Digging Deeper: The Mirror of Expectations - Printable Version
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Digging Deeper: The Mirror of Expectations - walterrhett - 11-09-2011 08:00 AM
Last spring I got into trouble when I said Democrats have an image problem. A minor fervor rushed to let me know I had overlooked the obvious: Democrats stood for higher paychecks, protecting the air and water we breathe and drink, the dignity of all people, unconditional help if you are sick, and for each child, the joy of learning and a safe home. Democrats join freedom hands with people around the world.
But I didn't say platform issues, did I? I said “image problem.” Reflect further: are these objectives the real image of the party? Or did these lauded ideals get turned around somehow into an image rewrite that says Democrats have a collective desire for higher taxes, redistributed wealth, laziness, sloth, hand-outs, and socialism?
Isn't it time to talk about the disconnect between these two? After all, everybody agrees Republicans are mean. The debate over them isn't over image: it's over whether meanness has benefits. But Democratic image and policy is folded into a large national debate over the sage wisdom of Talcott Parsons and John Maynard Keynes.
The Democratic image disconnect is a Talcott Parsons problem (the Harvard sociologist was hard to understand, and even when you did, he didn't make any sense!). A huge disconnect lingers within grassroots politics, in the homes and hallway conversations where groups of two or three nod in knowing agreement with short-form slander and lies. The President is a Kenyan. We are on the brink of communism. We are mortgaging our children. China owns us. And this year's emerging big lie, the President is gay; a direct attack on his family. This one recently made CSPAN. (I first heard it in the last days of the 2008 election cycle and am surprised to hear it return.) Image is about a source code that 1) influences and affirms social action, and 2) makes action itself a part of the code of values.
Part of the Democratic image problem is a blind spot about how communities shape political narratives internally. Messaging and image are very different. Facts and stats no longer win the day! The image took down Russ Feingold for example, not the message. Image internally is a cultural code wired to the way we “get” things, the snap judgement part of us, a double helix of action and ideas. It's the mien of our national manners — all those ruthless commercials pitting children and parents, especially the one that has the mom and dad turning pet gold-fish into sushi — which I find so appalling.
This was Talcott's sphere, how the parts of our lives and the whole interrelated, how the process of how we adapt and the goals we set turns into a constellation of roles and ideas. (Parsons would probably call my idea of image a latent “pattern maintenance subsystem,” an “imperative” of maintaining stability.)
I agree with Talcott, it's the deep part of what we take for granted, what a friend of mine calls, “the quantum of being.”
Image is how we respond to a huge hidden existential fact — one I think Talcott got right: even as progress and prosperity expand, society is always in a state of conflict, passage and breakdown. Republicans have tied their image to the faith that they can arrest this passage. That's an attractive deal for a lot of people who live in fear. Barack on the stump attacked this folly in his best speech, by a litany of historical moments where we said as a nation, “Yes, we can.” We can, he asserts, enjoy the nectar, reap the harvest, and don't have to settle for sour grapes.
Image is, at its base, social action. Barack used it skillfully last cycle. Republicans hammered heavily, but the old images of black fear didn't stick.
But the old images of Democrats do. How did a chicken in every pot become associated with egregious freeloading? How did unemployment help turn into a free ride? How did corporate greed turn into a government mandate? How did private guilt become public blame? How do Democrats turn their message into a publicly embraced identity? It's time for the mirror of hard assessment. The mocking disdain I often see in comments isn't enough to win votes or support. It's too easily reframed as whining. The Republicans are yelling “failed” and promising to inflict even greater hurt on the nation if Barack wins a second term. That scares the grass roots and tamps down his support. But Democrats might find hope in the Occupy movement. It quickly resonated worldwide and inoculated itself against belittling labels.
