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Those Who are Stupid Enough to Listen to Political Ads

Postulate:  Any democracy, which is ruled by people too stupid to think for themselves will fail.

On the radio this morning I heard about a court case over “issue ads” that were broadcast before the 2010 elections in Minnesota.  The issue was “gay marriage” or as the opponents like to say, “protection of marriage.”  These ads escaped the campaign finance laws by not using the words “vote for” in their promotion of Tom Emmer over his adversaries in the election.  They merely said that the other candidates were planning to make gay marriage legal without allowing the people to have a voice — that is without a ballot referendum.

Did it have any effect?  Who knows, but I imagine there are plenty of otherwise lazy citizens who might heft themselves out of the indented cushions of their couch to vote for the “defense of marriage” candidate.  The Republicans gained control of the Minnesota House of Representatives, but thankfully not the governor’s office.  After Tim Pawlenty, Minnesotans had really had enough of Republican fiscal irresponsibility.

Political ads are rhetoric, they are not factual reporting.  They are laden with innuendo, scary music, and hints of diabolical conspiracies. Ads on the side of the Democratic Party tend not to be quite so alarmist and reactionary.  Yes, they might use scare tactics to alert the voters to such facts as global climate change and the need to do something about it, but more often they are talking about funding schools and creating jobs.  The Democratic Party is not called “the People’s Party” for nothing.

Critics will point out that the politicians of the Democratic Party end up pandering to giant corporations and trade unions, which is (in theory) just as bad as what the Republican politicians do: cater to giant corporations.  Those who whine about politicians lining their own pockets and giving their friends and relations cushy sinecures, are barking into the wind.  Those things can only be changed by scandalizing them on moral grounds.  Otherwise, they are a natural part of government, whether democracy or monarchy or communist-socialist.

What voters should be worried about is the fact that they are listening to Rhetoric.  Step back.  Do you know what the word “rhetoric” means?  I don’t suppose many Americans really do.  It is the science and art of persuasive speaking.  These days, images and music are added to the rhetoricians arsenal, but the art is the art of weaving words to persuade.  It is what lawyers do, only without any restrictions as to facts.  It is the manipulation of audiences using emotions.  Sometimes, the emotional appeals are coated in something that looks like reason, but is always predicated on emotional premises.

Now, there is certainly good rhetoric and bad rhetoric, both in terms of quality and in terms of intention.  Many people, for example, admire the rhetorical power of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  who used the rhetorical techniques of the Baptist preachers to arouse excitement and hope in his audience.  But compare that to the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler.  Because we Americans only see old film of Hitler speaking in German, the rhetoric is lost, but from his emotional deliver and gestures, we can guess at the power he wielded through words.

American political ads are nothing but rhetoric, and if they are taken as such, may be analyzed for their quality.  I cannot remember ever seeing a TV political advertisment that was very good.  Their appeals are usually utterly transparent and banal.  Candidate X is a family man, just like you.  He is concerned about his country.  A patriot.  Thinks we are all paying too much in taxes and that’s bad for business, but mainly it is taking your money away from you.  Subtext: the government is your adversary, trying to steal your hard-earned cash.  Premise: You are not part of the government and are a victim.

What does this cover up and distort?

Rhetoric that aims only to persuade without regard to a balanced examination of issues always distorts and ignores something.  The taxes appeal goes to people’s emotions by suggesting they are victims of injustice.  Some Other is taking your money and spending it on things you would never want to spend it on.  For some, the first half of this statement is enough: I’m being robbed!  For others, who might concede that governments have a right to collect taxes, the second half is the clincher:  I don’t want my money going to those dirty welfare mothers and poor people who just freeload off the system. Whether or not citizens should pay their taxes is a topic for another article.

Xenophobia and Fear of the Unknown

Some citizens are happy to pay taxes to fund police and the military.  Those institutions protect the middle class and upper class from their two most dreaded Others: the poor and foreigners.  Fear of foreigners is called xenophobia, and it is a longstanding rhetorical appeal.  Essentially, you can make people do anything you want if they are afraid of some unknown, and what is more Unknown that people who speak a different language and have a different culture or religion?  Everyone is a little xenophobic, just like everyone is a little racist: because we genuinely fact unknowns when we face people different from ourselves, and our little brains are wired to be afraid and even aggressive when faced with a member of another tribe.  Like Chimpanzees confronted with a member of another group — they might just kill the Other rather than give him a chance to show what he’s like.

