I’m getting tired of Donald Trump’s face. The propagandists on social media think I will be swayed to their opinion by seeing the President of the United States with a smirk, a pout or a bad hair moment. It’s not that I like or support Trump’s policies. It’s just that I’d rather my ability to form an opinion were not based on something as ridiculous as someone’s appearance. He may be on his way out but we gain nothing by dismissing him as a buffoon.
There is a crisis in democracy. Threading through that crisis like a fracture line in our collective self-perception is the belief that we are being manipulated all the time. I go to the supermarket to buy something for dinner and come away with something I didn’t intend to buy. “Of course,” you might say. “We are all being manipulated all the time. They track what we do and where we go and then design an emotional trigger to buy something we neither want nor need.”
Karen is an adept at social media. She’s mounting a campaign against Brexit with a group of outraged hipsters in London. I know they are going to simplify the issues down to three sentence blurts, choose images that make their opponents look ridiculous, and read up on marketing methods to promote their own views. “It’s all about communication,” she says. It is not difficult to create the image because there is so much that is laughable about the Brexiteers. Yet I want something else for my democracy. I don’t want democracy to be the triumph of the more sophisticated manipulator. If there are manipulators and manipulated, it’s plain to see which side Karen wants to be on, but there is something limp about a twenty-something sipping a latte in Pain Cotidien hectoring Facebook with distorted faces. That is not political discussion. That slides off the face of real engagement wih issues that are deeply worrying.
I don’t buy it. It makes a mockery of democracy. If you go along with this premise, people are mere units in a game they are not smart enough to understand. They are controlled by committees of clever people who shepherd them towards the opinions, purchases and voting patterns they want. The ones who win are the ones who can get a direct link to the irrational and emotional heart-springs of the mob, not the ones who appeal to considered opinion.
I don’t buy it
I don’t buy it, but I can see where the sense of impotence comes from. Is it possible to come out of a modern education system with a sense of personal power and responsibility? Every school-age teenager knows their teachers are morally and intellectually fallible. They know in their guts they are also boring and repetitive. All of this is smothered by the knowledge that intelligent criticism of the curriculum, the school administration and the routines that make up the school day is off limits. You get some limited choices but in the end you just bend your neck because obedience will give you a better “result”.
This is pathetic. It is a travesty of education to make young people into half-willing participants in their own disempowerment. They take a sly revenge by making rude comments about the Principal and engaging in petty acts of disobedience in the classroom. The Principal is not the problem. The problem is that we have a creaky system that insists on marking and grading children from the moment they enter to the moment they leave, that gives them minimal freedom and choice, and provides them with no forum for making decisions they could easily make as a community. It’s no wonder when they become adults they express their aggression with puerile pictures of their nation’s leaders.
And we are back with Trump. Trump is NOT the problem. Why did people vote for this Republican government? I would guess they voted in spite of Trump not because of him. It is the truly interesting question. When the debate is reduced to the personality at the top of the shit heap it is a debasement of the genuine needs and desires of the voters. That is a debasement of democracy itself. Those people deserve more than to be considered dumb dupes who don’t know a good hairstyle. Why did people in the UK vote for Brexit? What stops us having a conversation that addresses the hopes and concerns of these people without resorting to attacks on their leaders?
We need to get away from the phantom menace of the puppeteer controlling our deepest desires. It is a bogeyman. We should chase him out of the shadows and expose him. We should say that, no, we do not want to talk about Trump’s hair, we don’t even want to talk about Trump, we want to talk about what is happening in our communities and around the world. We should say that we will not treat our political leaders like celebrities and we will engage in respectful discussion with all members of our local community to discover what we think and believe. We do not believe that an expert from Harvard or Cambridge has more right to decide in our political lives than we do. Our voice is important in our political life, which starts in our schools and our communities and goes right the way up to our vote in the national elections. We are equal participants in a democracy- we are not just voters to be corralled by propagandists into camps on the right or the left.
There is a crisis in our democracies. We can do our part to puncture the balloon of this apparent crisis by refusing to make our political life revolve around Trump’s haircut. We can encourage our children to start talking and listening as soon as they are able to express opinions. We can introduce a little Summerhill into our schools so that when people grow up they will also be mature.