One of the advantages of being old is that you can clearly remember a different world when ideals like democracy, fairness, and justice were honored as national values and a source of American pride. In the 1950’s the whole concept of American ideals were not simply overused cliches or a vision of history that blinded us to this nation’s wrongs. Americans were primed to believe this was what we struggled to be. You see, this was the nature of the propaganda that mobilized an unprepared nation to fight the forces of fascism-- we were better, we were the good guys, we believed in justice and liberty for all.

As this image of an ideal America became real in the minds of Americans, it became impossible not to see the dissonance between the real America and that idea. Forces began to coalesce in order to bring  America into line with the ideals America claimed as its foundation. As every action spurs an equal and opposite reaction, people shaken by war, the possibility of nuclear holocaust, the birth of the cold war and the push for “Negro” Civil Rights began to long for the pre-war imaginary America, the one that did not look too closely at the conflict between our ideals and our reality. All this hullabaloo had to be the work of “outside agitators” even worse the Commies, not red-blooded Americans who lived in little white houses in little white towns  where every home contained a kindly black maid. This little white town was evidenced in almost all the films made during and shortly after the war. They depicted an America that never was but was desperately desired by many white Americans. Thus the forces for change and the forces of reaction quietly began to prepare for a war of values, a war between the new and the old, between imaginary and real.

On the Liberal Left, segregation was the issue. People talked about it, they argued about it. They demonstrated. No one noticed they were all standing on the quicksand of over four hundred years of racism. It seemed like a simple problem of fairness. The battle to end segregation shook many people’s idea of  America and began to reveal the ever-present anti-black, anti-immigrant, antisemitic America.

Many Americans were bred on the idea that segregation, America first, white supremacy reflected a comfortable and even righteous order. Both sides shouted, marched, attacked, hurt others, destroyed property, tried to overturn school buses, shot at people, murdered. It was far from pretty but we knew exactly what the fight was about and the Black people, who fought and died on the European and Pacific battlegrounds of WWII, decided they would win this battle whatever the cost.

I know I am oversimplifying but I want to make it clear that the left organized itself around issues.  Another early issue was the fight against nuclear testing and all around the world, people took to the streets. We knew what the issue was. We defended our position using science and logic. Then the young John F. Kennedy won us with his call for a new patriotism, a slowing of the arms race, and racial justice made us want to be part of the world he presented.

The call to make America live up to its own proclaimed standards grew and hit at many groups in society. As the call for justice grew, as the issues grew clearer, the battles became more vicious. But we always knew what we were fighting for or against. We formed organizations that would last until the specific issues were resolved and some even beyond. Of course, there was the ugliest of push backs but I am not examining the history of the time, only how we did politics then. Sometimes it included the government using violence, incarceration and the secret tactics of the FBI and CIA but we fought and we knew what each issue was. And in the center of this agitation was a war that threatened the lives of young American men, a war that many young men believed was not worth dying for.

The media of the time, radio and the new television looked at and for issues. The televised Presidential debates examined issues, of which most Americans were aware and the television journalists asked questions about those issues. There was also a Fairness Doctrine where the FCC demanded that media present programming that informed the public on issues. That’s right. To impartially look at issues. Breathtaking, no? And if one party got representation on the air ALL parties needed to be represented. It was called  equal time and that gift of equal air time included third parties .

The rapid changes in the nation created an emotional chaos that made many Americans confused and afraid. Then along came Lee Atwater who saw these fears as a way to manipulate the public not with issues but with emotion, Of course, this began before Atwater. Slander, lies, slogans, false news , scandal were always part of America politics but, in the end, it was the issues that tended to galvanize the voter. Television ushered in the idea that presentation was, perhaps, as important t or even more important than the issues.

Optics is what we call it today. How to make things look in order to create a climate, not  to foster an idea but an emotion, in an attempt to encourage voters to bypass their brains and vote the way you want them to vote,  because you have sounded a whistle. A dog whistle  that silently played into their fears.

 Many criticized  the ad used by Democrats against Republican Barry Goldwater, A little girl is picking the petals off a daisy in a beautiful field of daisies, then poof an atom bomb bursts. It certainly was dramatic and powerful but it still spoke to the issue. “Goldwater’s approach to foreign policy is dangerous and will lead to nuclear war.”

Atwater had a different and very creative idea. Don’t mention the issues, construct a political world where words deceive, where outrage replaces thought. He laid out the method and died quite young but the die was cast. Of course, it began with an idea. Prove Dukakis was weak (a repeated accusation against Democrats). An unfortunate optic with small Dukakis in a large tank was uncovered and passed around. But the most famous of these attacks was the “Willie Horton” television ad. It rolled racism in a ball to frighten vulnerable white people and to tell the South that the Republican Party stood with them. Governor Dukakis, as Governor of Massachusetts, had  administered a felon furlough program where a black man, Willie Horton, used his time to assault, rob and rape. Game on.

Over the years this method has been utilized in various ways but it was in the last election that this way of politics totally usurped the idea that the vote was about real issues that affected real lives. Not one issue was discussed. It was a total game of character assassination.  No one wanted to know what either candidate believed or how they would implement their plans. Trump barked out pleasant reactionary predictions. America would be great again. What did that mean? What, for example, did he plan to do about the environment and how it would be accomplished? Trump spoke only in generalities and was never examined beyond sound bites. I remember Clinton attempting to discuss issues while a lumbering orange presence lurched over her and made sure he claimed every frame. None of the “moderators” politely asked him to sit and/or address the issues.

And now it has only gotten worse. The media drives us from anecdote to speculation all designed to overwhelm us and distract. We speculate on the Mueller investigation, what might or might not happen, and, of course, Roseanne and her sit-com require long discussions of outrage, let’s feast on Kayne West’s joy in Trump, or why didn’t Trump congratulate the man who captured a murderer, and did Trump actually brush lint from Macron’s suit, and on and on.

So we talk about nothing that is fundamental to our lives or the lives of our family and friends, at least not for very long, while the Republican Congress and administration work on passing and implementing their platform. Have you read it? Do you know what issues they are attacking and what it might mean to you and your family? You can hate Trump all you want but it is the Republicans that he is working for. Where does the party stand on pollution? On safe food and drugs? On selling national land? On ending workers safety net? It’s all in the platform and if you can read past the glittering words and noble explanations, it is all there.

The disease of being ticked off is not the property of the “dumb” right. I know many on the left chasing one outrage after another. This is a recipe for defeat. Often when I mention this I get back an angry, “Well, I’m working on real things, besides writing opinions on FB”. However, when I ask what they are working on, I rarely get an answer and the truth of experience is it takes a mammoth effort to turn the ship of state. A famous saying growing out of the civil rights movement was “keep your eyes on the prize?”

Do you know what your prize is? What you want to work for? And you should know, the work is hard, often tiresome, always thankless until you win and that might take decades but focus on one issue at a time, one thrust forward. There is no time for outrage alone, every motion should bring you closer to your goal. Do you know what it is?  Or is our passion mainly  to hear our own voices?

Carol Polcovar

Carol Polcovar

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