November 28, 2012
Conservatives Must Learn the Dark Arts of Image ManipulationBy J.R. Dunn
Okay, we've had the End of the Republic, the degenerate electorate thesis, and the ritual beating of Mitt Romney. I hope everybody has had their catharsis, because it's time to get serious.
It's typical in an election lost by the right for every last factor is poked at, examined, and raked over the coals except for the single most important element, always and forever overlooked: conservatism itself.
I contend that much of the problem with current right-of-center electoral efforts involves conservatism as currently practiced. This has nothing to do with conservative principles, or any public preference for moderation in politics. It has to do with how conservatism is expressed, and can be summed up as conservatism's failure to sell itself.
Romney ran a fine campaign. No one in the current GOP lineup -- certainly not those who opposed him in the primaries -- could have done better. He deserved to win. That he did not win is something that historians in years to come will be scratching their heads over, particularly in light of the inevitable disasters that will follow the reelection of the Chicago Moses.
Romney was also unable, as anyone else would have been unable, to overcome the drag created by conservatism's failure to examine and correct its longstanding flaws. Even as tunnel-visioned a group as the left has been able to figure out these shortcomings in detail and utilize them in its electoral strategy. We have seen the results in the last two presidential elections. It can only get worse if conservative unwillingness to confront its failings continues. Electoral possibilities will close further until we once again achieve the status of the Republicans at the height of the New Deal -- a vestige of a once powerful political force, active only as a distant chorus to the main action.
One of the major failings of millennial conservatism -- possibly its major failing -- involves image. There's certainly nothing new about this. Conservatism has always had problems dealing with questions of image, ranging from the days when they had no idea there was such a thing, to the days when image was viewed as a novelty and thus suspect (in much the same way as shirts with attached collars and cars that started without the help of a crank), to today, when... well, to today, because things have not changed in any substantive respect.
Several common stereotypes of conservatism exist and are utilized to define and destroy conservative candidates and movements. These include the twittering, ambiguous urban right-wing intellectual, (Steven Colbert has made quite a tidy fortune caricaturing this group), the backwoods wild man wearing camo and a white hood, a Kalashnikov in one hand and a Bible in the other, the greedy, cold-blooded businessman, and a variant on the backwoods theme distinct enough to form its own category, the crazed evangelical (the left uses the term "fundamentalist", not knowing the difference between evangelicals, Pentecostals, or, for that matter any other type of Christian.)
What all these have in common is that they are clown images -- laughable, easily caricatured, and, like all clowns, sinister and menacing at base. They are neither rigid nor fixed, and possess enough variety so that virtually any GOP or conservative spokesman or candidate can be slotted into a particular stereotype, and often more than one. None have any positive aspect. All are intended to degrade, dehumanize, and remove the individual in question from serious consideration. Leftists and their captive media utilize these stereotypes to construct a narrative in which the GOP -- and conservatism beyond it -- produces such types as a matter of course, decade after decade and generation after generation, and that little else can be expected of either.
Image manipulation has been a useful tool for the left ever since liberalism turned transcendental as long ago as the New Deal. FDR put a lot of effort into attacking business interests as "malefactors of great wealth," slimy manipulators exploiting a helpless public, secure behind their green dollar-sign vests while the Depression raged outside their well-carpeted offices. In fact, businessmen and bankers of the early 30s were as overwhelmed and terrified as any everyday wage earner. The suicides of ruined financiers and company owners are far from mere legend. (One of the iconic photos of the Depression depicted a former stockbroker, middle-aged, well-dressed, and with a slight shameful smile on his face, selling apples on a New York street corner. He had gotten tired of fleecing the public, I guess.)
Since that time left-wing image manipulation has continued unabated through the Cold War (when conservatives were pilloried as McCarthyists), the Civil Rights Era (racists, naturally enough), the Reagan era, (the "decade of greed"), and the Bush era, which introduced "neocons", a distortion of a very real faction which no leftist could have accurately defined if hung out a window by his heels.
Under this onslaught, conservatives simply sat there stupefied, like pinstriped versions of those clown dolls that pop back up when hit. The left worked every possible theme from every possible angle through every possible medium, from the printed press through entertainment, though academia and finally though the Net and social media. These efforts have been highly effective, and are one of the primary explanations as to why left-wing progressivism remains a serious force in a society so inhospitable to it.
(Note that the typical left-wing image -- various shades of congenital rebel -- carries little of the ignominy attached to those pinned on the right, and in fact, has considerable innate appeal to the inexperienced, uneducated, and plain foolish.)
These images have become received wisdom among the public at large, beyond debate or necessity of proof. They are fully integrated into public consciousness and have virtually become matters of instinct -- people hear "conservative", "Republican", or "neocon" and immediately picture one stereotype or the other. They govern all discussions of conservatism in this country -- anyone who doubts this has never spoken to a liberal.
