Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Journalism

Merry Christmas. War is…Over?

I’m not sure when it started, but I am told that there is most definitely a “War on Christmas” occurring in America at the present moment. Well, reoccurring to be more accurate. In response we see comedian Jon Stewart formally declaring a (mock) “War on Christmas” even as other media outlets attempt to understand what the fuss is all about. What is a journalist to do? To ignore the situation seems neglectful, but to acknowledge the dispute is to grant a measure of legitimacy. In short, what is one’s responsibility when it comes to reporting something like the “War on Christmas”? Is there a way to contextualize the issue without engaging directly, perhaps seeing the fervor as the product of a channel that must find news (or create it)?

Part of the struggle, I think, lies in the notion that the commercialized Christmas has invariably become part of the traditional Christmas story in America. Even children’s specials support this notion, for despite Charlie Brown’s speech that commercialism will not ruin his Christmas, it is only after his sapling is transformed through the trappings of commercial celebration that it is allowed to bring the children together. This is not to suggest that we confuse Santa Claus with Jesus, but that both figures have become central to the Christian understanding of the season. If there indeed is a “War on Christmas,” are we even fighting the right enemy?

But beyond the rabble rousing, I am incredibly interested in the sensationalist deployment of “Nazi” in order to challenge those who are seen as hindering Christians’ ability to celebrate Christmas for one of Nazism’s goals was the unification of the German people through the perceived threat imposed by the Polish. In line with a position heavily influenced by Social Darwinism, Nazism construed this assault in terms of a mortal danger—in this model, there would only be one type of winner and Nazis most definitely intended to ensure their own survival.

What happens, then, if we remove Nazis from the discussion (and, along with them, the inherent negative connotations) and instead consider the process employed by the National Socialist party? We must recognize that this sort of community building is not inherently evil nor is it a product of Nazism—to label it as such would be to ignore the larger ideological developments at play and to fail to understand its relative import to us today. This, to me, seems to be the real story at the heart of all of this rhetoric:  what are the ways that dominant ideology paints itself as a victim in order to garner support?

As others have noted, the “War on Christmas” is perhaps really just a battle in the larger “War on Christianity.” Viewed in this way, we can situate the current discussions alongside Lowe’s decision to remove its ads from All-American Muslim and concern over religious iconography on military bases. For me, the larger area of concern is not whether Christianity is in fact jeopardized but rather how such a war is being constructed in the first place. If we look back at tactics employed during the Nazi assertion of power, we can better understand the potential benefits of fostering an environment that finds itself in a perpetual state of battle with the secular Other threatening imminent demise.

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies cultural anxieties that surround the social construction of the body. Throughout his work, Chris attempts to use Post/Transhumanism, Early Modern Science, Gothic Horror, and religion to answer the question, “How do we become more than our bodies?” 

Read up on Chris’ pop culture musings or follow him on Twitter as he endeavors not to eat his weight in holiday snacks.

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I See Signs Now All the Time

The various Occupy movements that have sprung up around the country have an interesting name that certainly harken back to the American practice of the sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. And although those in the movement choose to occupy places with their physical bodies, I also wonder how the very visual nature of Occupy works to demonstrate a claim over space in a different manner. Complementing the drum circles that serve to claim space through sound, we also see a high incidence of banners, posters, and signs.

The signs serve as the nexus of a complicated set of messages:  in addition to planting an ideological flag in the ground (which occasionally manifests as a literal flag) for media outlets and in-person viewers alike, the choice of motifs and thematic elements gives us some insight into who the protesters are. Take, for example, the images displayed in the Tea Party rallies and those of the protests against Scott Walker in Wisconsin alongside those of Occupy and we begin to see points of contrast.

And, in a way, perhaps it is no surprise that the Occupy movement is so highly visible, given its roots in Adbusters and the Guy Fawkes masks associated with Anonymous—both examples of ways in which images are played with in order to create memorable (and powerful) figures. To this history we add a likely population of individuals steeped in a culture of parody and satire (e.g., The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, Funny or Die, and Saturday Night Live) and one might argue that individuals in this movement possess a visual fluency that differs from previous generations of protest and concordantly deploy their visual aids with a different intent.