For many Americans, not surprisingly, gay and lesbian Americans are frightening for this reason.  They are an Other, and one that is defined by sex, which is still largely a taboo subject among Christians, and is still closely censored by the government when it is alluded to in the mass media.  On television — the main source of culture for the average American — sex only approaches the surface in cartoons like “Family Guy” and comedies like “Two and a Half Men.”  It is treated without realism, either romanticized, or made tantalizing by virtue of its absence.  So, that’s what we get in the mass media, and then on the other side we get pornography, which also depicts sex in a completely stylized and fantanstical manner.

And gay sex?  I would venture to say that for many Americans, imagining anal sex between two men produced powerful revulsion.  Why?  Just because it is “unnatural” and “perverse.”  Right?  Well, nature has nothing to say on the matter.  Sexual intercourse can be anything that is pleasureable. The pleasure is designed to encourage copulation that reproduces the species and passes on DNA, but it is entirely fallacious to suppose that any sexual intercourse that does not produce offspring is “perverse.”  it is just sexual intercourse that does not produce offspring.  Sexuality as a human activity and desire is one thing; reproduction is another.

Yet, this statement would perhaps be a bizarre revelation to many people.  The three big Abrahamic religions officially argue that sex was invented by God for the purposes of reproduction and all the pleasure and fun is some sort of mistake, or perhaps something Satan added in.  But, hmmmm, Satan can’t really create things can he?  Well for a long couple of milennia, we’ve had to endure this sort of thinking.  Only it is really just rhetoric, not exactly thinking.  The rhetorician starts with a desired conclusion and then builds an argument to lead his audience toward that conclusion.  It isn’t about trying to figure out and explain what is observed in nature; it’s about supporting particular conclusions that are based on particular premises.

If we take the premise that God created everything in his infinite wisdom, and that he did so by making a bunch of laws to keep people pure, then anything that violates God’s laws is taboo and perverse and should be punished and excluded from society.   Approaching sexual pleasure, this becomes a problem.  Because, clearly people can have pleasure in sex without having any enduring relationship at all.  Pair-bonding is the tendency in humans, as it is in some animals.  Yet, humans also exhibit a more bovine kind of sexual desire: the bull desires to copulate with as many cows as possible.  Many species are like that.  Strong males have “harems.”

The institutialization of marriage happened at some point in ancient history or even prehistory.  Societies identified a particular lawful sexual relationship that was designed to permit men to pass on their property to their offspring.  For a long time, people had so little property that it didn’t matter, but as soon as the alpah males started collecting stuff and land and social status that could be passed on to a son, then whose baby was whose was an issue. Since, for some reason, women would still have sex with other men than their husbands and masters, it emerged in the ancient world that woman had to be closely watched and controlled.  That’s when human harems became prisons. But most men couldn’t afford a harem. Keeping one wife was hard enough.  So human laws were made and enforced to try to keep women to God’s law.

Our culture derives mostly from that of the Hebrews and the Romans, both of them patriarchal cultures where women were (in theory) controlled by men. Whatever social power women wielded had to be through the giving and withholding of sexual favors, and using their beauty to inspire jealousy or envy.  Aside from that, they could nag their husbands and make their lives miserable.  Nagging is sort of the stick to the carrot of sex.  And men were pretty similar to donkeys.  Extra-marital sex became illegal and policed so that men could be sure that their wives’ children were not the children of some other man.

Now, we might stop and wonder for a moment why anyone cared about this?  Even if a couple was pair-bonded, why did they care if one or the other partner had other lovers?  I suppose it was because other lovers represented the potential for breaking the bonded pair.  After investing a lot of money and social status into getting a wife, a man did not want her to be stolen.  And that is really the thing in patriarchal societies: women were thought of as a sort of property.  Very valuable property because of the sexual and emotional ties of intimacy developed over time.  The more monogamous men became, the more this was true.  A wife could be a confidant, a partner, a best friend.

