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Label/Libel

by Julia Sneden

Wouldnt you think that by now we, the people, would be able to reach with our dissenting voices all those people who create commercials for politicians? Wouldnt you think we could convince them that those dreadful ads that continue to fill our television screens are counter-productive? Sneering, oleaginous voices say things like: under it all, hes a liberal! or John Doe, a knee-jerk conservative. Such labels are an insult to the intelligence of the American public. During the primary campaign in our state, there was an ad that referred to a candidate as all politics, and no principles. On top of all the accusations and labeling, it is now the fashion for the candidate to appear at the beginning or end of the message and say proudly: I am John Doe, and my campaign office sponsored this ad. I suspect thats an attempt to cash in on Michael Douglass macho image in the movie The American President. You know: the one where he looks right into the camera and says: My name is Andrew Shepard, and I am the President! 
      Alas, perhaps we deserve what we get. Those negative ads must have been effective in the past, because they continue to be used in both state and national campaigns. Why do you suppose they work? A word-lovers look at the actual phrases that are used over and over again produces more questions than answers. For example:

  • liberal used to be an honorable word. Its root is the Latin liber, meaning free. A liberal used to mean someone who was open-minded, thus free from prejudices and out-dated strictures and prejudices. It has, thanks to the conservative right, become associated with adjectives like fuzzy-headed or bleeding-heart. There are still many people who are proud to be called liberals, but to the writers of political ads, it is a pejorative term.
  • conservative also comes from a Latin root: servare, meaning to keep, guard, or preserve.  Conservatives used to be known as the people who guarded time-honored traditions, and proceeded into new territory with great caution and many backward glances, to be sure they werent throwing the baby out with the bath water. The liberal left has often associated conservative with the adjective reactionary, which connotes firm resistance to any change in political or social policy. These days the ad makers often make blanket implications that all conservatives resist civil rights, freedom of speech and expression, gun control, etc.
  • politics has its root in the Greek word polites, citizen, and in its purest sense, the word means the art and science of governing. Nowadays, the word is often accompanied by the adjective dirty, or is tossed off condescendingly, as in its only politics. Dishonoring the word isnt a recent phenomenon: Jonathan Swift wrote: Politics, as the word is commonly understood, are nothing but corruption.
      I had a great uncle who had high hopes of becoming governor of the state of New York, but when his enemies brought malpractice charges against him in his performance as Insurance Commissioner, he went to court, exonerated himself, and then promptly retired, saying Politics is no profession for a gentleman.
      You have to wonder at the simplistic use of labels, as if you had to be entirely one thing or another. Is it not possible to be a conservative who cares about civil rights or defends the right to choose an abortion? Is it not possible to be a liberal who is fiscally responsible or a defender of family values? Might there not be a politician whose deep interest in the art and science of governing transcends his own immediate gain?
     Of course its not just the misuse of trigger words like the above three that make the campaign ads so despicable. Its the way theyre delivered. We can only speculate as to why all the commercials sound alike, with that same deep, oily, taunting, voice urging the opponent to come clean or stand up and tell the truth. 
     The very worst of the ads play upon the fears of good, honest folk whose party loyalty stays firm, even though that party may have changed and become something 180 degrees opposite from what it once was. The us against them polarization of such people is a tragedy for this country. 
     I worry about the fact that our children and grandchildren are demonstrating the dangers this kind of divisive advertising. They are far too young, and far too trusting, to sort out the distortions and exaggerations that are apparent to thinking adults. Negative commercials offer flat, cartoon-like presentations of complex situations. A child tends to swallow whole anything that the adults around him or her believe, and while they may exaggerate to make a point, the child doesnt perceive their exaggerations as flawed.
     Back when Kennedy was shot, the country was appalled to hear that a classroom full of children actually applauded the news. It hit home for me, because I recognized the situation. If parents make nothing but negative statements about a president whose political party differs from theirs, their children learn to regard him as the enemy.
      I grew up in a staunchly Republican family of the Earl Warren stripe, but whenever we children became too strident in our youthful enthusiasm, my grandmother would reprimand us with: Theres nothing wrong with being a Democrat. My father was a life-long Democrat. Since her father held a position of nearly saintly stature in our home (as in: My father always said, or My father told me never to) we figured she must be telling us the truth.
      Nonetheless, I never heard a kind word about That Man, FDR. I was quite young when he died, and when the news came over the radio, I interpreted it as a kind of victory for our side. During World War II, we were all in an atmosphere of sides. I knew that FDR wasnt Hitler or Tojo, but my in my childish perception, he was somehow an enemy, too. Thus I rushed to report his death to my mother, with great eagerness. There was a pause, and then my mother reached out and slapped me. He was our President, she said sternly, even if we didnt agree with him. His death is a tragedy for this country. I remember feeling stunned, and going off by myself to puzzle the matter out. Between my grandmothers gentle reminders and my mothers swift and angry reaction, I learned a profound lesson about respect for differences. I also learned to question the simplistic idea that anything my parents said was absolute, and right. Eventually, when first one parent and then the other switched parties, I realized that one can, indeed, change ones allegiances without bringing the world, or at least society as we know it, to an end.
     It was a lesson I havent forgotten: There is, in a democracy, room - and indeed a great need - for divergence, for disagreement, and for opposite opinions. There is also great need for tolerance. If the candidates cant win elections without tearing each other apart, they have no business representing the electorate. I, for one, refuse to vote for a candidate who allows those distasteful advertisements. Which doesnt leave me a whole lot of choice, come November. 
     I dont object to commercials attacking a candidates ideas, or to ones defending his positions. But sneering labels, and innuendoes about an opponents personal life, do not interest me. 
     I am still hoping to hear an ad that begins, simply, Here is what I believe, and what I will try to do. It would be tempting to vote for such a person, no matter what his or her political stripe.

 

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