Saturday, November 04, 2006

Don't Have a Real Public Issue? Go Tabloid: Kerry and Election 2006

(published at Blogcritics Magazine)
I am reluctant to even speak about this issue out of self-loathing--for falling into the worst practices of this mediated political culture I spend so much time complaining about. So let me just use the opportunity to say that the John Kerry remarks, which the GOP PR machine has seized upon and gleefully fed to the ever-hungry tabloidizing news lions, are simply more proof of the rottenness, supperficiality, and war of distraction that infantilizes American voters as much as Kerry's statement infantilized American soldiers.

GOP supporters want to make Kerry's statement an election issue. That's right, you heard me: an election issue. The fact that it has nothing to do with public policy or visions for legislation is of no importance. Or rather it's of the utmost importance when politics is nothing but branding. In branding theory from business marketing, the idea is that your product, no matter how shoddy by comparison to or identical to your competitor's, must simply differentiate itself by association with images, values, desires with which audiences will identify strongly, emotionally, devoutly. They get a symbolic satisfaction out of consuming the brand. And here with Kerry we have it. Of course Kerry has been out lobbying for Democrats in this election race. He hammers away at Iraq as a failed Bush foreign policy, which of course millions of Republicans agree with if one believes the polls.

Yet Kerry puts his foot in his mouth with a remark suggesting that the worst American students end up in the army and thus in hellholes like the war in Iraq. Interestingly, it took me a fair amount of searching to find exactly what Kerry said, and as usual, given the soundbite culture, I don't know the context of what he said just prior to and after the statement. Here's what he said and then what he says he meant to say:

"Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

This statement is at face value unmistkably insulting to troops in Iraq and American soldiers in general. As with all of us sometimes, Kerry claimed that it just didn't come out right.

Here are the "prepared remarks" he released which show how the actual public speech always deviates from the prepared script, sometimes in catastrophic ways.

"I can't overstress the importance of a great education. Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."

Whether this is crisis communication spin or the real situation is up to the charity of the reader (which means one's interpretation will fall into partisan line--branding and its loyalty again).

What Kerry said was insulting. But was its gist false?
Not according to the Heritage Foundation:

Given the nature of the military rank structure, most enlisted recruits do not have a college edu­cation or degree. Members of the armed forces with higher education are more often commis­sioned officers (lieutenant and above). In 2004, 92.1 percent of active-duty officer accessions held baccalaureate degrees or higher.[5] From 2000 to 2005, between 10 percent and 17 percent of active-duty officer accessions held advanced degrees, and between 35 percent and 45 percent of the active-duty officer corps held advanced degrees.[6] This indicates that officers continued their educa­tion during the course of their mili­tary service. [Notice they curiously don't give the percentage of enlisted recruits with a college education, though they do for the officers. Guess I have to look somewhere else to find that percentage]

Indeed, one is supposed to have a high school diploma to be a recruit, but there are documented cases where military recruiters have coached high school dropouts to make fake high school diplomas and pass drug tests. The point is not that soldiers are stupid, but that American wars are not fought by those with the monopoly on the social, economic, and political resources (education, family and neighborhood situation which affects educational and professional opportunities, as does violence and security in one’s environs and on and on).

But Kerry does not appear to have developed that line, which he knows would be immediately labeled not just “liberal” (as that throwaway demonizer goes) but “radical” or “extremist” by his opponents (as those who are incapable of arguing may use against me here for even mentioning it). He is not gutsy enough to pursue that line of argument. Nor are many, if any, mainstream politicians. That sort of line is branded negatively in association with scenes from Michael Moore’s patently un-persuasive cheerleading routine Fahrenheit 9/11. It is more likely that Kerry did mean to say something like “If you don’t study and take learning seriously, you end up getting yourself and others into a quagmire like Iraq: just ask George W. Bush.”

Kerry also apologized, which though a common “crisis communication” tactic of the last resort (first the PR gurus counsel you to ignore, then deny,etc.) is more than I can say for all the misleading statements and propaganda with which the Executive branch has bombarded their own citizens, from “fake news” (your tax dollars at work) to claims of Iraq-Al Qaeda links, to name just a few that have resulted in tragic misunderstandings on the part of millions of fine Americans. Need I remind anyone that as recently as September just under half of those polled still believe there is a connection between Hussein, Al Qaeda, and 9/11 (46%).