The Protection of Marriage

Protection of marriage is protection of the pair-bond, and protection of the system of inheritance that we have constructed in our society.  Since inheritance of property is based on legitimate birth, you have to have legitimate marriage (“legitimate” from Latin “lex”  law, legal).  Is there some sort of illegal marriage?  No, not really.  Marriage has been treated as a part of law for scores of generations.  If it isn’t religion sanctioned by the laws of the land, then it isn’t marriage at all.  It is an informal, extra-legal, but not illegal living arrangement. Now, only a few generations ago, it was virtually illegal for a man and a woman to live together without being married.  If you did that in the middle class, you would be ostracized and often forced to live in another country.  In the lower classes something was acknowledged as a “common law marriage” which was simply a man and a woman who considered themselves married but had not the official sanction of a license.

So, why do we need to “protect” marriage as a legal institution?  The citizens who are so in a lather about letting gay and lesbian couples get a marriage license, usually seem to argue their case on the basis of Biblical or Papal authority.  It is forbidden by God.  Powerful rhetorical appeal to anyone who believes in the God of Abraham and Isaac.  But it is predicated on an assumption:  That all laws in our society must be in accordance with God’s laws.  There was a time when that statement was what they call today a “no-brainer.”  But then there was a period in the Early Modern era, following the Protestant Reformation, in which people started to ask each other what exactly it meant to be a “Christian Society” or a “Christian Nation.”

The founders of the United States were very revolutionary in their idea that church and state should be separated.  By this they meant that the USA should not adopt the sort of state church they had in England.  The Church of England was actually part of the government.  Bishops were political appointments, and the training of clergymen was preparation for a job in a branch of the great civil service, only with the gloss of holiness about it.  Clergymen dressed differently and were held to higher standards of morality perhaps, but apart from that they worked for the Queen as the head of the Church.

So, when the Founders rejected a State Church or Established Religion, they meant that any sort of Protestants or Catholics should be able to worship and none of the various brands of Christianity should be run by the government or given its sanction.  That sort of screwed up the whole premise that the laws of the land should be in accord with the laws of God.  For laws need to be interpreted and cases of violation need to be judged.  That was another thing the Founding Fathers realized:  that the legal systems of the day did not always produce justice.  Innocent men and women were condemned on the basis of poor evidence and unreliable testimony.  Take the witch trials for example.

The Witch Craze of the 17th century and the American Revolution of the 18th century, raised questions about religion.  Was it a reliable source of truth?  Who decided?  And who decided what exactly God’s laws meant?  The dominant religion of the time was, after all, operating on a set of Ten Commandments, and Jewish laws about ritual cleanliness, that were nearly four thousand years old.  The teachings of Christ Jesus (which you might think would be the main focus of Christianity) did not lend themselves to legal decisions.  Christ said absurd things like “give everything you own to the poor and follow me.”  That would hardly do as the basis for a legal system.

“Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery” and “Thou shalt not steal” : these were things that legislators could interpret more easily.  Adultery was extra-marital sex, period.  And that conveniently takes in homosexuality while also attempting to control women’s sexuality and preserving the pair-bond.  Men’s extra-marital sex, was not an issue, unless a man was trying to steal another man’s wife, in which case, he had permission to shoot both of them as adulterers.

Today, we do not condone those ideas, though some of our citizens seem to think that we should.  The good old days before the welfare state, when men were men and women were women.  That’s code for men were in control and women submissive to their second-class position.  I have friends who joke about all our problems being due to giving women the vote.  Jokes are often ways of expressing opinions that are considered improper in polite society.  Once women started ruling “polite society” men’s misogynistic opinions were relagated to the rhetoric of joking.

There have long been jokes about homosexuality.  A taboo among self-defined heterosexual men, it could only be discussed in the form of jokes.  Either that or hate-speech, the rhetoric of hate.  When our fellow Americans speak out against gay marriage, they use the rhetoric of xenophobia and fear.  There is a belief among some Americans, that homosexuals are going to turn their children into homosexuals.  I suppose this fear comes from the unacknowledged fact that most humans have some homosexual desires.  That is why boys are so brutally indoctrinated to not have certain behaviors or thoughts.  In our still patriarchal society, boys are forbidden to e homosexuals because according to Divine Law, that sort of sex is a kind of adultery.  It is extra-marital sex, and it is not the sort of sexuality that supports the system of men marrying women and creating children to inherit their property and status.

