actions do not come close to living up to the hopes he has raised.
Numerous speakers throughout last night’s session noted the “fundamental differences” between Obama and Romney’s “visions for America.” Yet, no such differences exist.
Sure, the Democrats certainly hold more progressive views on important matters like abortion, women’s rights, gay marriage and immigration. But these so-called “wedge” issues are traditionally held up during elections to distract voters from the broad, overarching issues of war and peace, civil liberties, corporate power, health care and the environment. On all of these fundamental concerns, Obama and Romney are virtually on the same page. And while voters can quibble all they want over which president would be “worse,” to claim there are any substantive differences in the policies either would pursue is, frankly, naïve.
And so it was with great irony the Dems opened their convention with Bill Clinton who excoriated the Romney-Ryan plan for economic recovery. Indeed, no recent president shares more blame for the Great Recession than Clinton.
It was under Clinton the U.S. engaged in mass efforts of deregulation and saw blue-collar manufacturing jobs shipped overseas through programs such as NAFTA (the North American Free-Trade Agreement) and the WTO (World Trade Organization). President Clinton dropped hundreds of poor Americans including single mothers from government assistance programs in the name of “welfare reform.”
And, perhaps most significantly, it was Clinton who oversaw the merging of the banking and commercial lending sectors.  When he repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which had, for decades, prevented Wall Street from gambling with Americans’ savings accounts, Clinton destroyed the last vestiges of consumer protection and all but paved the way for the fraudulent banking practices and the sub-prime mortgage debacle that led to the 2008 economic meltdown.
Yet, despite Clinton’s destructive policies he remains a celebrated rock star among liberals who are either unaware of this history or simply rationalize he had “no choice” but to pursue such ends. As Howard Zinn writes in his classic, A People’s History of the United States, “Despite his lofty rhetoric, Clinton showed, in his eight years in office, that he, like other politicians, was more interested in electoral victory than in social change.” Sound familiar…?
Even more nauseating than Bill Clinton’s “feel-your-pain” phoniness, was the Democrats’ thorough and at times almost jubilant embrace of militarism. It was as though they could not praise the military enough, with speaker after speaker invoking the “courage,” of “our brave men and women.” Vice President Joe Biden bragged at length of the president’s killing of Osama bin Laden. “Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive!” he shouted at the end of his speech to ebullient cheers, standing ovations and idiotic chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”  And here I thought the Republicans were supposed to be the party of savage warmongering.
In fact, the Democrats’ boasting of bin Laden’s death is the subject of author and Constitutional scholar, Glenn Greenwald’s latest column. (He’s writing for The Guardian now.) “…The collective bloodlust on display…Thursday night was nothing short of creepy,” he writes (09/07/2012).

Even in those instances in which state killing is justified and necessary, it ought to be a somber and regrettable affair… Boastful, raucous, nationalistic crowd-chanting at every single mention of someone’s corpse, even if that someone is Osama bin Laden, is warped.
As for President Obama’s address Thursday night, he continued to peddle what Noam Chomsky would call, "useful fictions." He once again claimed he has ended the Iraq war. He has not. He vowed to fight to protect Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security, despite his previous claims all such programs are “on the table” in terms of budgetary cuts. He renewed his promise to invest in clean, alternative energy resources (including “clean coal”) and lead the fight against global-warming, even though his administration has taken no real action on these fronts. And there was no mention of the poor, though the president and other speakers made numerous references to the “middle-class.” One cannot help but wonder whether such a group even still exists anymore.
More than anything, the spectacle in Charlotte displayed how utterly hollow and morally bankrupt the Democratic Party and its supporters have become. Liberals who took to the streets to protest George W. Bush’s criminal war in Iraq, now cheer giddily for Obama’s brutal murder of bin Laden, and extensive use of drone strikes throughout the Middle East.
Perhaps Nietzsche was right after all: “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Myth of the Liberal Media

The Myth of the Liberal Media: The Propaganda Model of News from Spread Knowledge on Vimeo.

I visited with my conservative aunt today, and she fed me the bogus, "the media are so liberal" line. As a scholar of media studies, it baffles me how any thinking person can actually believe the mainstream media display anything resembling a liberal bias. (To wit: Would a truly liberal media have so easily swallowed the lies that launched the Iraq war?)

This video from Media Education Foundation featuring Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky sets the record straight. I would also recommend the book by the same authors, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which most of this video derives from. Also worth reading is Robert McChesney's Rich Media, Poor Democracy (2000).

Monday, September 3, 2012

Jill Stein Speaking in Monument Square

Jill Stein spoke in Monument Square on Thursday. I was there, and I got to have dinner with her later that evening. To read my full-length piece on Stein's campaign as the Green Party's presidential nominee (by far the most-viewed article on Guerrilla Press to date), click here.