So if they want to distract from serious election issues by catching Kerry with his foot in his mouth simply to destroy the Democratic brand, let’s take the opportunity to talk about what sort of a society we have where the Heritage Foundation tells us that college graduates are officers, leaders from day one in the military, and the rest are rank and file and in a much more vulnerable position—systematically. But more than anything else, let’s note that the wide circulation of the Kerry story on the media agenda crowds out real debate about social issues that underpin those number of non-college degreed soldiers, which as I suggest are tied to lots of policy problems. It also crowds out the larger issue of this catastrophic war, its mismanagement, the unethical premises for it, which have also been used as a screen for cutting back taxes and thus social programs that would potentially, ironically, change those statistics about who serves on the front lines.


Paige said...

In response to Jayson's tabloid article. You attempted to wrap Senator Kerry's comments with a harmless misuse of words. You also failed to mention Kerry's white hot hatred for our military. This has been evident since his disgusting display on Capitol Hill in 1972 and recently his quote about our soldiers describing them terrorizing women and children in the dead of night. There are more comments I'm sure. This is not a one time event. This is a small minded individual who liberal ways continue to undermine our brave ones not to forget the war effort. Next time tell the whole story.

Anonymous said...

I'm so with you on this. I've been saying since "the gaffe" that what Kerry said is actually correct - people without education are who serves in the military. You should hear the reaction I get. I've been in fear of being assaulted! I'm telling you, the average individual without a college education is EXTREMELY sensitive about this matter. Those who are giving me a serious backlash reaction commonly say "Our soldiers are not STUPID." Never mind that's not what Kerry said. Perhaps it's implied, perhaps it's not. You have the facts right.

And, oh, by the way, I do think many of our troops are basically stupid - face it, they VOLUNTEERED to go into this army to support this IDIOT in the whitehouse.

jayson said...

Paige (comment #1),
You're talking about a decorated veteran who risked his life for his fellow Americans (soldiers there, and those watching the TV safe at home). Like all Americans, he has the right to speak out against wars he believes are unjust, mis-managed, the product of ulterior ruling motives. He also has the right, through reflection and debate, to change his mind (I know that must seem like a novel idea to someone who appears to see the world through the robotic formulas of "liberal" and "conservative.")
The man voted for the Iraq invasion because he said he believed the president in the wake of 9/11. Now we know that the White House either believed whatever they wanted to believe to satisfy their desires or they made catastrophic choices.
He no doubt knows very well from fellow soldiers about the horrible torture inflicted on Americans and Viet Cong in Vietnam--see the film the Deerhunter. He no doubt knows that the U.S. can not remain credible in international affairs with Gitmo and Abu Graib. Like many Americans, Republican and Democrats, he changed his mind after evidence has appeared that this was a corrupt and myopic push for war. It has made the U.S. less secure, as Intl. public opinion indicates.

Rise to the occasion as a real citizen, Paige, and develop arguments, not just talking points hiding behind a partisan ideology-brand. Save your pompoms for another blog.

As for the comment just above, I agree with your spirit, but I prefer not to call these young men "stupid." Too many people jump to the conclusion that bad choices are made in the genes. I point to the conditions under which these young men developed, which are different from those of many American citizens, to say nothing of their officers and Commander in Chief.

Jayson Harsin

Anonymous said...

You know Paige was right about Kerry. This is a guy who spent 90 days in combat in Vietnam. He lied about his combat involvement and personally applied for a Silver Star a Purple Heart and then impugns his fellow comrades when he returned home. I have yet to meet any soldier who applies for these commendations. Oh, he has also neglected to release his complete service record to date. I love it when someone justifies a public figure's ignorance with a Hollywood movie..."Dear Hunter"...give me a break. Ooooohh the grassy knoll....You also seem to think Kerry had different intelligence than the administration. NEWS FLASH! 12 Dems on a select commitee from the Hill were briefed with the same intel that the administration received. Those same Dems voted for action in Iraq. I liken Iraq to placing a cupcake next to an ant hill...I would rather fight them there than in our country. Now go watch your Chicken Noodle News Network and keep believing we can reason with people who behead, cut limbs off, rape, kill children and believe Islamic fundamentalism is a way of life.

A proud American

Jayson said...

"John, A proud American,"
To whom are you speaking here? You think you can make "Swift Boat Veterans" claims here and expect people to believe you with no evidence? If you are going to make such claims at least attempt to back them up with evidence. Of course, we've been through this though. There is nothing you can use but rumors from fringe groups. Your own attempt to smear Kerry only makes the point of the larger article you're hoping to obscure. Thanks for your demonstration.
Pride is a tragic flaw. REad your Greek literature.