I've started to notice-if television is any kind of litmus test-that two seasons are kicking off here in America at right about the same time. On their face, they couldn't be more different: the nearly year-long home stretch to the 2012 elections is all about the gritty realities of clashing but heartfelt political ideologies, while the five-week-long sugarplum dance toward Christmas focuses on peace on earth and reminding us how important the simple things in life are.
Yet these seasons have more in common than it might seem at first glance. Christmas promotion and political campaigns are both pushing the same thing at us: mindless action that quite possibly is not in our own self-interest.
Go spend, go vote.
To get us to do this, the capitalistic machinery hides behind abstract concepts that tug at our heartstrings and motivate our mammalian brains. These ideas are inarguably noble. Ideas of giving joy to another without thought of what you're getting in return. Of investing hope in a great experiment in democracy. Yet the practice of co-opting noble ideas is the natural fallout-practically the byproduct-of commerce. The great trick of both party politics and capitalist commerce can found in their PR efforts, which are designed to lead us to believe the activity we're pushed into is for our benefit. That these machinations are designed to bring something of value to the masses, rather than the true design (to have the masses bring something of value to the machinery).
Pick your poison: the wave of a flag, the tear of the wrapping paper, the audacity hope, the merciful quality of charity, fighting for the little guy, fining that perfect something, red white and blue streamers, crackling fires. These tropes are all of a piece. Touchstones that make us want to believe. They are tactics disguised as emotion, deployed to get us to open our wallets and pour out our power into the hands of a few people and corporations.
Picture the waving-wheat campaign ads side-by-side with the big-red-bow car commercials. Both are riddled with false sincerity yet utterly devoid of the genuine article. Now ask yourself, on what level do these accurately prepare you for the non-stop maintenance and expense of car ownership or the endless buck-passing and credit-grabbing behavior of whoever gets elected? They don't.
We know all this and fall for it all again, over and over. The belief of individuals in something more honorable than themselves seems to be our American Achilles Heel; we want there to be selfless people and soulful corporations. It's powerful, and if you're not smart enough to capitalize on that weak spot, well then... you probably don't survive in business or politics for long.
If the corporations, elected officials or media aren't going to encourage us to wipe the lens clean and take a deeper look, then it's up to us. If we don't do it, maybe we deserve what we get.
But there are voices out there with no obligation to the status quo who can shine some light on the realities of power. I'll add my voice to the growing chorus. Let's kick off these seasons by setting the record straight:
Walmart, Gap and BMW don't care about you. No sitting president, congressman or mayor ever has, either.
They care about their own power. Any benefit that accrues to us is either incidental or merely perceived. If you want to care about Christmas, you might consider doing so on your terms, not Coca-Cola's. If you want good government, you might start with the proposition that every candidate-yes, even your guy-is acting out of self-interest, and go from there.
When you shake hands with the candidate on a rope line at a rally, it may be thrilling. What you never get to see is the aftermath, the fat globs of Purell the candidate slathers on from that industrial-size bottle that's always waiting in the back seat of his limousine. The gulf between the political show and the political reality is vast.
The new Kelsey Grammer show Boss isn't spectacular television, but it succeeds at pulling back the curtain on some of this. It is so cynical about politics that as an American your mind is practically attenuated to reject it as paranoid propaganda. It's only when you stop and realize that all markets move toward efficiency does this illustration of American realpolitik suddenly make crystalline sense.
There's a Christmas tree at my wife's church decorated with paper tags, requests for holiday gifts for the children of struggling parish families. One of them read:
Gift Certificate to the Heating Oil Company
I found this heartbreaking, but as soon as I saw it I also understood its power. The specificity of the situation and how it could seamlessly transition into making a broader political point stick. I instantly knew how any number of politicians on any side of the economy could use that stirring in my chest as a weapon against an opponent and by extension, a weapon against us all. Those transparent State of the Union speeches with the "regular folks" audience members come to mind.
But we don't need to make a political point here. The only real point is the tragedy of a struggling family facing winter without knowing how they can afford to heat their home for the holidays. It speaks for itself. Those people don't need spin, they need help.
Maybe that's what the season should be all about.