Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Political theatre

All politics is part theatre. How MUCH is theatre and how much is “real” varies widely, depending on a lot of factors, such as, ideology, context, goals—the list is quite long. But it’s not all bad: Political theatre can have its uses.

Going back almost as far as I can remember, I watched US Presidents delivering their State of the Union address to Congress. I watched regardless of whether I liked the president of the day or voted for him. But I began to notice that they’re mostly just political theatre, with presidents urging Congress to do things he knows they never will, like giving presidents a line-item veto—how many times did presidents mention that to no avail?

The speech is about giving context to a president’s upcoming year, and signalling the issues he’ll be focusing on, and that much is useful. But the constant exhortations to Congress to be better than they’re actually capable of being are really pretty pointless.

I now seldom watch State of the Union addresses live, though I started downloading them when Bush the Second was president (all such speeches are in the public domain, and the current White House makes it VERY easy to download videos of all presidential speeches). Sometimes I watch them later, sometimes I just keep them in case I need to refer to them.

The video above is the official White House “enhanced version” of President Obama’s latest State of the Union address. As such, it kind of raises the theatre bar a bit higher, adding illustrative photos alongside the president making his speech. I wish they’d also posted a straightforward version. Maybe they will later.

Obviously the rightwing propaganda machine hates the speech (they were attacking it for one reason or another even before it was delivered). It turns out that LGBT activists also had some complaints. Some things never change.

The Guardian took analysis of the speech to an entirely different level, evaluating EVERY State of the Union address using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. They found that “the linguistic standard of the presidential address has declined.” Okay, then.

I have no idea what use this information is to anyone—except to Obama haters, I suppose. The fact is, most of the presidents whose language was more complicated were in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the most complicated were speaking to upper classes, not common folk. There’s little doubt that over time the USA’s language complexity has declined (ask any English teacher), so it’s no surprise that politicians use less complicated language, too. I’m tempted to ask, “so what?”, but maybe that’s not complex enough a question.

Coincidentally, today I saw a very interesting article by John Haggerty on Salon, “My personal Fox News nightmare: Inside a month of self-induced torture”. He talks about watching no news channel but Fox for one entire month. Among other things, he noted the problem with Fox isn’t just the slanted, ideologically-driven way it reports on current events, but also—maybe even especially—what it does NOT cover. It’s well worth a read to get a sense of how even the media can use political theatre.

I was particularly struck by his comments on outrage: “I am much more careful about my outrage. Yes, the world is full of outrageous things—acts of astonishing dishonesty. But outrage, or, I should say, other people’s outrage is really, really tedious.” That’s exactly how I feel, and why I don’t comment on many of the things that other bloggers comment on—including things I used to comment on.

So, today was filled with political theatre. The important thing is that even at its most banal and irrelevant, political theatre can still be useful. For me, today was such a day.

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