The Age of Show Business: Politics as Spectacle

It is difficult to determine which generated more blustery wind and hot air: Hurricane Isaac or the Republican National Convention. Indeed, the entire convention was so inane, vacuous and lacking in any intellectual substance, viewers would be excused for not knowing if they were watching coverage of the actual convention, or a Daily Show-style parody thereof.

Never mind bread and circuses: From beginning to end, the RNC felt more like a rock concert. The crowd could have just as easily been gathered for a Rolling Stones or Taylor Swift show. Attendees added to the carnival atmosphere by wearing cowboy hats, red-white-and-blue jackets and other ridiculous outfits.
The Republican speakers, meanwhile, stoked the crowd with infantile slogans, empty rhetoric and outright lies.
The convention’s theme, “We Built It,” was a play on President Obama’s supposed insinuation that early American business owners and entrepreneurs did not, in fact, build their businesses on their own. Except, that is not what he actually said. Likewise, vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan gave a highly misleading account in which he blamed Obama for the shut-down of a GM factory in his Wisconsin hometown that actually closed during George W. Bush’s presidency. Oh yes—and aging actor Clint Eastwood spent about 12 minutes talking to an empty chair. So much for “liberal” Hollywood.
Welcome to the state of political discourse in the twenty-first century. And I am not merely picking on the Republicans here. I fully expect next week’s Democratic Convention in North Carolina to be just as abysmally insipid.
These conventions are little more than pep-rallies for the parties’ respective presidential nominees. There is little discussion of policy, legislative proposals, or substantive dialogue about the pertinent issues of our time. Instead, speakers and candidates offer cheap, mind-numbing clichés about “The Economy,” “Jobs,” and crowd-pleasing phrases like, “Throw the bums out!” and “Time to turn the page.” And the crowd cheers and howls like a bunch of inebriated football fans at the Super Bowl. Politics and entertainment have now merged.

(At times, the audience would even applaud rhetoric, such as Eastwood’s incongruous though nonetheless welcome criticism of the Afghanistan war, completely at odds with their own party. Eastwood’s remarks left the impression Romney supports a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan, when in fact, he has wholeheartedly embraced the war.)  
Karl Marx was right: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Witness the thorough degradation of our political culture. Where once politicians spoke of policies, issues and inspired civic leadership, they now speak in carefully crafted, nine second sound bytes written by public relations experts. These soundbytes are designed for television and those with short attention spans.
A 2004 study in the Princeton Review of the vocabulary of recent presidential candidates highlights politicians’ steady and deliberate pandering to those with low or limited vocabularies. During the 1992 presidential debates, Bill Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade reading level, while George H. W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level. The same trend continued in the 2000 election, with George W. Bush speaking at a sixth-grade level like his father, and Al Gore at a seventh-grade level.
Contrast those numbers with the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960 wherein both men spoke at about a tenth-grade reading level. And going back even further to the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates (widely regarded as the pinnacle of U.S. political discourse), both candidates spoke at the educational level of a high-school graduate (which, of course, connoted a far higher degree of educational achievement than it does today). Indeed, one shudders to think what Americans of the Lincoln-Douglas era would think today of Sarah Palin’s routine mangling of the English language, and her inability to correctly pronounce the word, “repudiate.”
This blatant display of anti-intellectualism and pandering to voters’ limited vocabulary is all part of the process by which candidates market themselves like any other commercial product.
Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President, an account of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, remains the definitive account of the modern day marriage of advertisers and politicians. McGinniss tagged along with Nixon’s “mad men” campaign staff, all of whom had previously worked on commercials for Coca-Cola, Nike, Ford and other brand-name products. “It is not surprising…that politicians and advertising men should have discovered one another,” McGinniss writes. “And once they recognized that the citizen did not so much vote for a candidate as make a psychological purchase of him, not surprising that they began to work together.”
The sad, scary truth is, American voters no longer vote for political candidates based on their knowledge, expertise, experience or positions on the issues. They vote based on how the candidate makes them feel. With the advent of television, a medium built entirely around images, this process of making a “psychological purchase” has only become more entrenched. Presidents, like celebrities, have become brands.

Case in point, Advertising Age magazine awarded Barack Obama as “Advertiser of the Year,” based on his 2008 landslide campaign. Obama beat out more traditional brand-name products like Verizon and Apple. Thus the merging of politics and entertainment is nearly complete.
“At the speed of light,” wrote Marshall McLuhan prophetically, “policies and political parties yield place to charismatic images.”
So, there you have it. The economy remains stagnant, citizens are struggling, climate-change is wreaking havoc on the southwest and food crops, and war with Iran may be literally around the corner, and GOP candidates and supporters want to hold childish, imaginary conversations with an empty chair.