Dynamist Blog

Horror or Humor?

Cross-posted from my new blog, DeepGlamour.net

Beyond the ordinary factors that give the Democrats an advantage this year, Barack Obama's glamour poses a huge problem for the McCain campaign. To destroy glamour, you have to change perceptions. You can try sober realism. But that lacks emotional punch. To strike at glamour's emotional core, horror and ridicule work better. Instead of telling the audience to ignore its desires and be rational, they replace desire with dread or derision. What was once inspirational becomes terrible or absurd.

McCain's "The One" attack ad (now in the new Denver convention version above) is clearly an attempt to strip some of the glamour off Obama. That much is indisputable. Pundits are now arguing about whether the ad's imagery is intended as satire (the ridicule strategy) or as a veiled attempt to paint Obama as the Antichrist (the horror strategy). If you're a cool cosmopolitan character, it's hard to object to satire, even when directed at your favorite political figure. Irony is too much a part of your cultural milieu. Hence the appeal of the horror narrative: The ad isn't mocking Obama for messianic excess. It's literally portraying him as not just any old false messiah but the Antichrist.

What's interesting about this dispute is that it can't be resolved simply by looking at the ad. The interpretation is entirely in the audience's mind. The words and imagery that make Obama look ridiculously messianic are the same words and imagery that make him look like he's usurping the real Messiah's role. There's no way an ad meant to spoof him could avoid the charge of playing to fundamentalist fears. Do you find those words and images silly or scary? It depends on your cultural assumptions.

Though I'm not exactly a fan, I find it hard to believe that John McCain, a man whose humor is a major part of his persona and who clearly thinks Obama is a wet-behind-the-ears pretender, intended anything other than satire. The ad seems like obvious mockery. But it's impossible to disprove that someone in the campaign wanted a "dog whistle" to scare fundamentalists. Like glamour, humor is in the audience's mind. And the people who look at the ad and cry, "Antichrist" see only horror in the Republican base, imagining the worst. (Via Megan McArdle.)

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