22 October 2012

Presidential Debates and Political Advertising

By now the presidential debates are useless, simply because the real issues, if mentioned at all, get no thoughtful consideration. Instead the candidates accuse each other over their respective positions, call each other "liar," and try to come across as the toughest. It is no more than kiddie playground argument:

"You're a liar!"
"Am not!"
"Are, too"
"Well, you're dumb!"
"Am not!"

And so on.

Many, if not most people are disgusted with the political ads on TV as well. I know I am.

I have a solution: turn off the TV. Don't watch any ads, news programs or entertainment; just use it to watch your movies or hook it up to your computer and stream solid informational material. There is a wealth of documentaries out there that are an effective antidote to advertising.

In The Mechanical Bride Marshall McLuhan said, with reference to print advertising, that it is destructive of all traditional cultures. We have plenty of evidence of that all around the world. He also said something that most people have taken little notice of: that advertising is totalitarian in nature. It no longer seeks to present the qualities of the product for our consideration. Instead, it appeals to our emotions: if we buy the product we will feel happy, have inner peace, be among the beautiful people. No one in the ads is sad (unless you are pushing anti-depressant drugs). Television is the medium par excellence for advertising, as it holds us in its mesmerizing power. George Orwell understood this perfectly and showed us a chilling vision of what TV can do. We are every bit as mesmerized by the screen as the characters in 1984 are and we do not have to be reminded to keep the machine on: we gladly do that ourselves.

In the novel, the programming shown on screen was designed to keep people adolescent by using the compelling but fictional figure of Big Brother to make people compliant and obedient to the government. We have gone one better. The relentless commercial propaganda has turned out to considerably more effective than Big Brother at controlling us and bending our wills to the large corporations. We watch our hearts' desires displayed on screen, we go out and buy, return and find ourselves dissatisfied, so we go out and buy more. We have conditioned ourselves to consider what appears on our TV, computer, tablet, and phone screens as reality and use them to shield ourselves from the real world and its complexities. In so doing, we also miss the richness of life and its true rewards coming from relationships.

The overall effect is to deaden our capacity to think, consider, analyze, and come to conclusions which can in turn be subjected to more thought and analysis when warranted. We are afraid to be alone with our thoughts in silence with no machines on. So we turn the TV back on and what it tells us becomes our world.

Democracy cannot survive the relentless onslaught of frantic advertising and programming. We would do well to turn off the TV until the election, minimize our consulting of the Internet for political discussion, and THINK. What is happening in Europe, exactly? Why? Is cutting government programs drastically helping their economies recover? If not, will doing that here help ours recover? Do we need austerity (cutting government spending) or stimulus (increasing spending so that more people get jobs and pay taxes and buy houses and cars and so on)? Which is best? How do we make American democracy relevant now that the world view and values of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries are no longer relevant to the reality on the ground? As a society we have turned completely inward since the early 70's but, listen to the young people! They want something different and they are finding meaning in service.

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