Because it is tabooed, homosexuality brings down on the parents of such a child, all the opprobrium of the community, just as surely as if their child became a murderer or a thief.  This belief that homosexuals can be converted into heterosexuals and vice versa, accounts for the rhetoric of fear dosed out by Republican advertising.  It comes down to an emotional appeal:  If you vote for a Democrat, your children will become gay and you will be ostracized from society.

Perfectly logical, if you accept all those premises I have outlined.

The Right to Vote

The right of gay and lesbian couples to get marriage licenses from the state will never be fully understood until the undercurrents of our culture are understood.  Christians need to face the fact that America is not a Christian Nation.  It is a nation with Christians in it.  No longer enjoying its past dominance, Christianity has become a minor factor in the establishment of the laws of the land.  The majority of thinking Americans concede that science and reasoned debate ought to be the basis of our laws.  The problem is that there are so many Americans who are not thinking men and women.

One of the old arguments against giving women the vote was that women were not able to think rationally like men.  They were not educate to do so, and they were also thought to be biologically led by their emotions.  It is not true, of course.  But the argument might be good to resurrect because it has some sense to it.  There are both men and women in our country who are led by their emotions.  They respond to political rhetoric and issue ads that appeal to emotions that are not only entirely inappropriate for good decision-making, but also shut down any hope of reasoned public debate.  So long as people keep the rhetoric on the level of fear and hate, or squeemishness, we have no rational debate of issues.  All we have is rhetoric.

So, I make a motion that we do two things.  First, test our citizens on their ability to analyze the premises and emotional appeals of rhetoric. You don’t get to vote or run for office if you can’t pass the test.  Second, outlaw empty rhetoric that merely makes appeals to preposterous notions like:  “I’m being robbed!” and “My children are going to be turned into homosexuals!” and even “The President is secretly a Commie Muslim!”  In fact, exclamation points should be banned from legislative bodies.

It might also be good to pass a law that says if you do not pass the rhetorical intelligence test and demonstrate that you can think, you won’t be allowed to have a marriage license.




Alas, London!

It is an ironic and sad coincidence that the London Riots of August 7-9 (so far) occurred at a time when my desk was covered by books about London.  I have been studying it more closely and historically to get a firmer sense of Victorian London for the steampunk story I am writing, Return of the Time Machine.  There is a good deal of nostalgia about London for lovers of 19th century British Lit.  And steampunk is motivated in part by such nostalgia.  The London of Sherlock Holmes.  The Metropolis when Scotland Yard was young, and crime was premeditated murder or theft or blackmail.

Sherlock Holmes was never called in by the Prime Minister to solve the problem of riots in the East End among the unemployed and hopeless youth of a country driven into economic “austerity measures.”  Nor was he ever called upon to solve the sort of crimes that the newspapers and the BBC like to call “random acts of senseless violence and looting.”  Maybe he should be.

So far, I have heard or read very little analysis of the riots that offers more than unemployment and despair as causes.  Possibly gangs are involved and persons (mostly men) who were already theives, murderers, or drug dealers.  A peaceful protest against the police shooting of a young black man.  Gangs and organized crime take advantage of that to cause chaos for the purposes of robbery and attacking the hated police.  That is one possibility,  I suppose.  Another: Out of work and hopeless young students hit the streets to emulate the protest movements in the “Arab Spring” in order to show the world and the MP’s that the same problems of tyranny exist in their own backyards.  The same poverty and lack of opportunity for youths to make the career for which they have trained.

Who is involved?  Labeling them as “criminals” dehumanizes them and rejects the causes of the violence.  Violence is rarely, if ever, “senseless.”  People acting violently are thinking and feeling something and have some purpose in mind.  The Mayor of London can reject them wholesale as greedy theives, but that is the sort of thing that the rich have always said about the poor when they riot.  But are they poor?  The part of the metropolis would suggest so — poor and black.  If they are, on the other hand, college graduates who cannot get jobs, that is a different situation. Then you may have an English Summer to go with the Arab Spring.