What is instructive, the Occupy movement started at the other end: image forged its action; Occupy's process was and is more important than its goals. It is telling that the first pronounced attacks on Occupy literally tried to seize and define its image. Hippies, free sex and drugs appeared in sepia clips while the media embargoed the fact that the movement acted to bring attention to the gross unfairness of a financial system that produces nothing, gobbles up wealth, and perversely pretends to have amnesty on the twin frauds of being indispensable and untouchable. Occupy acted to put a public face on pain and had the courage to stand for change.
Everybody quickly got in and produced amazing waves of crowds around the world. Daily, Occupy images new ways to resist and connect. Defying definition and the old order, the Occupy action is establishing a community image that refuses to be defined by cubbyholes and boundaries or even demands. As the old order is screaming and foaming for the code, Occupy is re-writing the code as an open platform; how else would the app generation organize? Its spontaneity recognizes how action is the strength of image. I mean haven't you at least once these days felt the urge to burst out, “mike check”?
So Democrats need to get untracked. “Mike check!”
If a movement still forming its first action steps inspires the world, a seasoned party that produced the most historic election winner in a millenium can find a way to celebrate its unparalleled achievement. The new goal is celebration: Democrats need people dancing in the streets for Barack's effective use of “the power of the small.” Look around. His little steps did giant things. The country did not fall apart, even as times are tight, and a new spirit is the natural mystic. As the brilliant revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, (who once admonished, “claim no easy victories”), pointed out, “a people who free themselves from domination must never underestimate their positive contributions.” Cabral went on to say:
Listen to the Republican rhetoric: how they treat Barack is how they will treat us. Watch our example, for how we act is what we think of our history and ourselves.
While the image whisperers suggest candidates are running away from the President, in some ways the President is running away from the image of the Party. He's working hard to change what we see. The more we help him, the more we reconnect. Let's show the world what we truly stand for. In a WPA narrative of Charleston's (SC) jubilee, a woman born before the civil war was eerily prescient of Cabral. She tells the interviewer her life was “no flowerbed of ease.” But she didn't give up. Victory is always difficult. The opposition uses success against the winners. So tend the flowerbed of the “pattern maintenance subsystem” and remember how “stony the road we trod.” The more we help Barack and embrace our image through action, the more we help ourselves.
RE: Digging Deeper: The Mirror of Expectations - jaxx - 11-09-2011 09:40 AM
Very powerful Walter. Thank you for reminding us that our image can't be dictated by those who wish to run over us.
Quote:The more we help Barack and embrace our image through action, the more we help ourselves.
RE: Digging Deeper: The Mirror of Expectations - yowzayowzayowza - 11-09-2011 12:28 PM
Excellent!!! Wise words to keep in mind when Obama isn't as reactive as we'd like. Context, context, context.
Thanks for a thoughtful & thought-provoking piece. - JeffR - 11-09-2011 01:28 PM
Quote:While the image whisperers suggest candidates are running away from the President, in some ways the President is running away from the image of the Party.
That's very insightful. The maelstrom of pseudo-insights from the punditocracy and the carping from some sectors of the blogosphere consistently miss those things about this presidency and this President that really do represent change. I only hope the party can begin to catch up to the President.
RE: Digging Deeper: The Mirror of Expectations - walterrhett - 11-09-2011 01:54 PM
Two favorite quotes:
Quote:Occupy is re-writing the code as an open platform; how else would the app generation organize?
Quote:Democrats need people dancing in the streets for Barack's effective use of “the power of the small.” Look around. His little steps did giant things. The country did not fall apart, even as times are tight, and a new spirit is the natural mystic.
Cabral's quotes are from Return to the Source. Great thanks for the notes in the early reviews. And please (act), send it to your networks and friends!
RE: Digging Deeper: The Mirror of Expectations - walterrhett - 11-09-2011 05:12 PM
Incidentally, "The Power of the Small" is trigram #9, from the I Ching, the Chinese book of wisdom that covers and directs actions in situations beyond "fight or flee." You'll be surprised at how closely Barack's actions align with the insights and actions recommended to be "without blame" by the I Ching. Including his willingness to wait (which drives a Gary Cooper nation crazy; why's it's High Noon!) until the time is matured.
