For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in history and attuned to the goings on of government representatives. Everything human fascinates me: religion, politics, society, culture, philosophy.
Still vivid in my mind is the memory of my father attempting to take a photograph of an image on our black-and-white television when I was three years old. It was the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. I also remember as a twelve-year-old kid that I was glued to the television in 1972 when Richard M. Nixon accepted the nomination of the Republican party for his second term in office (an election which he won with a landslide). Not long afterward, Nixon would leave office disgraced. Since that time our highest officials have gotten better at hiding their hijinks and deflecting inquiries into their shady political dealings.
For too many politicians on both sides of the aisle, reality is what they tell us it is. We’re manipulated for their gain. My own congressman is a suitable example. As a candidate in the Republican primary that would eventually lead to his election to the 4th Congressional District in 2010, Steven Palazzo blatantly lied about his opponent, Joe Tegerdine. When confronted on camera about the matter, he made it clear that it was just “politics as usual.”
In describing these dangerous antics, I used the word “hijinks,” but that word isn’t accurate. “Hijinks” imples some sort of light-hearted, perhaps troublesome fun. There is nothing fun about what’s being done to the American people these days except perhaps for the well-paid, powerful elites who realize just how successful their games have been and continue to be. It’s great work if you can get it.
And while American officials have always been good at projecting power, during the current presidential administration, a new emphasis has been added that chilled me to my core from even before Barack Obama took office. In June of 2008, Obama spoke to Democratic governors. Pasted to his podium was a reproduction of the presidential seal remade for Obama. His campaign used the image only once, but one has to wonderful if that was the plan from the beginning or if they took too much heat for the candidate’s sense of elitism.
The trend returned when candidate Obama became President-Elect Obama. From his first post-election news conference his staff festooned the podium with an official-looking sign proclaiming Obama’s new anointing as the nation’s next president. According to one blogger who quotes the United States Code, the act may have been illegal. Does anyone else remember the days when the most powerful man in the world sat at a simple desk to speak to the American people? Back then, the nation’s “first citizen” didn’t seem to need the trappings of power to legitimize his voice. He didn’t need larger and more impressive governmental symbols to remind us of his power.
It’s one thing to have a backdrop clarifying who the speaker is, or what office they represent. It’s another thing altogether to put the emphasis on the person. Such a move is a subtle shift that says not who the person is so much as it emphasizes the power the person wields. Look at the picture of Obama’s campaign “seal.” Compare the size of the semi-official presidential image on front of the podium to the man standing behind it. To my mind this image doesn’t speak of someone who wishes to help or to serve, but of an excessive ego bent on control.
These efforts have continued in numerous ways. Early in the Obama campaign, artwork featuring the candidate was unveiled that closely followed a style that previously had been seen mostly in one-party regimes throughout the world, often associated with communism. Children sang the candidate’s name–and later, as president, he was sung and chanted about again and with even more enthusiasm. Symbols of the American nation were appropriated and changed in ways suggesting that to be American meant to be an Obama supporter. Or was it meant to tell us that Obama is America? It’s hard to tell.
It’s easy to dismiss my concerns by pointing out the fact that candidates for office have long used the nation’s flag and its cultural and historic values for their own success. I understand that candidates must make some identification between themselves and the nation’s values in order to gain the confidence of a voting constituency. But just how far is too far? At what point do candidates begin to look excessively authoritarian? How far will this trend go? What does their use of authoritarian symbols tell us about how they will actually use their power and extend their control?
All of my adult life I remember the press conferences and announcements made by the Federal Reserve Chairman. Whomever it was at the time, he was always dressed in a suit, looking like a typical business person, speaking in an environment that looked like a typical banker’s office or speaking before Congress. Take a look at the picture that marks the beginning of this blog post. Ben Bernanke is nothing more than chairman of the federal government’s central bank. He’s an unelected official, so why these days is he featured in such a way that he looks like a two-bit South American dictator? Is this his way of reminding us that he has nearly unlimited amounts of power when it comes to monetary policy? What’s next for our federal officials? Will they begin to wear ornate sashes and medallions? Will they adopt military-style uniforms?
Call me an alarmist if you wish. Write me off. Forget this blog. Ignore me. But before you do so, ask yourself if we’ve turned a corner in the development of our national ideas about the power and prestige of those who serve in government (elected and unelected). Is it possible we’ve adopted a trend that needs to be changed? Are our problems so vast that we seek lords instead of leaders? Are we a new generation of serfs, allowed by our government to keep a bit of what we earn but robbed of the rest so the elected among us can buy votes? Must we continue to be the victims of corporatist and political elites who move back and forth between the halls of power and the offices of large corporations?
Philosophically speaking, what does the use of these symbols mean? What is the message being sent to us by our leaders? Are these people truly wise? Are they competent? Or is it just a fact that because they have power–and the symbols of power–they project an image of competence whether they’re truly competent or not?
As they like to say at the jam company, “with a name like Smuckers it has to be good.” Perhaps something similar is going on here: “With all these flags and symbols of authority, we must be doing what’s right.” To believe that, we voters have to ignore the economy, along with a growing tide of voices suggesting that more economic suffering lies ahead due to irresponsble fiscal policies. We’ll also have to ignore the violence surging all around our embassies and consulates. And, of course, we’ll have to ignore one dead American ambassador.
Of course, if enough of us are being bought off with promises of more governmental assistance we just might be willing to ignore everything else. Oops. Now I’ve written something unreasonable. As the “mainstream” media has recently pointed out with its coverage of the Romney campaign, speaking unpopular truths only brings derision.