You can look long and hard to find any sign of effort by the conservative movement to combat or correct these stereotypes, from the day of their first appearance to the moment that you logged onto this site, and you will find nothing.
The typical leftist method is to create and maintain the stereotype and then slot individuals into the one that they share superficial characteristics with. The individual is then saddled with all kinds of baggage usually having no relevance or connection to his actual status or character. He has to battle his way through all of it simply to reach the starting line. Ten years after Senator Joe McCarthy nearly wrecked the anti-communist movement though a display of pure opportunism (I have long thought that somewhere in the KGB archives, there exists a large file on the successful penetration agent, Iosif Makartov), presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was hit from all sides with the label of anti-communist extremist. Goldwater was plainspoken and made a number of remarks that, taken out of context, seemed to validate the charge. (It's seldom pointed out that most of these comments -- on Soviet aggression, the Vietnam war, the welfare state, social decadence, and crime, were borne out in detail by the end of the decade.) Goldwater was beaten by Lyndon B. Johnson in one of the most lopsided landslides in American political history. Within two years Landslide Lyndon couldn't have won a vote to be run over by a bus.
A little over twenty years later in 1986, Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Bork was -- and remains -- one of the most perspicacious legal minds in the country. His record was impeccable, his credentials beyond criticism. So the left, in a campaign that came out of nowhere, simply made their case up. Bork was characterized as what might be called the legal variant of the Northeastern conservative template: a cold , cruel intellect enslaved by dusty legal tomes, quite satisfied to let people suffer so long as all the i's were dotted. Aided by a substantial wave of media hysteria, it worked quite well. In a shameful display of senatorial pusillanimity, Bork went down to defeat. No figure of similar stature has been nominated to the Court in the years since.
With almost clockwork timing, 22 years later Governor Sarah Palin, a reform politician of high reputation, was selected as GOP vice-presidential candidate. This presented some problems to the left, Palin being a woman, a reformer, a maverick politician, and having an attractive family including a recently born child afflicted with Down syndrome. It didn't stop them. Using every possible means, and attacking every conceivable target -- including her family (and not forgetting her disabled son), the left poisoned Palin's image to extent not seen since the Goldwater era.
Palin's life in Alaska, which remains a frontier state, enabled the left to utilize the dangerous backwoods hick motif. The governor's status as a convinced evangelical Christian gave them further ammunition (e.g., an incident in which Palin had welcomed an African pastor by taking part in ritual utilized to protect African believers against witchcraft. What would have been commendable multiculturalism from a leftist was transformed into lurid primitivism by a willing media.)
This campaign reached its climax long after the election ended when a known lunatic, Jared Laughner, shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several other victims (all of them forgotten today, including a federal judge). Attempts were made to depict Laughner as a right-wing maniac in the classic mold, though it turned out that his sole interest in politics had to do with proper use of grammar, a subject on which he had previously engaged in a public shouting match with Rep. Giffords.
Gov. Palin was dragged into this mess on the grounds that her call to "target" Giffords for electoral defeat had somehow led to the shooting. (It should be recalled that only a short time previously numerous artists and entertainers had been calling for the assassination of George W. Bush with no public outcry whatsoever.)
Palin's case marked the nadir of character assassination by the left and in a saner epoch will be looked back on as a milestone in the deterioration of American progressive politics.
With Mitt Romney, the choice of stereotype was obvious: that of the rapacious cold-blooded businessman derived from Gordon Gekko, J.R. Ewing, and the little man on the Monopoly cards. Romney, a man who tithed, who had once shut down his multimillion-dollar firm to free his entire staff to search for the missing daughter of a company employee, a man who had spent a year overseas as a missionary, was the farthest thing in the world from any such figure. But the caricature, in the absence of any conservative pushback whatsoever, was extremely effective. Most of Romney's vote deficit involved middle-income voters in the $30,000 to $50,000 range, apparently fully convinced by the portrayal of Romney as a corporate looter. (The sad irony here is that it is precisely these voters who have suffered most -- and will suffer further -- under the Obama regime. There are few other cases where the American public has so clearly voted against its own interests.) So effective was it that the left's fallback, Romney as religious crazy -- Mormonism having its doctrinal oddities -- remained unused.
In all these cases the victims went on to disprove the left's contentions in detail. Barry Goldwater served in the Senate for nearly another thirty years, being praised on his retirement by the very media outlets that had attacked him so brutally in 1964. Robert Bork stands as one of the most incisive and penetrating (if often too gloomy) of contemporary social critics. Governor Palin effectively rallies the conservative rank and file and shakes up the left with an occasional tweet or two while (wisely, I think) biding her time. No doubt exists that Mitt Romney will find a means of serving his country as he has done so ably in the past.
