By Donella Meadows
–October 13, 1988–
My European friends are watching our election with mystification. They see a young, powerful country with a massive deficit, a negative trade balance, a quarter of its children growing up in poverty, an eroding environment, an opportunity for a turnaround in nuclear arms — and its Presidential candidates are talking about the FLAG.
Is someone threatening your flag? my friends ask, puzzled. Is there a movement afoot to bring the nation to its knees by refusals to say the Pledge of Allegiance?
Poor folks, they haven’t been immersed all their lives in the advertising milieu of American television. They don’t realize that the New World uses a new form of communication, one in which words have meaning only as emotional triggers. In thirty seconds the masters of this language can waken slumbering fears or desires in millions of people. They don’t engage the cerebral cortex at all. Messages flow directly to the crocodilian sub-brain.
I’m not sure I can explain American CampaignSpeak through the inappropriate medium of words. But it’s worth trying, for those people in the world who need to get along with us, and those who still think rationally.
Let’s start with that FLAG. It stands for tribal loyalty. At one time the tribe was the nation. The flag and the Pledge of Allegiance were benign symbols of patriotism, shared by all. Now they are used to arouse fear, suspicion, and hostility, not so much against other nations as against anyone at home who does not flaunt them with sufficient zeal.
In the spirit of tribalism the politicians chant sanctimoniously, “America is number one.” This claim is not to be analyzed. We do not ask in what sense America is number one, or why it matters, or what the present politicians have done to make it so. We simply feel warm and secure. We are the blessed, the chosen few. We associate that nice feeling with the nice politician, the way Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate the ringing of a bell with lunch.
The ENVIRONMENT never used to work as a campaign symbol — it required too much thinking, and it carried a hint of threat to Our Way Of Life. Politicans mentioned the environment only in the same breath with God and the family, to elicit vague, favorable vibrations.
Lately, however, there has been a communications breakthrough. Now you point to some ecological mess and associate it in the public mind with your opponent. The association need have only the most tenuous validity. The mess should not be exotic stuff like toxic waste or acid rain, it should be human excrement. You point at it and say “ugh!”, then point at your opponent and say “he did it!” Everyone gets the message, viscerally.
We used to discuss TAXES with some maturity as a shared and necessary burden that permits us to accomplish common tasks. We talked about how to distribute the burden fairly, how to spend the money efficiently, and how to counter the corruption so often engendered by large common coffers.
Now “tax” has been reprogrammed to be a code word for Stealing from Your Pocket. It pushes strong emotional buttons — greed, self-defense, outrage at those who are more powerful than you. In rich people it raises the fear of unwashed hordes claiming their share of the pie. In not-so-rich people it plumbs a deep well of resentment about how hard it is to get ahead. Taxes Are Bad. My Opponent Will Tax You. That’s the beginning and end of the discussion.
“Good jobs at good wages” is a slogan most accurately translated, “here’s hoping the next business cycle upturn hits the nation the way the last one hit Massachusetts.” Emotionally, however, what it conveys is, “I’m on your side, folks, and the other guys are rich, insensitive pigs.”
“Thousand points of light” means literally “forget about any government help on this issue.” Symbolically, it conjures up an image of Tinkerbell magic that will solve problems without much effort on the part of anyone.
Words are misapplied adroitly in CampaignSpeak to hide truths. We use the word DEBATE to dignify a controlled piece of theater where the candidates fling rehearsed slogans at one another. When a candidate accidentally reveals the emptiness of his mind, the incident is dismissed with the word GAFFE. A “debate” is won by the man who commits the fewest “gaffes”.
The label FAR LEFT, which has recently become synonymous with LIBERAL, lets you heap upon your opponent all the hatred of Stalinism that has been built up in the public consciousness for forty years. It doesn’t matter if your opponent’s position is actually more moderate than yours is. You say “far left” to disguise your own position on the far right.
I could go on, but I presume my European friends get the idea. It was a European, George Orwell, who described this language forty years ago: “The special function of Newspeak … was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them. For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary … to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgement should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets… Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988