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Paul Stoller Headshot

Mediums and Their Political Messages

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Whenever I watch Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann give an interview, I get a queasy feeling. My queasiness is not a result of Ms. Bachmann's far-right policy positions, or her tendency to make erroneous statements, or her penchant to rewrite -- and sometimes make up -- American history. The queasiness does not come from my appreciation of Ms. Bachmann's personal biography, which she frequently mentions at her campaign events. She does, after all, have a respectable professional history. In addition, she has raised five children and 23 teenaged foster children. Although I disagree vehemently with Representative Bachmann's politics, I have respect for people -- like her -- who have devoted so much of their time and energy to raising foster children.

So why do I get that queasy feeling when I watch a Michele Bachmann interview? It comes from observing her eyes. They seem transfixed, distant and almost other worldly as if there is some kind of disconnect between her being and her body. Some people might suggest the distant eyes reflect Bachmann's intense concentration. Despite some tough questions on Face the Nation or Meet the Press, she does seem to stay on message. Like most politicians she rarely, if ever, acknowledges a mistake. That means she'll spin tortuous narratives, as she did recently in claiming that John Quincy Adams was a Founding Father, to reinforce the image of someone who stands her ground. Bachmann's capacity to stay on message has served her well. She has raised lots of campaign money and has challenged Mitt Romney for front-runner status among the Republican candidates for the GOP presidential nomination.

My queasiness comes from the medium side of Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase "the medium is the message." For anthropologists like me the term, "medium," not only refers to one or another aspect of mass media, but also to the practice of spirit possession. In spirit possession, the body of a person, the medium, is taken over by an external force that takes control of the medium's body. This external force does two things: it shapes the medium's movements, which become highly stylized, and it contours the medium's message, which follows a standard cultural script. Throughout field research in West Africa, I had the privilege of witnessing more than 100 spirit possession ceremonies in the western region of the Republic of Niger. These events featured a great deal of ceremonial drama -- brilliant staging, colorful costumes, show-stopping acrobatics and mind-bending fire handling -- all to showcase mediums and their cultural messages. In my experience, I found it fascinating and unsettling to observe a possessed spirit medium's eyes. They were invariably transfixed, distant and other worldly as if there were some kind of disconnect between the medium and her or his body.

I am by no means suggesting that Michele Bachmann is a spirit medium. But her carefully crafted political behavior bears some striking similarities to the behavior of spirit mediums. Like other Republican presidential candidates, personalities, and office holders, Bachmann seems to be possessed by rigid ideology -- the neoliberal belief that the market is God-like and will solve all of our problems, the idea that taxes should never be raised and that government spending cuts will bring us great prosperity, the idea that it's no big deal for the Federal Government to default on its debt, the idea that a person can have a "calling" to high public office.

You can't negotiate with a possessed spirit medium, who is incapable of independent thought. The same might be said of the blind faith absolute positions that Republican legislators and presidential candidates have taken on deficit relief, taxation, the ubiquitous power of the market, and the very public role of religion -- and faith -- in political life. Such absolutism means that candidates like Michele Bachmann, not to forget Republican leaders in the House and Senate, sometimes look at us with distant eyes and speak to us in formulaic snippets. In short, they have become political mediums. In their interviews there is little evidence of any sense of creativity or the capacity to reason beyond narrowly conceived dogma. What has happened to their individuality? Where are the people living in those bodies? Do they know the meaning of Reason?

Such formulaic messaging, in fact, defies any sense of Reason, the key concept of the Enlightenment, the 18th philosophical movement constructed to free human society from the unreasoned tyrannies of religion. The thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that a "more perfect union" was a society founded upon the principles of Reason, the dispassionate deliberations of free thinkers who had the capacity to compromise. Our Founding Fathers, who are ironically lionized by the likes of Bachmann, were Enlightenment thinkers. They believed in the powerful force of Reason to create that "more perfect union." The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are based upon Enlightenment principles. What's more, the Founders stressed the need for separation of church and state and for checks and balances in the structure of government because they feared the tyranny that can be brought on by the spread of unreason and by the dangers of dogmatism.

Mediumship works well in traditional religious practices like spirit possession, but its absolutism is inconsistent with democracy, which cannot function without reasoned debate and compromise. If Republican leaders begin to act more like public servants and less like non-thinking fundamentalist soldiers, we might begin to repair our political system. If not, their absolutism will plunge us into unspeakable economic darkness. In less than two weeks, we'll know if millions of us will needlessly suffer because of their blind faith in a reality that does not exist.