This is an actual letter to the editor that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times (p. A 28):
“To the Editor:
Re ‘Best Defense: More Offense” (news analysis, front page, Oct,9):
“Your statement that John Kerry ‘often seemed to be more in command of his brief, more confident in demeanor’ contradicts the impression made by the front-page photograph in which he sits round-shouldered and looking slightly forlorn, while President Bush takes command of the physical space as he strides out to meet the audience.”
“The photograph is the more accurate ‘picture’ of the debate on Friday night. A candidate’s manner of delivery tells us who he is and is every bit as important as his message. “
“President Bush’s energy and liveliness of spirit leave no doubt as to the strength of his convictions. Senator Kerry tells us that he is decisive and optimistic, but his body language and facial expressions fail to convince.”
Oct. 9, 2004
Let’s stop and think for a second about the truly dangerous idiocy at the heart of the reasoning behind Ms. McGirr’s pseudo-sophisicated and reasonably well-written reflections on the last presidential debate. I personally saw nothing wrong with Kerry’s body language and observed that Bush’s facial expressions were about as idiotic as usual (especially those asinine grins he kept forcing up at the end of each of his deceptive diatribes).
That aside, let’s take Ms McGirr’s approach to its ultimately absurd but logical (by per perversely authoritarian thought process) conclusion by imagining a purely hypothetical debate involvling Adolph Hitler. Hitler strides out aggressively to take command of the stage and to reach out to the audience with his message of imperial expansion, authoritarian militarism, and white/Teutonic racial superiority. His angry “energy and liveliness of spirit leave no doubt as to the strength of his [deadly] convictions” and his willingness to act on them. Beneath a barrage of lies about his opponents, his policies to date, and his plans for the future, he is relentlessly “optimistic” about the future of the Third Reich and the New World Order he and the naturally selected “elite” of his “homeland” — oops, I mean “fatherland” — will construct. His optimism is written in his posture and across his face. What a man.
Hitler’s opponent, let’s call her Gerda Luxembourg, speaks eloquently but a little quietly in defense of legal constitutionalism, international law, the community of nations, religious, racial, and ethnic equality, democracy, civil liberties, social justice, and other soft humanist Enlightenment Age stuff like that. She does so, however, from a wheelchair, to which she has been consigned by a recent automobile accident. The wheelchair is placed near the middle of the stage.
Luxembourg is a bit hunched over at times and occasionally shows the hint of a grimace because of the pain that has been troubling her for the last month. She is certainly not eating up any physical space on the stage and the audience occasionally strains to hear the final words of her sentences.
Let’s give Ms McGirr the benefit of the doubt and assume that she prefers the quieter female debater’s values over Hitler’s. By McGirr’s chilling calculation, which claims that a candidates’ physical demeanor (distinctly male/highly gendered and somewhat imperialist in her hands) is “every bit as important” as the actual moral and political content of the candidate’s declared values and policy proposals (what McGirr quickly sound-bites as “message”), the debate between the bloody Nazi Holocaust perpetrator and modern western liberal is at best a draw.
If Ms. McGirr wants to enjoy the spectacle of male politicians showing great physical energy in the name of their “message,” she might like to dig up some old newsreels of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin – to name a few vigourous state and space commanders from the last century.
I’d like to report that McGirr’s chilling take on presidential debating was some sort of crackpot perspective. The awful truth, however, is that I heard similar sorts of analyses — actually privileging the purely physical over “message” — across the dominant “mainstream” (corporate-state) media on the night of the debate and the day after. This was a fairly frequent theme from sophisticated talking heads in the dominant communications empire: how Bush rolled up his sleeves, got rid of the petulant little boy frown and hunched-over look that hurt him in the first debate, and let his West Texas boots do some manly walking across the open range of the political frontier.
As an aside, I actually saw Bill Clinton pitching his autobiography on “Oprah” a few weeks back. It was sad and amusing to see the poor old centrist Democratic coot trying to focus the discussion on political and policy differences he had with the far right. The openly body-obsessed hostess kept bringing it all back to the stuff that really mattered to her and her mass audience: the physical exchanges between Monica and Bill and the question of when Hilary finally let her bad boy put his body back into the marital bed.
Not to overdo the German analogies, but the pre-fascist, hyper-masculinist, and mass-lobotomist US consumer, “self-help,” and “entertainment” culture that privileges “body language” and stiffened buttocks over the moral content of policy and the state of our democracy is context also for the rise to gubernatorial power of a certain hard-bodied Hollywood actor of fierce Teutonic stock: a Terminator turned policymaker who has a revealing label for those who dare to tell the truth about the terrible limits of the all-too-jobless Bush “recovery:” “ECONOMIC GIRLIE MEN.”
Oh America, you are on a dangerous path. You are going to wake up in the middle of one dark historical night to the sound of “President Ahhhnold” whispering “Astalavista Democracy.”
Fortunately for my own sanity and my body language today (I am trying not to get “round-shouldered” as a I write this), yesterday’s Times also had an interesting front-page story (Jim Dwyer, “Among Black Voters, a Fervor to Make Their Ballots Count”) showing that most African-Americans couldn’t care less about all this idiotic body language bullshit. United States blacks find Kerry to be — get this — “stiff and distant,” and say, “so what? I’m voting for him.” Kerry will get at least 8 if not 9 of every 10 black presidential votes for the simple reason that racist demagogue George W. Bush’s domestic and foreign POLICIES are seen as terrible and dangerous by African-Americans, more than 70 percent of whom oppose the occupation of Iraq.
At least one part of the increasingly pre-fascist American populace is capable of privileging “message” over body language. In this and so many other areas, white Americans (a majority of whom have voted Republican in every presidential race after 1964) would do well to emulate and seek counsel from people of color.
Paul Street can be reached at [email protected].