Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

We Were Warned

Arguably, some of the best forewarnings have come from the British, even in the film Love Actually (2003), where the PM is none too happy with the bullying of his American counterpart.

There is no question that Hollywood warrants its old label as a home of escapist entertainment.  But it is also true that there is a growing list of mainstream films offering narratives about the devolution of American political life.  Most were first presented as fiction; but hindsight makes some remarkably prescient.  These are films plotted around acts of political corruption, deception or exploitative media. Who knew that we should have paid closer attention?

Overcoming studio timidity was never been easy.  The cautionary Vietnam fable M*A*S*H (1970) was shot by director Robert Altman in a California state park, away from the prying eyes of nervous Fox executives. Even so, the studio demanded that the film must appear to be about the politically safer Korean War.

The most interesting films include plot lines that anticipate our current moment. For example, in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) propagandists from China and the Soviet Union brainwash a veteran in an effort to have him subvert the United States government.  The idea of Communist brainwashing has never been very convincing. But the fact that we have a President seemingly in the thrall of the heirs to the Soviet Union seems like a fantasy that has become uncomfortably real.

Some films are reminders that Americans are easy marks for cynical populists.

There are also a number of films that suggest how easy it can be for an empty vessel of a leader to attract the support of audiences short on reasoning but ready to accept simple-minded bromides.  Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd (1952) suggests that fame can be easily manufactured and sold to ordinary citizens. It’s emphasis on the susceptibility of media audiences is mirrored in other iconic films like writer Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976), or  All the King’s Men (1949), based on a Pulitzer-winning book by Robert Penn Warren.  The latter film is an extended riff on a figure like Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, a populist demagogue we sells a stream of lies to a clueless public.  Depending on the person, films can “mean” many things.  For me,  Warren’s character of Willie Stark and Network’s Howard Beale are reminders that many of us are easy marks for cynical populists.

Of course, the corruption that may come with power was a theme familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences. It also fascinated film legend Orson Welles, who put the abuse of authority front and center in the form of corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil (1958).  And there’s also the ruthless Hearst-like newspaper magnate in Citizen Kane (1941), who had his own seaside Mar-a-lago.

Even Charlie Chaplin gave us reasons to be wary about the abuse of power, consistently using the gentle figure of the Tramp to deflate the police and the pompous. His pattern of mocking leaders is carried on by a handful of late-night television hosts, in sharp contrast to talk radio’s continuing love of reactionary politics.

Viewers of films about the McCarthy era may also see the coming pattern of the current president to scapegoat problems to immigrants, Mexicans, China or even NFL players.  The Wisconsin senator’s bludgeon was anti-communism.  His penchant for making baseless accusations against whole categories of Americans is well-represented in Bryan Cranston’s 2015 portrayal of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.  This accustory strain in American politics has its own fascinating lineage of sobering Hollywood jeremiads, ranging from a film version of Arthur’s Miller’s The Crucible (1996) to the Edward R. Murrow biopic, Good Night and Good Luck (2005).

More recently, the best forewarnings on film have come from the British. In the surprising case of the otherwise negligible Love Actually (2003), a  perfect rebuke is directed to a bullying American President. Hugh Grant is the PM, and is none too happy with the high-handedness and arrogance of his American counterpart: words that would work equally well for the embattled Theresa May.

Love Actually Scene – Hugh grant Speech

Britian’s Premier Minister Hugh Grant’s Speech against the American President

In the recent past, BBC Films and the U.K. Film Council win the honors for confronting the problem of governments who have gone of the rails.  In the Loop (2009) is played by Tom Hollander and Peter Capaldi as farce, but seems close to the truth in displaying the twin challenges of bad foreign policy (i.e., the invasion of Iraq) pursued by inept bureaucracies.  James Gandolfini is a cautious  American General who is no match for the spin doctors in Washington and London that are planning a disastrous joint invasion.  In The Loop is a good representation of contemporary suspicions of political discourse, where the energies put into defending policies come prior to determining their basic soundness.  What was British farce in 2009 is now evident in the prevarications of official Washington.