Through all of this, I wonder about how our mainstream media outlets manage to keep pace with the recent changes in protests (or hasn’t). As we have unpacked the events of Tahrir Square and the “Arab Spring,” we have come to see that although social media played a role in organizing and dissemination of information, it was not a “Twitter Revolution” in the sense that the movement was born on an online platform. Was the moniker simply something catchy and representative of the protest’s novelty? How much of the name was a desire by the media to collapse the complexity of the movement into a sound bite that could be readily conveyed? Similarly, I think about the media’s efforts to pin down the purpose of Occupy with many voices wondering aloud in the early stages. If we think about the recent set of unrests as a modified form of political protest, how much of the media’s vagueness (or our own for that matter) can be explained by the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis that our ability to comprehend the world depends on what we have language for? Are we struggling to develop a language for the different ways in which signs, symbols, and images are being used in political protests?


Tell Me No Lies

Today, more than ever, individuals are awash in a sea of information that swirls around us, invisible as it is inescapable. And yet, for people who exist solidly within an age of American history defined by our access to, and relationship with, information, we are surprisingly challenged by the overwhelming onslaught of data as we struggle to sort, filter, and conceptualize that which surrounds us. We lament the overbearing influence exerted by algorithms on the Internet on Wall Street (Pariser, 2011; Kaufman Jr. & Levin, 2011) while concurrently expressing concern over technological advances that allow for the manipulation of the genetic code—itself a type of information!—as we foresee a future the portends the elimination of disease while simultaneously raising issues of eugenics and bioethics (Reiss & Straughan, 1996; Lambrecht, 2001). Or, perhaps more frighteningly, we do not comment at all.

Information, in one sense, can then be understood to occupy a place in American culture that is fraught with tension. Concordantly, it may come as no surprise that society also exhibits a complex relationship with news outlets given that the press represents an industry whose primary function revolves around the dissemination of information.[1] Moreover, if we accept what Herbert J. Gans’ calls “bulwark theory” (2010)—the position that an informed populace is a crucial, if not sufficient, component for the operation of a functioning democracy—we see that the institution continues to perform a vital service in spite of its flaws and constraints.

Take, for example, the limitations that arise from the news media’s current reliance on credentialed sources:  while it might make intuitive and economic sense to obtain information directly from organizational spokespeople, the press has evolved in such a way as to become beholden to these establishments for their information, resulting in the ability of corporations, government, and industry to exert a larger measure of control over the narrative (Herman & Chmosky, 1988). Put another way, if we were to understand information flow as a pipeline that stretches between events and the public, certain institutions have managed to create a chokepoint by situating themselves as the sole providers of legitimate and/or official news with regard to a particular matter. Although this situation obviously puts the public and the press at a general disadvantage, this relationship becomes particularly problematic when organizations performing a gatekeeping function decide that withholding information is in the public interest.

In particular, the ongoing “war on terror” provides fertile ground to explore such practices with the government periodically claiming that the release of information may compromise ongoing efforts.[2] While government officials may in fact be correct about the repercussions of making knowledge public, such behavior also elicits a measure of frustration from the public and the press as noted in an editorial authored on October 9, 2011 by public editor Arthur S. Brisbane entitled “The Secrets of Government Killing.”[3]

Sparked by a lack of clarity surrounding the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki on September 30 of this year, Brisbane chastises the contradictory tactics employed by government officials with administrators refusing to provide information publically while simultaneously “leaking” information through anonymous sources. Such a strategy, also employed in areas like celebrity public relations, not only fosters a sentiment that the press has been duped into publicizing and legitimizing the government’s talking points but also prevents individual government officials from being accountable for their actions. Additionally, news media, for their part, cannot lean too heavily on their sources even if they feel an obligation to report on the inner workings of government for they are subject to the “shadow of the future” effect, which essentially posits that current actions facilitate the development of reputation systems and are affected by the anticipated impact that they will have on future interactions (Axelrod, 1984; Resnick, Zeckhauser, Friedman, & Kuwabara, 2000)—in other words, pressing their contacts might inhibit the ability of the press to access future information. This situation, characterized by Brisbane as “awkward,” is potentially detrimental and serves to expose the existent dysfunction in the relationship between the press and the government (2011).

