The Magic 8-Ball:
Dumbing Down of Political Discourse in America
By Morgan Southwood
It has occurred to me, while watching President Bush give a statement to the press on television the other day, that the man is a sort of human Magic 8-Ball. You're probably familiar with these Magic 8-Balls. Sold at toy and novelty shops, you proffer the 8-Ball a question ("Does so-and-so have a crush on me?" for instance), then shake the Ball and flip it over, where one of half-a-dozen answers appears on the bottom. You can't guess with absolute certainty what answer the 8-Ball is going to give you, but you know damn well that it's going to be one of those half-a-dozen possibilities.
Well, President Bush is just like our good friend the Magic 8-Ball. Put the man before a camera and ask him a question of any sociopolitical relevance whatsoever, and you can bet your sweet ass that you're going to get one of perhaps fewer than a dozen possible answers. A few that spring immediately to mind are "Tax relief," "Enemies of Freedom and Democracy," "The Terrorists Will Not Win," "Economic Recovery," and my personal favorites (though they seem to have been retired), "Evildoers" and "Axis of Evil." Those last two, apparently plucked from a Superman or Flash Gordon comic book, lent an air of jovial surrealism to the stressful period immediately following 9/11. With vocabulary like that, one could almost expect the President to don a spandex superhero outfit and a cape and fly up to Spacestation Dark Star to do battle with Osama Bin Laden with light sabers. Perhaps if Bush is re-elected and his administration can go absolutely bugshit with complete impunity, Dick Cheney will give a press conference and rip off his face and reveal that he is actually Ming the Merciless.
Cynical frivolity aside, the fact that such asinine and meaningless catchphrases have apparently worked their way deeply into the political consciousnesses of the American public is both baffling and troubling. Immediately following 9/11 and through the attacks on Afghanistan and the initial invasion of Iraq, nationalist jingoism was at a fever pitch. Here in my home town of Reno, Nevada, there were so many flags on front lawns, storefront windows, and automobiles (I especially enjoyed the mounted flags some people put on the hoods of their cars, so that they looked like they were off to join a presidential motorcade) that I was reminded of photos I'd seen of a Nazi Nuremberg rally. Bumper stickers were ubiquitous-Freedom Isn't Free, United We Stand, God Bless America, These Colors Don't Run or Fade (referring to the American flag), and the blackly hilarious First Iraq, then Chirac! FOX News put that waving American flag up in the lefthand corner of the TV screen and country-western radio stations banned the Dixie Chicks and those reactionary jellyfish in Congress passed the PATRIOT Act without even reading it, an action so obscenely irresponsible that I lost what little faith I had in that particular institution. America went nuts. I felt like I'd woken up in a bad episode of the Twilight Zone.
The question raised is, why in hell does popular sociopolitical thought in this country so often boil down to unhelpful, shallow tripe involving vocabulary like Freedom, Liberty, Hating and Loving America, Patriotism, Evildoers and Evil, et al? "Freedom" is such a debatable philosophical concept that it means practically nothing when used in common speech. Likewise, what is an 'evildoer,' and more importantly, why does the president of the United States think that it is acceptable to use a word so laden with religious connotation (evil) when describing and deciding foreign policy? It is every bit as banal and infantile as the terminology used by fundamentalist clerics across the Arab world who speculate and pontificate about which people are 'godless' and then use that word to describe entire nations.
I'm left to struggle with a question as unanswerable as the classic conundrum, Which came first-the chicken or the egg? Did millions of Americans turn into platitude-mouthing jingos because they're the byproducts of Marxian-superstructure socializations, indoctrinated from the time they were born to embrace, support, and maintain our Capitalist economic system and the government that goes along with it? Or does the media and our politicians give us, the American public, precisely what we want? Does MTV, cable news shows, and a president that uses bizarre and obfuscating phrases like "weapons of mass destruction program related activity" condition the average citizen to be ignorant and complacent-or, more disturbingly, are these things the products of our society's desires? Is this what the majority wants? Are we getting it because we ask for it? They say that the problem with democracy is that you get exactly the type of government you deserve. Given that most Americans don't vote and that nearly everyone in the Senate is white, male, and a millionaire, I believe America's claim to being a Democratic Republic is a little dubious. The axiom still holds truth, though.
So where does this cosmic buck stop, exactly?