Smears and Straight Talk
My daughter yells, “He hit me first!” My son cries, “I didn't do anything!” This behavior is as typical in my home during the summer months as it is in this country during a presidential campaign. Someone's bound to hit somebody, and everyone will deny it.
This season's political blockbuster brings us a mediated brawl fought with logos, banners, websites, email spam, online videos and doctored images. Experienced in image manipulation, emotional branding and sloganeering, graphic designers should be among those creative types fully equipped with media-savvy upgrades and the intellectual software package, Skepticism 2.0, to withstand the info-onslaught and achieve the nirvana of pacific equilibrium. Amused by the strivings of the righteous and desperate, we already know the campaign catchphrase will be something akin to, “It's the YouTube video, stupid.” We also know that no one will ever know for sure whether or not anyone else knows for sure about anything. Trust your feelings. Use the Force. No lapel pins.
Here's a summary of what we know so far about each of the candidates.
Barack Obama said something or stood too close to someone else who said something. He wore something or didn't wear something. He went somewhere or didn't go somewhere else. His wife also said something. She might also have gone somewhere.
John McCain said something and then said something different. He stood apart from someone and then stood next to someone. He is this old or else he is that old. He called his wife something. She might also have called him something.
Where the truth lies: (from left) Obama's Fight the Smears website and McCain's Straight Talk Express bus.
It's just like life at home. My daughter said something to my son or she said something to herself and he overheard it. Then my son said something or threw something. My daughter said something else. I heard someone hit something or someone. I toured the house in my Straight Talk Khaki Shorts. I put my daughter in her room and my son in his room. I launched the hallway speech entitled “Be Nice to Each Other and Don't Say Bad Words and Don't Hit.” It's an old speech.
I never try to clear up exactly what happened between my kids. My daughter likely used a sarcastic tone to describe my son's methods for not making his bed and not putting his clothes away. My son likely grunted to warn of an imminent violent response. My daughter pushed her luck by denying both her observation and the tone in which it was delivered. There was a violent response.
I wasn't there. I was downstairs or outside or in my office. The best I can do is solicit testimony from the participants, observe facial expressions and body language, examine circumstantial evidence (wrinkled sheets, shards of a porcelain bunny) and weigh the likelihood of competing scenarios against experience. Smears and straight talk are claims, not facts, and the claimants doth protest too much. I don't want to hear it.
Likewise, during a presidential campaign, I don't hear it, whether I want to hear it or not. I'm not there when what allegedly happened supposedly happened. I didn't see it either. What I see and hear, instead, are the snippets, claims, clips, logos, websites, photos, quotes, banners, balloons, posters, videos, emails, recordings, confetti, comedian's quip and broadcaster's broadside: in short, the selective products of mediated and quite possibly altered, and quite probably unverifiable, hullaballoo. A wall of sound bytes separates me from reality, and I don't trust the filtering mechanisms embedded in that wall. The latest unfiltered blog rumor is filtered in the mainstream press only to be reported as “the latest blog rumor.” And I can't just send Barack to his room and John to his and tell everyone to “Campaign Nice and Don't Make Up Lies and Don't Make Mistakes America Will Have to Pay For.” That's an old speech, too.
Instead, I'm stuck with a TV reporter describing a scuffle around a corner, a blogger ranting about an epithet garbled behind a wall and a radio-show host mischaracterizing what other radio-show hosts mischaracterized about what the original radio-show host allegedly said about the current sorry state of media meta-commentary. I don't want to hear it.
It's too little about too much. The print, broadcast and online media outlets are the only ways for citizens tucked into the holes of home and office to catch glimpses of snazzy news graphics, three-second video montages, Photoshopped images, off-camera accusations, scam emails, phony websites, celebrity endorsements, radio rants and blog blather. What a wealth of dazzling dazzle. Until November, I shall gird my voting loins by watching episodes of The Wire and Entourage while taking long, heart-healthy strides on my treadmill.
Red vs. Blue.
Despite Obama's smear-fighting and McCain's straight-talking, it's never really about separating straight from smear, fact from fiction, right from rumor. It's not about figuring out who's behind the latest equivalent of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who Photoshopped Obama's head on Osama's body, who created the funny online montage video of McCain versus McCain. Because we already know. The other team did it. In today's tech-empowered world in which anyone can have access to design software and the internet, the smears, slurs and accusations are simply volleys on a crowded playing field. The politics of the last eight years has been about picking a team and cheering for it, no matter what. Red team. Blue team. Us. Them. We're too swamped by work, too overwhelmed by layoffs and buyout offers, too busy learning to cope in a global marketplace to sift through the info-torrent for reliable evidence of political misbehavior. Who has time to triple-check the counter-claims? It's far more expedient to be political fans the way we're sports fans—mindless, rabid—and we have the logos and T-shirts to prove it.
You can't say I haven't learned something during the past eight years. I've learned to meet the pronouncements from press, podium and pulpit with a tired yet good-humored skepticism. I'd be a fool not to. I will spend the summer shaking my head at the antics of Team McCain and Team Obama. These teams, and the competing cultures they represent, are larger than presidential candidates, of course. But the candidates, like star athletes, are role models embodying our latest wishes.
They're having a great summer. Wish you could hear.