Moreover, whether or not the withholding of information is justified by the government, this sort of behavior undoubtedly serves to breed conspiracy theorists and a general air of distrust regarding the current administration, for it implies that a divide between front stage and backstage knowledge exists.[4] In addition to encouraging feelings of paranoia, this practice also makes the hierarchy of access to privileged information salient, causing the public to become curious about that which is forbidden. A constant tension exists between the government, the press, and the public as the involved parties attempt to ascertain who knows what about whom (Goffman, 1959)—the public may become suspicious that the press is colluding with the government while the government may be trying to stay one step ahead of the press and the public.[5]

Lest we think that this phenomenon is confined to politics, another article from the New York Times articulates how the desire to know inside information is applicable to a wide range of endeavors. In “Inside Knowledge for All You Outsiders,” A. O. Scott notes similar thematic elements in films that range from the political Ides of March to the virulent Contagion and from the investment banking of Margin Call to the baseball statistics of Moneyball, all of which spoke to an exploration of inside knowledge in some manner (2011).[6] These forms of entertainment, Scott argues, hold an appeal for audiences in part because they afford us the sense that we are breaking through the insular barrier of professionals and finally allowed to join in on the conversations taking place behind closed doors (Scott, 2011; Didion, 1988).[7] For Goffman, possessing a more complete picture of the situation (i.e., a “working consensus”) allows one to better dictate the nature of the interaction and leads to more desirable outcomes, particularly when we are trying to manage our images and reputations.

And the increased facility with image management is an important point to consider when framing our heightened awareness of the relationship between news sources, news outlets, and the public; perhaps our increased sensitivity hasn’t come about solely through violations of the public’s trust but also because we are also increasingly engaged in deceptive practices that revolve around the manipulation of knowledge. Using the popularity of social media as a pertinent example, we might engage in small deceptions on our online profiles as we attempt to lessen the rejection that we so desperately seek to avoid in real life or we might alter a personal characteristic in order to test the waters of a new identity in an environment that dampens anxiety and judgment. Here, in a fashion, we have assumed the role of those we would protest against—the news sources.[8] The question, then, is how our personal experiences in these endeavors might impact our attitudes regarding the news industry. Has the more digestible system of information management present on social networks helped us to become more aware of the implications of information flow, more blasé, or both?

Technological innovations like social media have allowed us, as individuals, to connect over vast differences and afforded us many opportunities that we might not otherwise have; yet, in some ways, it has also left us disconnected from the things that (arguably) matter the most. However, before we begin blaming our societal woes on technology, we should consider how negotiating these new forms of social relations represent but one factor in a complex network of behaviors that help to account for the manifestation and reinforcement of the industry/press/public phenomenon outlined earlier.

For example, perhaps this development is not so surprising if we consider the increasing commodification of knowledge in postmodern culture. If we ascribe to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s argument regarding the closely intertwined relationship between knowledge and production in late 20th century society—specifically that the cultivation of new knowledge in order to further production—and therefore that information sets are a means to an end and not an end in and of themselves, we witness a startling change in the relationship between society and knowledge (1979). In opposition to the idealistic pursuit of knowledge for its own sake that occurred during the Enlightenment period, modern perspectives seem to understand knowledge in terms of leverage—in other words, we, like all good consumers, perennially ask the question, “What can you do for me?” Notably, this cultural shift does not disavow the value of knowledge but does change how such worth is determined and classified.