A detailed analysis of leftist tactics and techniques in this regard can wait. What is important is the conservative response. Disheartening as it may seem, this has been almost exclusively negative, when it has occurred at all.
The typical conservative reaction to leftwing image manipulation consist of simple paralysis, a deer-in-the-headlights response composed of equal parts fear, confusion, and ineptness. One recent example involves Virginia politician George Allen. Running for the Senate in 2006, Allen drew attention to a Democratic stalker named S.R. Sidarth, at a rally, calling him "macaca", a word of West African origin, evidently derived from the macaque monkey and meaning a silly or trivial person (certainly apropos in this case, since Sidarth wore his hair in a Mohawk and dressed with similar flamboyance). Although the term has no discernible racial content, the Washington Post , followed by the media sphere as a whole, accused Allen of racism -- Sidarth was Hindu and thus, although as Caucasian as Willy McGilly, an honorary "person of color."
Rather than challenge his attackers, respond with "so what?" or produce a Photoshopped picture of a macaque with a Mohawk (as I would have done), Allen panicked and froze like a spotlighted rat. He compounded the offense several weeks later when a reporter confronted him with evidence that he had Jewish ancestry. Rather than give a hearty "Mazel tov!" Allen turned and ran off without a word. Although the onetime favorite in the race, he was soundly beaten, as he deserved to be. (Despite this clear record of spinelessness, the Virginia GOP could apparently find nobody better and ran him once again in 2012. He was again whipped, and his political career should be considered over.)
Such examples could be extended almost infinitely. Neither the GOP nor the conservative establishment lifted a finger to defend Robert Bork in 1986. The Heritage Foundation, long known for its concern with judicial matters, spent the summer promoting a trivial book extolling its "third generation" of activists, none of whom had any further impact. When an even more repellent campaign was executed against Clarence Thomas, he wisely (and against much conservative "advice") acted on his own, swiftly turning the tables against his tormentors.
During the Bush administration, attacks against the president amounting to calls for his assassination (on the grounds that he was a "fascist dictator") were allowed to pass unchallenged. Rhetoric of this type would have horrified the country under previous administrations. Because conservatives chose to hide under rocks, threats of violence have become a standard means of harassment for figures ranging from Lawrence O'Donnell to the SEIU.
The conservative reaction can only be viewed as an expression of cowardice. So the public views it, and they are quite correct. A politician or party that will not stand up for its own reputation is unlikely to stand up for anything at all -- principle, tradition, or the interests of the voters.
But this is far from the lowest class of response. That belongs to the conservative turncoats, a large group among the upper conservative punditry, who are not only easily led into stereotyping their own but can often be found taking the lead. These include Kathleen Parker, David Brooks, David Frum, Peggy Noonan, and Andrew Sullivan. This group reacted with vigor to the appearance of Sarah Palin, not only jumping on the bandwagon of what, at base, was a public assault on a mother and her family, but taking the reins and clearing traffic for it. One of them, Andrew Sullivan, a gay man with the squeamishness concerning childbirth and child rearing often displayed by gay men, topped them all with a grotesque conspiracy theory in which the governor's son Trig had actually been borne by her daughter Bristol, thus adding a gamey whiff of backwoods sexuality to the saga.
In 2012, Peggy Noonan, whose stint as a junior speechwriter for Ronald Reagan gave her a vastly inflated reputation for political wisdom, joined in attacks on Mitt Romney after the exposure of his 47% speech. Noonan's comments were, as always, shallow and forgettable. But what mattered was her presence -- the simple fact that a noted "conservative" was chiming in served to validate leftist accusations, in this case of the "heartless businessman" variety. It has become commonplace for the left to haul one of these media right-wingers out when they want to tear down an opposition politician. They never seem to have a problem finding one.
And yet, at the same time, these people are still esteemed by conservatives, still honored, their advice and presence still sought after. This is clear evidence of a serious strain of decadence within the conservative movement.
Which could also be said of the third major class of response, that of embracing the stereotype, of taking it on as a kind of costume, and even pushing it farther than the left themselves. I knew a noted spokesman for one of the major conservative media organizations who used to appear at public lectures with two heavy-set young men standing at either side of the lectern wearing camo fatigues and sunglasses, thus turning himself from conservative spokesman into Benito Mussolini. This same kind of behavior can be found at all levels of the movement from comment threads all the way to the top. Rush indulges in it all too often. Ann Coulter has made a career of it. While definitely a crowd-pleaser, it is, in the end, self-defeating. These stereotypes were constructed by the left for a reason -- to manipulate the public at large, ignorant of political subtleties and unfamiliar with doctrine, into certain visceral reactions to conservatives and their ideas. They were created to destroy conservatives. Why play along with them?
