When I was a grad student for the first time, around the turn of the 21st century, I had a professor -- a mentor, really -- who was a raaaaaaging second wave anti-porn Marxist feminist.
She was both wonderful and infuriating by turns, and as much as I sometimes deride her work today, she really did teach me quite a lot, a surprising portion of which I am still unraveling today, many years later. Sometimes I try to imagine her response to my current work, and, um, I’m pretty sure she’d be incredibly disappointed.
At any rate, one of the ideas she loved repeating to us was that there is no such thing as American “culture.” Her argument was that America, being built out of slavery, immigration and theft, is simply an amalgam of other, “authentic” cultures which have been run over and Americanized.
It’s an interesting idea. However, I have since come to my own conclusion, that being that American culture most assuredly exists, and more than that, it’s extraordinarily messed up. I find it all so very fascinating that I spend a huge amount of my time breaking American culture up and looking at the pieces, very carefully. One of the best, most specific periods in which to do this is an election year.
Enter Ron Paul.
Ron Paul, as you may know, is a former OB/GYN who is running for the Republican nomination for president, and his politics could best be described as conveniently libertarian, albeit a curious sort of libertarian who opposes government regulation of things like education but supports them when they prevent women from having safe and legal abortions.
Last week, Ron Paul’s campaign released a new campaign ad, which has been running on local stations even here in Massachusetts.
It’s only a 35-second spot, but let me break it down for you. The design idea is right in line with that kinetic typography all the kids on YouTube are into these days -- this being those videos folks make in which the words are the action.
Things kick off with the nameless action-movie-trailer narrator asking “What’s up with these sorry politicians?” They bark like the proverbial big dogs, the ad tells us, but then whimper “like little shih-tzus.” I’m slightly horrified by the possibility that this was the campaign’s third-grade attempt at calling them “shits,” but we won’t dwell there.
The ad goes on to assure its viewers, “Budget crisis? NO PROBLEM!” Ron Paul’s gonna cut ONE TRILLION DOLLARS in his first year in office. How? By exploding several goverment agencies, like the Department of Education and the Department of Commerce.
No really, the commercial explodes them. Well, it finds a sort of happy medium between an explosion and POOF!ing them away. I like to think we’ve learned something about using violence-invoking rhetoric in political campaigning, especially after Gabrielle Giffords, but I am probably wrong.
Next we get a fleeting glimpse of a dude in a black-and-white photo with the caption, “Later, Bureaucrats!” Oddly, the guy in the picture doesn’t look like what I’d imagine a stereotypical bureaucrat to be, but instead he looks like some Williamsburg hipster.
I’m not kidding. Look at him. He is wearing a bow-tie, has a scraggly beard and sports a pair of heavy plastic-rimmed glasses exactly like the ones currently on my face, plus he is a wearing an expression clearly indicating that he is high on something. Are hipsters secretly running America? Is this like that whole website about Lady Gaga being a tool of the Illuminati?
The hipster picture then gets run over by a big ol’ tractor trailer with Ron Paul’s name on the side, because nothing says “America” like overland shipping. If the visuals weren’t fantastic enough, the whole thing is backed by a grinding faux-metal soundtrack. Had the narrator had at any point growled “SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY WE’RE TURNING THE POLLING PLACE INTO A GIANT MUD PIT” I would not have been surprised. Unfortunately, the ad concludes with the demand, “Ron Paul! Do it!” like Ron Paul is a new energy drink or something.
This is a very American ad. It’s aggressive. It has a lot of quick-moving swanky visuals that are interesting to look at, but which don’t actually impart any real information.
What it really reminds me of, though, is the University of Alaska Fairbanks hockey video.
I’m not a sports person, but a friend showed me this video a year ago and it is, to say the least, unforgettable. They say that true camp can only occur when the folks making the art in question believe 100 percent that what they are doing is awesome; this, I believe, is what makes a movie like “Showgirls” so great. If it’s done with any degree of irony or self-consciousness, it just becomes silly, and is less fun, like “Snakes on a Plane,” which was way funnier as a hypothetically serious idea than it could ever be as an actual product.
I daresay the University of Alaska Fairbanks hockey video was made in full seriousness. Oh, just watch it.
This is the kind of viral video that defies description, but I’ll give it a shot: an icebreaker awakens a giant homicidal polar bear. Said giant homicidal polar bear destroys the icebreaker, ostensibly killing everyone onboard, and then enlists two homicidal polar bear friends to steal some fighter jets, with which they first blow up all of the University of Alaska Fairbanks sports-rival universities, and then blow up the whole of planet Earth, for no reason at all. The homicidal polar bear is then thrown into a wormhole and emerges near a hockey rink randomly floating in space, where he gets real mad and clomps around on the ice, eventually setting the place on fire. The end. Yay, Alaska!
What I love most about this video is the fact that we are supposed to be rooting for the homicidal polar bear. He’s the hero of the story. Also it uses two of my favorite cheesy 80s songs, Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” and that “Danger Zone” song from “Top Gun.”
What does this have to do with Ron Paul? Nothing really, except show another example of how American culture uses violence and loud music to amp people up. While this may be totally appropriate in a sports arena, I have trouble seeing it as a good idea in politics. Politics are supposed to be a forum of ideas and issues; campaign materials should impart useful points about the candidates, not just play to the psychological cues that get people mindlessly excited.
And yet, I am concerned that politics is increasingly becoming a sports-like concept; people vote along party lines because that’s how their parents voted, just like how I will never not hate the University of Florida Gators because I grew up with the idea that their football team was loathsome, for some reason. People are constantly looking for candidates whom they find exciting and entertaining, instead of candidates who are knowledgeable and well-qualified; who watches hockey without hoping to see a fight, even just a little bit?
I don’t think this hunger for political theater serves us, if we are trying to be a truly functional nation, but the necessity of bread and circuses on both sides of the aisle seems unlikely to change anytime soon; indeed, I think it’s getting worse.
How do you feel about it? Are you more likely to participate in electoral politics if they’ve got a rocking soundtrack? And perhaps most importantly, if Ron Paul were to fight UAF’s homicidal polar bear, who would win?