Lyotard’s ideas also hold resonance for modern culture as he acknowledges the danger posed by the (then) newly-formed entity of the multinational corporation as a body that could potentially supersede or subvert the authority of the nation-state (1979). Although we might be inclined to focus on the mechanisms by which institutions like the government, military, or finance, control and regulate knowledge, businesses like Facebook and Google also deserve attention as entities that accumulate enormous amounts of information (often with our willing, if unwitting, participation) and therefore amass incredible power, with the genius of these organizations residing in their ability to facilitate access to our own information! Without judging such companies—although some assuredly do—we can readily glimpse similarities between these establishments’ penchant for controlling the dissemination of information and the practices of government officials outlined earlier in this article. In spite of the current fervor surrounding the defense of rights outlined in the Constitution, we largely continue to ignore how companies like Google and Facebook have also gained the potential to impact concepts like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of information; algorithms designed to act as filters allow us to cut through the noise but also severely reduce our ability to conceptualize what is missing. These potential problems underscore the need to revisit Francis Bacon’s assertion that knowledge is power—power, in some ways, no longer solely resides in knowledge but increasingly in access to it.


[1] Of course, this should not suggest that the only function of the press is to inform the public as one might argue that the very act of information exchange helps to support the development of community. For a counterpoint that features the positive results of this process and its perversion by the mass media, see Jürgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

[2] For more information about the Supreme Court case that established such precedent, see United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953).

[3] From the New York Times website: “Arthur S. Brisbane is the fourth public editor appointed by The Times. The public editor works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about articles published in the paper.  His opinions and conclusions are his own.” (The New York Times, 2010).

[4] Here I refer to the terms as used by Erving Goffman.

[5] Adapted from my reading response for August 30.

[6] This is, of course, in addition to the perennial popularity of procedural shows on television that explore the inner workings of police forces, hospitals and/or medical professionals, and the judicial system. A recent trend in reality television has also endeavored to showcase niche occupations (and the lives of) truckers, loggers, crabbers, innkeepers, and gold prospectors—I suspect that, to some degree, these docu-soaps attempt to capitalize on the same impulses as their mainstream network counterparts.

[7] See also Herbert J. Gans’ “News and the News Media in the Digital Age:  Implications for Democracy.”

[8] Although it should be noted that after the 2008 election campaigns presidential hopefuls seem to be embracing this technology to a greater degree and such actions are surely part of a particular candidate’s image management plan. For further reading on implementation of social media in the current campaign cycle, please see Ashley Parker’s “A Presidential Candidate’s Special Team.”

Works Cited

Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

Brisbane, A. S. (2011, October 9). The Secrets of Government Killing. The New York Times, p. SR.12.

Didion, J. (1988, October 27). Insider Baseball. The New York Review of Books, p. 19.

Gans, H. J. (2010). News and the News Media in the Digital Age: Implications for Democracy. Daedalus, Spring, 8-17.

Goffman, E. (1959). Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New york: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. (T. Burger, & F. Lawrence, Trans.) Cambridge: Polity.

Herman, E. S., & Chmosky, N. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Kaufman Jr., E. E., & Levin, C. M. (2011, May 6). Preventing the Next Flash Crash. The New York Times, p. A.27.

Lambrecht, B. (2001). Dinner at the New Gene Cafe: How Genetic Engineering Is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Pariser, E. (2011). The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: The Penguin Press.

Parker, A. (2011, October 9). A Presidential Candidate’s Special Team. The New York Times, p. ST.6.

Reiss, M. J., & Straughan, R. (1996). Improving Nature?: The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Resnick, P., Zeckhauser, R., Friedman, E., & Kuwabara, K. (2000). Reputation Systems. Association for Computing Machinery, 43(12), 45-48.

Scott, A. O. (2011, October 9). Inside Knowledge for All You Outsiders. The New York Times, p. AR.1.

The New York Times. (2010, June). The Opinion Pages. Retrieved October 20, 2011, from The New York Times: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/thepubliceditor/index.html


Standing on the Edge of the World

Although the term “public opinion” has primarily been paired with politics over these past weeks, I tend to enter the conversation through the machinations of celebrity; if fame represents the phenomenon in question (i.e., the “what”), then Walter Lippman provides a “how” while Walter Benjamin chimes in with a “why.” The explanations of Lippman and Benjamin, are, of course, not the only ways in which one might endeavor to explain complex phenomenon of things like celebrity or political attitudes, but, for me, they represent a way.

