Monday, July 19, 2004

Losing My Faith

I was in the tenth grade when I lost my religion, but last Friday I lost a little bit of my faith again.  Not necessarily faith in a higher power, but I had one of those Joycian moments where my worldview suddenly became very obsolete in a very small amount of time.
It came about because of the synthesis of two conversations.  The first involved advertising and public relations - my job.  Yup, these days I spend my free time thinking how to do my job well, and my job happens to be using advertising and PR to sell things.  Liz and I were talking about effective marketing, and she told me (this is one of the drawbacks of not having a formal education in my chosen field) that there is a theory about marketing - if you repeat a marketing message seven times, then it sinks in the consumer's head as "fact."  For example, if you make sure that your ad for a new gas-efficient SUV (heh heh) runs in seven different consumer car magazines, then people in the market for a new SUV will see this, and those who want a gas-efficient SUV will then experience something where your marketing message sticks in their head as "fact."  It may not necessarily be true, but if you repeat it, it's true.
This actually came about based on a discussion about using Skinnerian psychology to train dogs.  I'm not sure of that's a commentary on my job or just the fact that the average consumer can be trained with a standard click-treat, or what.
So anyhoo, on last Thursday's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," they ran a little blurb about talking points from the Republican Party.  Specifically, how people go on talk shows and news shows and repeat these talking points over and over.  Even more specifically, they showed bits about John Edwards from the day where the Kerry campaign announced Edwards' candidacy for the Vice-Presidency.  And, specifically, they showed eight or nine different people repeating two things over and over: that Edwards was "out of touch with mainstream America" and that he was a "liberal."  In fact, it was usually a combination of those two things: that Edwards was a liberal out of touch with mainstream America.  These talking points, Stewart pointed out, first appeared on the Bush campaign's website, and were emailed out to party rank-and-file soon after.  And yes, one of them was exactly that Edwards was out of touch with mainstream America.
OK, I'm not even going to tackle the truth of that statement.  No doubt Edwards is quite liberal, but whether or not that automatically means he's out of touch with mainstream America (whatever that is) is beside the point.
I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this: as I was having lunch and thinking about Liz's statement regarding marketing, I realized: that's exactly what the Republicans are doing.  If enough people see these folks saying it on TV, writing about it in newspapers from the letters to the editor to editorials carried by five hundred papers a day, they will believe it: Edwards is out of touch with mainsteam America.  Will they stop to think about what "mainstream America" means?  Probably not.  They will think, from the poor farmer in the midwest who values his family, his religion, and his right to bear arms; to the wealthy yuppie in Orange County who values his sports car and his money, that they, no matter who they are, are mainstream America.  Because that statement is intended to be so ambiguous and twisted that anyone who hears it thinks, "hey, that applies to me!"  I know this, because I write stuff like this too.
And I thought, what a nasty, insidious way to run politics: it's not based on dialoge, compromise, or even on truth; it's based on who's got the bigger network of talking points people.  And, let's face it, the Republicans have been at this for a while.  They honed it in the 80s with the Reagan campaign, and they won the majority in '94 doing just what I said - turning our "must have news" agencies into methods for disseminating talking points, to the point where those points become truths.
Now, I'm not saying liberals haven't done this, or wouldn't do this if given the chance.  Not at all.  What I'm saying is, the right is much more organized to take advantage of this at the moment than the left, and I don't think anyone, on either side, would argue with that.
Being my noble self, while I think this theory works for, and should be applied to, methods to seperate people from their hard-earned cash, I'm not sure it makes for a good way to run politics - because it favors the wealthier party, and it certainly favors those in power over the disenfranchised. 
So my next question was, "how do we fight against this?"  Liz's answer, which I believe is the correct answer, was "education."  You make people realize that they are being manipulated and pandered too, and they won't like it, or will at the very least act and think more critically.
But that made me stop and think, too.  One of Bush's main goals was a revamp of the education system, and his main method of doing so involved rigorous application of standardized tests to evaluate what students were learning, and when.  Now, what are standardized tests exactly?  Do they test critical thinking skills?  No.  A standardized test for, say, History, won't require a student to synthesize why the XYZ Affair was one of the first blows to American leadership for possible attempts to take bribes from foreign powers, and what possible effects that had on both the voting populace at the time and the newly-born republic.  Instead, they will know that it involved three American agents, and took place in 1797 - because that's what fits on a line in a standardized test, and that's what can be read by a ScanTron machine.
But what does studying for such a standardized test really boil down to?  What is "the XYZ Affair took place under John Adams in 1797?"
It's a talking point.
Who's going to be writing the standardized tests?  Who's going to be approving the questions on those tests?
Bush-appointed education officials.
What will teachers have to teach so their students pass these standardized tests?
Talking points.  Historical talking points.  Hippies spat on soldiers returning from Vietnam.  It's true; it's a talking point.  I learned it in the 4th, 5th, 7th, and 9th grade.  I heard it three times in each class.  That's 12 repeated points.  It's become a fact.  Scientific talking points.  There's no proof that Darwin's theory of Evolution is correct.  I heard that in four different grades, three times each.  12 repeated points.  As far as I'm concerned, it's a fact.
They want to take away our greatest weapon against manipulation.  They want to turn education into something that teaches talking points.
You may be looking for the foil on my head, and I would expect that right now.  Because it seems pretty outlandish to me, too.  But if I were in Karl Rove's position, and my job were to ensure that the Republican party stayed in power for the next 100 years, I would sure as hell do exactly what I just outlined above.  Luckily, my job is to make people happy by introducing them to games.
Is it true?  Who knows.  I think it's time to read Brave New World again, but I fear that if I do, I'm going to end up like the Savage. 


Anonymous said...

Ya, there are a number of really good reasons that the constitution bans the federal government from involvement in public school education. This is no doubt one of them.

What is most interesting to me is the rage/frustration you are feeling towards the Bush camp right now. Mostly because I remember feeling the exact same way during the Clinton presidency. Now I don't like a lot of things the President has done but I don't feel any rage because of it. I don't plan on voting for him but I don't feel any intense hatred. I am really frustrated at the slow steady decline of our rights in a free society; but it's no different that the slow steady decline of our rights over the last 70 years.

I wonder what it is that makes me less enraged with this President when compared to Clinton? I think it may be because I had hopes for Bush, and he let me down... thus disappointment. I had fears of Clinton, and they were realised... thus rage.


Jason said...

Well, a lot of it has to do with the fact that the Bush administration happens to be in power at the moment - and they have the infrastructure that the left doesn't have. If it were reversed, I would hope that I would be equally as enraged.

I'm kind of like the reverse of you - I had hopes for Clinton that were dashed, and fears of Bush that have been realized. :)