At the very least, it looks as if London is experiencing the same kind of protests as Athens did when the Greek government cut social programs in their “austerity measures.”  When austerity is imposed upon the poor and middle class and the rich are left to their priviledged and insulated lives, then protest seems not only justified but inevitable.  Marx warned us about those kinds of historical forces back in Victorian England.  You can push people only so far before they start to revolt against the Tsar.

Despite all the Western conservative rhetoric about the “failure of communism” and the “dangers of socialism,” I suspect that most people in England and in the U.S. would like to see the nation’s wealth distributed better.  We are the other half of the world, that embraced the doctrine of private property instead of the idea that property and wealth generated by a nation belongs to the whole nation.  I would suggest that it was not communism or socialism that failed, but political systems.  The Soviet Union collapsed in revots and riots because a ruling class had developed that was just as bad as the Tsar’s ruling class before WWI.

If socialism fails in countries like Britain, that is because you cannot educate people to believe in the sanctity of private property and also the idea of sharing the wealth of the nation among all those who contribute to it, including the poor.  Yes, including the poor.  They are surplus labor, a necessary part of capitalism; or else they are disabled or too old to work.  Unless everyone shares the wealth of the whole nation, as we have seen historically, the old and the young suffer and society devolves into a class of haves and have-nots.

The usual conservative capitalist argument against government redistribution of wealth is that workers will not have any motivation to work or do a good job if they do not have the carrot of pay rises in front of them, and the stick of potentially losing their livelihood whacking them from behind.  This psychological theory seems to equate human beings with mules.  Hmmm.  I’m guessing probably a false analogy?

If we have learned one thing since Victorian times when capitalism and industrialism were born, we have learned a lot about human psychology.  I think better models of human motivation exist.  Yes, everyone wants to be rewarded for doing a good job.  Most humans have a sense of pride that includes pride in their work.  And most will work better if they feel they have “ownership” of a project.  This is the psychological model promoted in white collar business.

It may have been the Victorians who gave us the lust for owning stuff — what we call consumerism today.  We want to surround ourselves with things we have bought with our own money as a reminder of whatever wealth we have.  Conservatives and the average economist you hear on the news think of being a “consumer” as a good thing.  It means you are buying things and buying is what drives sales and profits.  The currrent recession is attributed to a slump in “consumer confidence” — i.e., the ability to buy stuff they do not need.

Personally, I do not think that buying stuff one does not need is a good thing.  Rewarding oneself with a few luxuries, books, recordings, travel vacations — those seem healthy to me.  But we have gone past the point of such sensible luxuries.  The whole “consumer electronics” industry is built on a model of planned obsolescence masquerading as “progress.”  One who starts buying personal computers or smart phones, usually is forced to go along with these “advances” in technology because the old computer or phone they have had for five years stops working.  It’s only a bit more honest than the fashion industry, where annual changes are just changes, not “upgrades.”

All of this desire for personal property as an expression of our self-worth, does drive the economy, but is it healthy or sustainable?  For one thing, is this system turning out more people with a solid sense of self-worth, or more people who, for lack of Stuff, have a miserably low sense of self-worth?  The latter, is not good for the economy and it is the sort of thing that leads to mass riots and protests.  Beaten down long enough, people will rise up and say, “I am worth more than this!  I deserve better than this!”

They do not deserve better because they have done a good job selling their labor to rich capitalists, nor because they are good and moral people.  They deserve better simply because they are human.  They are our fellow men.  The ideal of universal brotherhood taught by Freemasonry is a good idea, a modern idea.  A lot of Masons today are among the affluent class, and subject to the complacency of their class.  If they are political conservatives, brothers are even quite likely to think that poor people are poor because they are lazy.  God helps those who help themselves, is a good old conservative aphorism.

I suppose if you think your brother is a deadbeat, you might think he does not deserve your help.  I think that deadbeats usually have a reason they are such failures.  Maybe they are novelists.  Tough-love is sometimes a good thing.  Yet, universal brotherhood based on the virtue of charity is something different.  It is based on the teachings of Jesus — that helping others goes beyond judging their attitudes.  If they have mental health problems, then a true brother needs to help with those problems.

One good thing about a socio-economic system that shares the nation’s wealth among all its members, is that such a society can support artists and writers much better than a capitalist society in which artists and writers are forced to sell their labor to someone higher in the pecking order.  More on that next time.


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