February 05, 2008


Sam Smith

AN EXTRAORDINARY VIDEO may be the most effective political campaign ad of the season - as well as the most depressing and scary. As the Nation reports:

"In a final salvo for Super Tuesday, the Obama Campaign blasted an email from Ms. Obama urging supporters to share the new music video "Yes We Can." The video was a smash hit across the web since launching on Friday, bringing direct footage of Obama's stump speech to millions of people. It already netted over 1.8 million views on YouTube, and potentially hundreds of thousands more from another hub, DipDive.com, which drew over 1,000 links from U.S. websites since last week. The Obama Campaign's new viral push should bolster those numbers."

As a piece of campaign advertising - apparently exempt from the legal category of such promotions - there is little one can find to fault it. But it also symbolizes a grossly emotional, symbolic, cynical and vacuous politics that Obama has ridden to the top this campaign, as others have tried and failed. The indifference to, and contempt for, real issues - including ones that may determine the fate of our democracy, economy and environment - has never been matched, try as hard as earlier candidates have. This campaign has been nothing but one extraordinary work of bad fiction. It is as though Marvel or Action Comics had staged a secret coup against the Republic, seizing control of the minds of candidates, media and voters, leaving us in the end nothing to of which to be certain, in the case of Obama, other than a three word slogan, "Yes We Can" and thinking that is quite enough.

But there is also something quite scary about the video. As I watched Obama's words being mimicked by attractive and ethnically diverse supporters, I got the eerie feeling that I was watching a Nazi propaganda film where the words in a different time and a different place would have been not "Yes, we can" but "You are Germany" or "Heil Hitler" and where attractive young people - the jungen - knew as little as little about the future policies of the man they cheered as do Obama's supporters today.

It wasn't Obama's fault; it was the video maker who had taken clips of the candidate and blended them with others to create this modern version of a political art form that has its roots in Nazi propaganda. Nobody wants to admit it these days, but every campaign ad you see owes a debt to Joseph Goebbels.

Here were some of Goebbels' principles as outlined by Leonard Doob in the book "Public Opinion and Propaganda":

- To be perceived, propaganda must evoke the interest of an audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications medium.

- Credibility alone must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false.

- A propaganda theme must be repeated, but not beyond some point of diminishing effectiveness

- [Slogans] must evoke desired responses which the audience previously possesses

- They must be capable of being easily learned

- They must be utilized again and again, but only in appropriate situations.

Obama has entered dangerous territory in a campaign that has relied excessively on effective but ultimately indefinable abstractions such as "hope" while giving only nerdish and hyper technical explanations of what policies he might actually conduct.

He is saved by his past behavior which provides a partial assumption of what he might do in the future, even if he doesn't want to tell us in more than evasive terms. He is also saved by his atrocious competition.

But we, as citizens, should not be quiet servants of the pitiful choices set before us. Our survival depends in no small part on understanding when we are being conned, misused and abused.

Buried in this video's subtext is the assumption that many voters are able to handle at one time no more than one thought comprising of no more than three words. This either suggests an extremely low potential for whatever "we can," not to mention a deep cynicism about American citizens.

It is this shallowness of perceived potential combined with depth of cynicism that helps to endanger our land. It is far from Obama's fault alone. But before you say that this is all too much about too little, watch the video again, only this time put a young, attractive, extreme rightwing general in Obama's place and you will, I think, see the problem a little better.