It's not at all clear why no effort has been put into combating leftist image manipulation and stereotyping. I suspect it has to do with the faux elitist roots of old guard -- the aping of an imaginary WASP ruling class that one still finds among Northeastern conservatives. Answering, or even giving attention to such insults is considered to be in bad taste and evidence of poor breeding, something beneath the notice of true gentlefolk. We simply don't do that kind of thing, you see.
Well, we'd better resign ourselves to getting our seersucker rumpled and start doing that kind of thing. Inaction may have been excusable fifty years ago, when the major papers, the two newswires, and all three networks were owned and operated by convinced liberals. In the age of the internet and social media, it is excusable no longer. There are vast resources that remain unused in the image wars. We need to learn how to use them.
The value of deterrence cannot be overlooked. Conservatives should select one or more representative leftist icons and Palinize them. Susan Rice, with her decades-long record of incompetence, mendacity, dishonesty, and sleaze (this woman tried to cover up the Rwanda massacres, long before the Benghazi attack), would make an excellent target.
Many old-school conservatives would stand aghast at such a campaign on grounds of brutality and incivility, and they would be as correct as they are irrelevant. There comes a certain point where you must take up the weapons of your opponent if you wish to survive. That point came and went when some clever network exec in the spring of 1964 said, "Let's make Goldwater into a Nazi." During both world wars, Germany was rightfully condemned by the Western allies for ordering U-boats to sink ships without warning. Then the Allies themselves, out of sheer necessity, adapted the same strategy, utterly destroying the Axis navies and merchant marines with tremendous loss of life. With their action, the Germans opened a door, and had to accept whatever came through. The same is true of the left today.
Punishment is also useful. Every time a leftist media figure employs a degrading stereotype, or insults an innocent party, or suggests that a political figure be assaulted or killed, they need to be punished. The social networks, Twitter and Facebook being the leading examples, comprise perfect weapons for such an effort. Thousands of tweets or emails will send the heads of the network execs spinning, with calls sent out for Larry or Ed or Rachel to drop by the office before they go the studio. Make them pay a price -- now they pay no price whatsoever. All it would take is a little organization.
Another method would be to turn around the stereotypes and begin ridiculing the left on the same level -- not as individuals, but as clowns. This has become known in recent years as Alinskyite ridicule, though it goes back eons before Hammurabi. Calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" merely generated sympathy for her. Turning her into a clown uncertain what to do with a condom if one was handed to her would have shut the whole campaign down in short order. (How about the Facebook "Sandra Fluke Condom Support Group"?) This kind of thing works, doesn't take much in the way of effort, and we can be sure the left will provide plenty of ammunition.
The same tools can be used to create more friendly stereotypes, to project the image we want to project. In this election Mitt Romney's essential decency and humanity were totally lost. Next to no effort was made to put them across. (Romney himself was forbidden to toot his own horn by his religious convictions.) A few years ago, the National Rifle Association, after decades of fumble-figured PR ("We're only hunters! Honest!"), hit on the "I am the NRA" campaign, featuring attractive NRA members of all sexes, races, and ethnic backgrounds. The campaign worked well, humanizing gun owners and turning back concerted left-wing attempts to characterize the organization as something along the lines of a Jared Laughner fan club. Similar campaigns featuring conservatives or Republicans is not difficult to envisage.
Such efforts are long overdue. The tools are at hand. We need to learn all there is to know about image generation, narrative strategies, propaganda, and the tricks of the media.
The first difficulty will involve members of our own team. A change of attitude is necessary. We shouldn't expect much from the Northeastern cons -- they're too eager to surrender, and many of them are only nominally conservative at this date. (They probably feel rather flattered by Colbert's portrayal in any case.)
But the new conservative activists, often dismissed as the Tea Parties, are another story. They are the ones who can remake the conservative image into something that will attract rather than repel. The 2012 election has clearly revealed how high the stakes are. This is a knock-down, drag-out battle, a battle that the movement has so far declined to accept. We must stop refusing to play the game as it has to be played -- refusing to learn, refusing to move into a new era, refusing to step beyond the stereotypes.
Above all, we need to stop walking into sucker punches, playing the game the way the left wants us to play it. The world will never respect anyone who allows that to be done to him. The image of the simpering twit is the first one we need to shed.
Leftist control of the conservative image is no longer acceptable. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Russian socialists split into two warring factions. The smaller one -- nearly miniscule, as a matter of sheer numbers -- adapted the name "Bolsheviks" (the "majority" party) and forced the name "Mensheviks" (Guess?) on the much larger opposing faction. Twenty years later the Bolsheviks controlled Russia, and the Mensheviks were on their way to the Gulag.
Conservatives must seize control of their own image, or risk becoming the Mensheviks of the 21st century.
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