In “How the News Shapes Our Civic Agenda” Maxwell McCombs and Amy Renyolds mention how Lippman’s seminal work Public Opinion outlines some of the ideas of what would later be called agenda-setting theory (generally, the idea that the relative attention given to articles by the mass media is correlated with the relative importance of those articles’ content by audiences) but this model, although likely valid, seems incomplete as it forwards a passive and reactionary position on behalf of audiences—although agenda-setting may certainly represent an influence on salience, it seems unlikely to represent the only factor at work.

Indirectly, agenda-setting speaks to some of the ways in which audiences can work to inscribe particular things (be they news items or celebrities) but here, the work of Benjamin sheds some light on why researchers may have observed the patterns that they did with regard to agenda-setting theory. Although admittedly more complex than is outlined here, one of the arguments made in Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is society’s rationalization that, in a world with limited resources, replicated images are worth reproducing. Applying this concept to news media, which  also suffers its own set of constraints (e.g., space in print media or time in broadcast media), we understand that particular items are not only newsworthy because of the focus placed upon them, but also because they are covered at the expense of other things which were not mentioned.

But here I would suggest that the mere amount of exposure cannot fully account for the totality of the effects observed. Recalling earlier class discussions on the nature of advertising, it seems fair to argue that the messages put forth by outside agencies like news media outlets must be rendered meaningful by individuals and be available for recall. In order to support this notion (and introducing a bit of Social Psychology), we might refer to Vincent Price, David Tewksbury, and Elizabeth Powers’ concept of the “knowledge store,” which is itself reminiscent of the availability heuristic (i.e, the mental shortcut that describes the process whereby we assign additional importance to information that we can most readily recall, creating a correlation between memorable qualities and importance). What Price, Tewksbury, and Powers suggest is that it is not enough merely to have representation, but that these representations must be vivid and able to be recalled by individuals in order to have an effect. While one might be tempted to relegate this finding to sensationalist media, I believe that the work of Price, Tewksbury, and Powers also helps us to explain the processes described in agenda-setting theory.


The Majority Report

The charge of media’s liberal bias is not a new one.

From Sarah Palin’s cry of “gotcha questions” to Jon Stewart’s arguments against inflammatory rhetoric, we see a wide range of individuals in America expressing discontentment with the status quo.

And those critical of mainstream media also have a point.

But when we consider our demands for mainstream media, are we calling for reforms in reporting or asking journalism to be something that it’s not? We see individuals from different political positions calling for change in the media and in reporting, but how realistic are our demands given the structure of the media industry itself? I believe that we can challenge the system, but are we focusing on the branches instead of the roots?

Taking the recent News Corporation “hacking scandal” as an example, we simultaneously see multiple ways in which journalistic outlets failed citizens and how the problem cannot simply be solved by asking reporters/editors to “do better.”

On the ground level, we of course have the unethical behavior evidenced by the News of the World staff that formed the basis for the story. However, given that this was not just an isolated incident (i.e., a “rogue reporter” as initially stated) we must also examine the institutional and structural supports that may have served to foster a culture in which the aforementioned scandal could occur. As the story developed, the public began to gain insight into a newsroom that deemed information more valuable than people; a mogul who, although not directly involved, nevertheless shirked responsibility for his employees; and a media that seemed content to fixate on “hacking” rather than the larger issues of ethical practice and invasion of privacy.[1]

This, of course, raises the notion of just who comprises journalism’s constituency. Although it seems like the straightforward answer would be that the fourth estate ideally serves the people, this stance may in fact not be correct in practice. The propaganda model, put forth by Herman and Chomsky (1988) suggests that a number of intervening factors—what the authors call “filters”—exist in mass media that serve to subvert journalism, making it beholden to entities other than the public. Concentration of ownership along with reliance on advertisers and reliable sources suggest that any problems evidenced by the media are, in fact, much more complex than many initially realize; while criticism of the media might be warranted, focusing all of our attention solely on the media will never effect any real change.