In The Loop – Trailer

From writer/director Armando Iannucci, IN THE LOOP is a crackerjack political satire centered on the Machiavellian art of spin in the 24-hour news cycle — where one’s choice of words can, in a heartbeat, affect international diplomacy and where language isn’t so much a virus, as a veritable weapon of mass destruction.

Top Image: Universal Pictures

The Disappearing Agora

For most of us, the agora is electronic rather than physical. We now meet mostly online, missing the shared ‘witnessing’ known to early democracies and even early television viewers.

The idea of a central meeting place goes hand-in-hand with the idea of democracy.  A location where leaders and citizens are can be heard and exchange ideas is an essential feature of a civil society. Of course it was one thing for the several hundred citizens of a young democracy like ancient Syracuse in the 5th century BC.  They would gather in an open space.  It’s quite another thing when the political unit is scaled up from a city-state to a nation spread over a continent.

The romance of a New England town meeting retains some of the aura of a simple agora.  We have sentimentalized the idea even in classic television programs like Newhart or the Gilmore Girls.  Yet there is still truth in the romance. Even if most of us live in larger cities, we can still interact with local leaders. And though most of us rarely exercise the opportunity, it can be empowering to put a municipal leader on notice with our grievances or occasional praise.

Living within political boundaries containing thousands or millions obviously changes how we can connect to each other.  With regard to the federal government, most of us have only known the quasi-agora of national television news. Growing up in the 50s, my family mostly used one of three choices for connecting with the rest of the country.  NBC, CBS and a weaker ABC beamed out seemingly urgent news, such as the 1969 landing on the moon.  Life paused in most Colorado households in time to catch early evening newscasts narrated by Walter Cronkite at CBS or David Brinkley at NBC.  The announced death of President Kennedy in 1963 came to most of the nation through the words of the venerable CBS anchor.

CBS News announces president’s death

Nov. 22, 1963: In an emotional moment, Walter Cronkite tells the world that President John F. Kennedy has died, half an hour after being shot in Dallas, Texas.

The agora is now clearly electronic not in real time. We now “meet” mostly online: a change from early live television, where limits on technology meant that Americans witnessed the same momentous events more or less at the same  time.

We need to be careful about citing digital “advances.” To be sure, chatter in the culture has never stopped.  We are engaged with others in an endless spectrum of online communities.  But in no sense should we consider Twitter or Instagram as comparable vehicles for meaningful public “discussion.”  If we need a comparison, the typical social media post more closely resembles a shout issued from a passing car.

At the same time, the idea of a common civic space has withered. Readership of the nation’s largest newspapers is in decline.  Reliable online news (much of it aggregated from the remaining national news outlets) occupies less of our time.  The resulting fragmentation of the nation into specific audiences means that it is less likely that Americans will pay attention to significant events, or even  the same informational sources. If you ask friends what they are watching on online or via networks such as CBS or Netflix, the odds are good that “their” programs are not what you are watching. Neil Postman had it at least half right: we are “amusing ourselves to death,” but now with ever more esoteric ‘narrowcasting’ that satisfies personal rather than national interests.

I see this most dramatically in younger Americans, who have not only lost the newspaper habit, but the news-seeking habit as well.  There are too many other choices that offer more immediate forms of gratification.  Add in the double-threat of disinformation efforts from sources ranging from this White House to the Kremlin, and we are ill-prepared to enter any kind of agora as informed citizens.

Of course a national disaster brings lots of us momentarily back to CNN, NBC or Fox news.  But many more of us stay in touch–if at all–through other online venues offering their own unique perspectives and agendas.  Given these changes, its little wonder that the congressional Agora envisioned by the founders of the republic is now dysfunctional.  No one looks to Congress for momentous debates on the issues of the day.  In structural terms, it has always run a poor second to parliamentary forms of government for hosting spirited legislative debate.  The mute Congress is a symptom of our problem, but our fragmenting media now also seem ill-equipped to bring us together to ponder great national issues.