Post-Literate Democrats Are Winning Image Wars

Recently, Daniel Henninger observed that many war opponents, predominately Democrats, no longer consider the consequences of their words. TV has affected, irrevocably, how we see the world and how we conduct our politics. To better understand the impact of TV, it’s a good idea to read Marshall McLuhan’s “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” and its progeny, and, as was suggested by Jerry Mander in “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” to consider humans as higher apes at a watering hole.

The managers of the individual watering holes (i.e., TV channels) need to get you as excited as possible about what is going on at their hole to get you to change channels. At the watering hole, two things get the ape’s attention: violence and sex, followed by anything else that pops into sight. The more suddenly these can be presented, the more attentively ads are watched. Over the years, the pace of TV has quickened, and the number of scene changes has increased, so that now our Sesame Street kids have been trained to have minimal attention spans.

The impact on entertainment has been severe. What was shocking last year no longer grabs attention. TV exerts a downward pressure on what is acceptable behavior, and creates a relentless slide towards more sex and violence. Dysfunctional behavior is more interesting TV, functional behavior is boring and loses ratings. But to really be attractive, this behavior has to be presented mostly without consequences. One night stands almost never result in pregnancy, children are not harmed by divorce, gang members that murder are glamorous. In this post literate world, any image can be juxtaposed with another, any behavior endorsed, because they all become, in a ratings world, value free, and judged mainly by…ratings.

As we continue to make less sense of the world by reading, and more by images, especially video, we are losing logic as the basis for our decisions. We are increasingly inhabiting a world of pure emotion and impulse, a world McLuhan would call tribal, a world filled with terror where cause and effect are uncoupled. Catastrophe happens without cause. But the behavior is interesting, and ratings are up, even if in real life there are consequences.

So now we have political news coverage that gives more weight to image than logic, and promotes the same dysfunction that’s thought to be good for ratings. When Edward R. Murrow moved from radio to TV, the camera scene was his talking head for as much as five minutes. Now, as TV moves towards shorter time intervals, viewers judge just by the blink of an image. TV accelerates form over substance.

It is not surprising mainstream media news would favor the Democrats. They are more attuned to image. More importantly, the Democrats have stolen a march on the Republicans in getting their message promoted by mainstream media. One has only to look at “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Syriana,” “Munich” and the political tenor of the Academy Awards to gather Hollywood’s zeitgeist. And soon we’ll be treated to Susan Sarandon playing Cindy Sheehan….

So now our new post-literate Democrats have largely come to live in an image driven, magical world, where a picture of a coffin coming back to the United States or a weeping Iraqi in a war-torn villages trumps the hard fact that Iraqis have more freedom than ever before in their history. So much so that Democrats feel they can promote images without consequences. We need to pull the troops out of Iraq to fight the real enemy al Qaeda….who is fighting in Iraq. Opposition politicians have forgotten how much aid and comfort their dissent provides to the enemy. Republicans, notwithstanding their own problematic issues, believe that with the War they have logic on their side, and that substance alone can carry the day. But in our world of increasingly partisan politics, there is no excuse for having an empty propaganda war chest. Moreover, the failure to use images effectively to promote the War on Islamo-Fascism undermines support for, and ultimate success in, the War.

So mainstream media breathlessly shows us Abu Ghraib, and uniformly condemns all intelligence taps, but never shows us the beheadings of Americans or the true depravity of al Qaeda. It is friendly fire—most of our leading media outlets suffer from Stockholm syndrome. Unlike World War II, we do not know why we fight, and we do not know our enemy. Because we are in a preventive war, and not a reactive war with millions already dead, the government finds it does not have the same panoply of tools available to FDR, such as internment, widespread censorship and propaganda. Worst of all, the genuine heroism of our troops is buried under a bushel.

Nevertheless, the threat from the other side’s propaganda efforts is increasing. Al Jazeera is launching an English language channel. The good news for the Republicans is that there is a positive patriotic story to be told in images that the public understands. This message doesn’t even have to be distributed by mainstream media: it only needs to get out to the Internet to bypass the gatekeepers.

Our government should take what steps it can to win the image wars. Yet sometimes individuals can achieve what the government alone cannot. America has a long tradition of patriotism and Minutemen. And we have just seen the beginnings of what can be done.

The masterpiece “United 93” recently was released to enthusiastic critical reviews and a very respectable and profitable box office relative to its cost and lack of star power. It captured the consequences of letting terrorists get control. In the spirit of “United 93,” it is high time for individual Americans such as bloggers and those members of Hollywood who have not lost their way to join the image wars on the side of America. Let a thousand videos bloom.