I have some nagging fears about a lot of things Normally I don’t worry about much, I tend to think of today as the tomorrow I worried about yesterday, but lately I see some things happening that make me glad I am 76 instead of 26. Even so, I expect to have enough time left to worry about what looks like a trend.
This trend goes way beyond politics. It is a direction I see everywhere, from the entertainment I see on television to the movies that sooner or later will be on the “big screen,” to ads that appear in magazines and to comments I hear from people I thought would know better.
For lack of a better phrase, for now I’ll just call it “the selling of America.”
Back in another life when I taught public speaking to juniors in high school, I emphasized the phrase that oratory involves “a good man speaking well.” I learned that in a college class taught by Dr. Phil Jack of Punxsutawney. It was a world culture class, and he knew quite a few people in class were speech majors, and he reminded us often of that quote by Quintilian.
It was not enough, Dr. Jack said, to merely be a skilled orator. Anyone who uses his or her skill as an orator must first accept the responsibility for his power of persuasion, and the orator must first be a person of integrity and may only use that skill in ways that improve society.
History is replete with people who were skilled orators who used that skill not to make society better but rather to gain personal power and subject society to evil. The biggest example is Hitler. He was a powerful orator, and he knew what his audiences wanted to hear. Spewing hate and bigotry, he gained power by his words, and even those who may have opposed him at the beginning soon found the power he had amassed was impossible to oppose.
Right here in America we have had our own brand of misguided orators. Probably chief among them was Joe McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin. He figured out what people wanted to hear and played on people’s fear to gain power. A lot of people knew he was lying when he attacked men like Gen. George Marshall and the State Department as a whole. He would hold a briefcase (empty) and claim he had the names of 100, 200 300, (take your pick) people in that Department who were “card-carrying Communists.” Since it is logically impossible to prove a negative, some to the charges stuck. Careers and names were ruined, but McCarthy only cared about the power he was amassing.
It ended only when he made the mistake of going after the U.S. Army, and part of the end of the crusade can be attributed to media which finally showed him as the lying bully he was. His career finally ended in disgrace. Even after being censured by the Senate, however, a poll showed about 30% of Americans still believed him.
And remember the famous line, “I am not a crook” after facts, tapes, and testimony proved just the opposite?
That gets me to the point I had in mind at the beginning: the power of marketing in America today. Sad as it may be, I believe that anyone, given enough money, can sell Americans on just about anything, and I offer the following as examples.
A little known ex-mayor of New York almost became the front-runner in the Democratic primary due almost solely to his marketing campaign. He had the money to hire the best ad people and they almost bought him the nomination. Had he not been such a terrible candidate and debater he could have won.
Both television and social media have only a passing acquaintance with the truth, and that commodity, truth, has become virtually nonexistent in today’s America.
There are facts, and as one spokesperson said, there are “alternative facts.” Media of all sorts depend on “alternative facts” when the real facts don’t support their ends. And just as P.T. Barnum said that if you repeat something often enough and loud enough, people will believe it. He went on to say things like, “No man ever went broke overestimating the ignorance of the American public,” and “You can fool most of the people most of the time.”
There is no better proof of that these days than in the popularity and proliferation of the gambling industry. Since it was legalized in our Commonwealth three years ago and most recently this year, it has become so popular that not an afternoon or night goes by when there are not multiple ads suggesting that betting is easier and more fun than ever before. Judging by the slick ads, this “business” has become hugely popular and profitable.
Putting aside any moral objections to this folly, people do not seem to realize that the reason this new industry is so profitable is that people lose money. More people lose than win. Let me repeat that–more people lose than win. The odds that anyone will lose more than he or she wins are simple facts. If it were not the truth the businesses would lose money. The fact that they are profitable proves that that the players themselves are the ones who lose.
And so we lurch forward, much as the citizens of ancient Rome lurched forward watching their free circuses. Way too many people are willing to ignore actual facts and believe the alternative truth they are fed, until actual facts come back and slap them in the face.
In spite of all, I am an optimist. Eventually most people saw through McCarthy’s lies, and Barnum’s boasts and Nixon’s fantasy. I have faith that before we go off a cliff, people will realize that men like Eisenhower and Marshall and McCain were right. Moderation will no longer be a sin, compromise does get things done and democracy, even if it is cumbersome and slow, will move us forward.