Thursday, December 4, 2008

Political Style

For a minute, it seemed like politics had regained some popularity in the United States. Electoral pre-amble seems to reignite some sort of flame under the American people, yet when push comes to shove, the voter turnout is always the same. It seems every electoral year, politics falls out of style faster than FUBU. Why?

I’m not sure that I have the answer to this question in entirety, but perhaps delving into a discussion on the matter will enlighten us in some respects.

In fact, this incipit is not entirely true. We quite enjoy politics… just in a different way.
Our fascination extends beyond our brief courting of it pre-election: think Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, Che Guevara’s face, Churchill’s cigar, Mao’s Mole, Ben Franklin’s glasses… you chose the icon. We are obsessed with the grand images of leaders of old. The politics of today are what bores us.

Why do we remember them?

In one superhero movie, the following is said “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I'm flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.” Another prevalent scholar noted “Returning to the question of being feared or loved, I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others; he must endeavour only to avoid hatred, as is noted.”

The point is that image is everything if you want to “live forever” in the minds of the people. Batman realized that by using a costume he allowed himself to approach some form of immortality. Machiavelli’s The Prince is a manual describing which tactics to employ so that the prince might retain power. He dwells on the Prince’s image in the eyes of his people … and how to make the longest-lasting impression on them. It can be seen as a way for the prince to achieve immortality.

It seems that the image of the statesmen goes through a couple stages. The intention, as prescribed by Machiavelli, is to create a long-lasting reputation. Some do this with policy, others with physical image. However, time dictates how one appears in the annals of history. Therefore, despite their efforts, statesmen (and stateswomen) have a tendency to have a different legacy from the one they had imagined. To quote Gladiator, “How will the world speak my name in years to come? Will I be known as the philosopher? The warrior? The tyrant...? Or will I be the emperor who gave Rome back her true self?”

The stages:

First, there is an attempt to establish one’s self as an icon, that is a figure that is timeless, that will be remembered. (essentially the above-outlined ideas) The purpose of this is to create some type of legacy, a way to be remembered past one’s tenure as leader. Just look at the final terms of many past presidents or any King or Queen. Remember Qin Shi Huang’s Terra Cotta warriors? Or King Tut’s tomb?

Secondly, the “icon” image becomes something comparable to a costume. Consider Churchill’s cigar, Lincoln’s beard or Napoleon’s style. Were these accessories really necessary?

Lastly, as historical distance separates the present from these past characters, there is a branding stage. Yes, like marketing branding. Look at Che’s face… look at what Obama’s profile is becoming. The artist who created the now famous red white and blue Andy Warholesque pop-art campaign poster is selling his pieces for thousands of dollars. The idea is that an icon achieves something approximating logo status. Consequently, important figures are distilled into trademarks rather than ideas.

From our present vantage point, we can identify most of these historical characters. Unfortunately, they remain just iconic faces in our memories. Was Churchill a conservative or a liberal? Did you know that Napoleon was one of the first heads of state to provide Europe with a legal code? It is one of the most influential documents in the history of law. Did you know that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, America’s darling president, increased American forces in Vietnam from 800 to 16, 300 in what some historians consider the point of no-return culminating in the Vietnam war? Why then is he so popular? Because his wife was one of the most influential figures in style in the last 100 years?

In essence, my fear is that we forget what truly made these figures important. Though we undoubtedly will remember Barrack Obama as America’s first African American President, it is my fear that his promises (and presumably, or rather hopefully, his policies) will be equally recalled: multilateralism, universal healthcare, separation of state and interest groups etc. Somehow I sense that a hundred years from now, his photogenic looks and oratory skills will overshadow his actions.

"I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away."

Like Ghandi’s talisman, we should remember icons for what they represent, political persons for what they stood for.