Friday, May 29, 2009

Image Over Substance

Television has played a critical role in the past 50 or so years in determining the President of the United States. It has brought about an attitude in America that image is more important than the person behind the image and has led to a decrease in American values particularly in the political arena.

Have you ever watched a great movie and wondered ‘Would I have rooted for the characters as much if they weren’t attractive?’ In today’s age of TV and internet politics, it’s no surprise that a relatively young, attractive looking man defeated an older, more decrepit and less physically attractive one for the Presidency of the United States. On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was popularly and overwhelmingly elected President, confirming our relatively new American value of image over substance. This new value was ushered in with the advent of television in nearly every home in America. Television has become the most damaging symbol to American politics, creating a society of thinkless followers and image obsessed people.

It was not always this way though. From the founding of this fledgling nation, arose many men willing to stand up and fight with blood, sweat and ink for the ideals they held as integral to all men. In the beginning these virtues of justice, vigilance and intellect kept their values of liberty, tolerance and equality in tact. It was their intent to pass these values and virtues down to their posterity in the hopes that what they had started would flourish into a great and industrious nation. And when once in its young history these values were challenged by its own sons and daughters, another virtuous man from a new generation rose to once again affirm that our foundings would prevail. These men lived in a time when pictures didn’t exist, much less television and film. They lived in a time when they were judged not by how they looked, but by how they thought. They were judged not by the image they portrayed on any screen, but by the “content of their character.”

When one thinks of the greatest Presidents in American history, the names George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln most assuredly come to mind. But if asked who the most memorable Presidents were, the names John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are sure to make the list as well. For obvious reasons, the first three were very influential and important figures in the formation of the United States. George Washington, as General of the Army, led an all volunteer Army to defeat one of the world’s great military superpowers of the time and as President, set the precedent and manner for which all later Presidents would govern. Jefferson, with his great intellect, wrote the first documents that this country materialized from. As president, Abraham Lincoln defended the ideals this country was founded on by going to war with those who opposed them. They were the embodiment of the American spirit, the quintessential Americans. Their status in history is unchallenged, earned by their actions, unequaled but by very few. However, in contrast, the latter men are very different. They will be remembered not for their ideas – save for Kennedy’s Civil Rights legislation – and not because their virtues were any more pronounced, but because they were able to exploit and portray a certain image that was to the liking of the American people. John F. Kennedy was the young, charismatic and attractive man with a strikingly beautiful and conspicuously fashionable wife and two young children much like our current President. Ronald Reagan a former actor knew the stage very well and was able to speak as though he were giving a monologue in a movie. His transition from screen to office was smooth. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both built a reputation on being a people person, someone we could all relate to because they weren’t just another suit and tie. These men were able to successfully exploit and distort their image to propel them into the Oval Office and television was the medium they used to get there.

And image distortion extends past individual politicians to the parties themselves. Both Republicans and Democrats use the media to their advantage in portraying themselves in a positive light and their counterparts as evasive, divisive and unethical. For instance, recently Republican radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh was quoted as saying that he hoped for the failure of President Barack Obama. One of his biggest critics to this statement, James Carville, a Democratic strategist and pundit, made a similar statement minutes before the attacks of September 11, 2001 in which he also wished for the failure of then President George W. Bush. Carville’s statement was not released by mainstream news media, while Limbaugh’s statement became the ‘talk of the town.’

The 2008 election followed the same pattern of media distortion and personal characterization of the candidates. As Gabler explains, “Candidates were the putative stars, the primaries open casting calls, the campaign was an audition and the election itself the selection of the lead, while the handlers served as drama coaches, scriptwriters and directors.” (Gabler, 100) Gabler also explains that the issues themselves, although not entirely absent, only served as a means to get the lead part. The stage was set and the two candidates vied for the part: the young, progressive promise of hope and change and the older, but wiser military hero and “maverick”. In the end, the American public had clearly spoken. They wanted to see the younger, attractive, and promising man take the lead role, the Kennedy of our time.

This past election will go down in history, not as a victory for the virtues of our founding fathers, but rather a victory for the entertainment of America. It was the movie played out in real life. In a letter written by Samuel Adams to James Warren dated February 12, 1779, he wrote, “A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once the lose virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.” The invader in this case has become television. We have subdued our ancestral virtues to those of a new technological age, an age vying for intellect to only create ignorance, an age where image trumps substance and aesthetics hold a higher value than virtue. Imagine if television was around during Lincoln’s bid for Presidency. He certainly would not have been the image we would have been drawn to, a lanky and peculiar looking man who went against the mainstream thought. It’s a good thing we didn’t have TV back then, we might not have ever known that the virtues our founding fathers instilled in us in the defense of American principles are paramount to who we are as a nation and what we can accomplish.

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