Cabral was the most brilliant revolutionary ever (incl. Lenin, Che, et. al.), so much so the Portuguese actually apologized for his assassination!
RE: Digging Deeper: The Mirror of Expectations - walterrhett - 11-10-2011 12:37 PM
A comment, sent to me by a friend, who, because of technical issues, couldn't post:
Great column...unfortunately, I'm unable to comment.
Quote:But Democrats might find hope in the Occupy movement. It quickly resonated worldwide and inoculated itself against belittling labels."
And skillful teachers like Paul Krugman, Bernie Sanders, and to some extent, Elizabeth Warren, also have/create for themselves this gift of disarmament--embracing the most corrosive epithets that conservatives hurl, and then making them intriguing, and, eventually, possibly, one day, "popular"-- "liberal" "socialist Democrat"-- hurling them as epithets, as you note, appeals only to those who live in fear --and, to those who do not, but who consciously profit from the intended distortions and attempts to "arrest this passage" of society.
Quote:"The mocking disdain I often see in comments isn’t enough to win votes or support. It’s too easily reframed as whining."Very true!
Which is why, again, someone like Krugman, while accused by conservatives and trolls as being shamelessly political, is an artistic economist, because his sing-songy conversational explanations are approachable and light-spirited and thus never skate towards "whiny" territory. Accusations against him sound ponderous, whereas Krugman never does--yet if there was anyone you might forgive for sounding ponderous, it would be an economist--
For Krugman to provide on his blog page the links to the 18 or so pieces that distill "where he is coming from" is sublime, because anyone, from citizen to politician can get a basic education and basic grasp on how and why some mythologies are so prevalent, and how they exacerbate the problems they are claiming to solve. Beauty that you don't need to go to Princeton or acquire umpteen K of debt to learn them--obviously the online discussion is not as dynamic or rich as a real classroom--- but what if more and more non-economic types, soccer moms, mailpeople, cabdrivers, etc, took it upon themselves to educate themselves? These phony austerity schemes would be shot down, and we wouldn't need an FDR riding to the rescue to accomplish it... enter Occupy Everywhere....fundamentally it is a turf war between finance and democracy, between publicly and privately owned access-- if banking is an infrastructure of society (equivalent to roads, schools, hospitals, defense), why should it claim to be a private domain, when it relies on and capitalizes on the goodwill of laws and governments all around the world? Is it not the governments that create the laws for the orderly transfer of business, and the government's courts who will be settling disputes? The government and banking are mutually dependent upon each other and entwined like double helix DNA.
The European situation is extraordinary, if indeed the politicians sell away public spaces, water rights, infrastructure, and impose further austerity in order to pay off their debts---if the whole world is privately owned, where can Democracy exist, other than in a delusional sphere?
Which comes back to image problems as the turf war is fought...
Quote:"Image internally is a cultural code wired to the way we “get” things, the snap judgement part of us, a double helix of action and ideas. It’s the mien of our national manners —"
Thanks for introducing me to Cabral, and Talcott, and for an overall lovely, insightful, thought-provoking essay. I hope this forum gets wide readership!
RE: Digging Deeper: The Mirror of Expectations - jaxx - 11-10-2011 02:02 PM
Quote:enter Occupy Everywhere....fundamentally it is a turf war between finance and democracy, between publicly and privately owned access
I like that analogy. It spells out the difference quite well.
RE: Digging Deeper: The Mirror of Expectations - There Is No Spoon - 11-12-2011 10:54 AM
This is an outstanding article and I think it speaks to the exact problem that the Democrats have had in shaping the political climate in this country. I'm glad that Obama is helping to lead the way in this newfangled image game started by the virulent haters on the right who would do anything, no holds barred, to manipulate the population and control our every movement using economic blackmail.