Friday, August 21, 2009

I Want to Believe

Not really, but I do like Agent Mulder's catchphrase. I wonder about how people "believe things that just ain't so," as Will Rogers put it. The current clash of ignorant armies in the night (another great phrase) about our health care non-system came to mind as I was reading Willa Cather's 1915 book, The Song of the Lark. One character says, "Facts really don't count for much, do they? It's all in the way people feel..." The psychology of this is well analyzed in a new book by Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick, about how to make ideas "stick" -- and it's not about rattling off a factual, logical argument. Those aligned on the Right have been extremely good at this since Roger Ailes (now head of Fox Noise, dontcha know?) crafted Nixon's successful 1968 counter-revolution with the simple image -- and message -- of the hardhat guy. Reagan's speechwriters' quips, "tear down this wall," "get government off your backs," and "there you go again" sealed the deal in the minds of millions. No substance, but sticky as Superglue. The current President's team should have kept in front of their eyes the half-dozen basic principles of advertising, propaganda, persuasion, or whatever you want to call it: a few templates that when used are sure to affect the way people think. Just compare the effectiveness of a page of statistics on Africa's problems to a Save the Children ad with a face and a name. That the Administration has the facts and the truth is irrelevant to success in convincing the mass public.
They also have to understand the conservative and fearful nature of the masses and how to work around it (they don't think and analyze, they believe). Although written a century ago, the thoughts of the Thea, the protagonist in Song of the Lark, are still true today: "She had seen it when she was at home [a small town in Nebraska, 1880's] last summer -- the hostility of comfortable, self-satisfied people toward any serious effort."
The emotional reaction -- and that is what counts -- to the candidacies of Andrew Jackson, Harding and Reagan was that they looked like presidents, and in the case of the latter two, that was all there was but it was enough. And the selling of Dubya, who looked and sounded no more impressive than Barney Fife -- well, that was just a brilliant job.
The ancient Greek and Roman orators knew how to bring in an audience. The 20th century masters of propaganda and advertising knew it. I really wish I could hand our hapless leaders these tools to use, because the stakes are high.

1 comment:

  1. Facts are impotent if people are too stupid or too trained -- or both -- to understand them. Critical analysis is less important than the I Like That factor. So much for the Age of Enlightenment.