If we accept the validity of Herman and Chomsky’s arguments, we see that mainstream media might actually contain strains of conservative bias. Such an argument should not suggest that media outlets cannot also contain a liberal bias (to wit, Herbert J. Gans paraphrases Stephen Colbert’s assertion that life itself tends to lean liberal) but merely argue against the notion that media inherently and/or necessarily contains an all-consuming bias toward the liberal.


[1] This should not suggest that hacking is not a legitimate social concern, as we have witnessed large-scale attacks against government and corporations that have definite potential for harm. However, in this case, the discussion surrounding this particular story seemed to play on the fears (and popular preconceptions) of the public in order to make a somewhat sensationalist argument. Put another way, I would suggest that this was a “scandal that involved hacking” and not a “hacking scandal.” Although I think that the first conceptualization is more accurate, I can also see how the second phrase is easier to sell and why mainstream media outlets—beholden to advertisers and conscious of time/space—would choose the latter.


Why the “Cult” of Mormonism Misses the Mark

The question of Mormonism’s role in this election cycle refuses to die.

Over the weekend, much ado was made regarding Reverend Robert Jeffress’ assertion that Mormonism was a cult, with editorials and articles appearing across media outlets. Although I recognize that the dispute supposedly at the heart of this matter is whether or not Mormonism is, in fact, a form of Christianity, I also suspect that this entire discussion is being overplayed because of its proximity to the Republican nomination process. I, for one, have not seen many (if any) crusades to dissuade Mormons from calling themselves Christians in other contexts. For that matter, this is not the first time that America has broached the subject, but we seem to have forgotten that Mitt Romney had to defend his religion the last time we went through all of this four years ago. We could go back and forth over the distinction between religion and cult—see other discussions regarding the nature of Scientology or the perception of early Christianity in a Jewish society—but I believe that this would be time spent unwisely.

Instead, the more problematic line from Jeffress at the Value Voters Summit was, “Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ?” Putting aside the false dichotomy between a “good moral person” and a “born-again follower of Jesus Christ”—which incidentally suggests that a candidate who identifies as born-again Christian is not a good moral person—the underlying message subtly implies supporting Christians over good moral people. Of course the two categories are not mutually exclusive, but I think that reporters missed a great opportunity to disentangle emotionally-charged words from thoughtful political action. Even when the topic was mentioned, discussion quickly moved onto another distraction:  the Constitutional injunction against religious testing prior to assuming public office. Instead of publishing headlines like “Cantor Doesn’t Believe Religion Should be Factor in 2012,” which, besides being misleading and not truly reflective of the article’s body, news media have an obligation to explain to voters why religion does matter in the political process. Values do matter and religion undoubtedly speaks to a portion of that—just not all of it. We know from reports like those of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that religion does impact voting, so why pretend otherwise? The opportunity that the press has, however, is to challenge pundits, politicians, and the public not to use “religion” to mean more than it should.

Moreover, another missed opportunity for the media was Jeffress’ assertion that Romeny was a “fine family person” but still not a Christian, given that he was speaking to a crowd ostensibly gathered in support of family values. Shouldn’t this statement, particularly at this function, cause reporters to question exactly what types of values are being upheld? Doesn’t Jeffress’ statement call for an examination of exactly what is meant by terms like “Christian” and “Mormon”? Ultimately it is these values that will determine the potential President’s policy, not the moniker of a religion.

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Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies the relationship of personal identity to the body. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties.

Read up on Chris’ pop culture musings or follow him on Twitter as he tries to avoid the Flavor Aid.


Iowa’s Straw Poll Helps Us Take Stock, Not Just of Candidates But of Ourselves

In a move long-suspected by many, Texas governor Rick Perry officially declared his intention to seek the office of President this past Saturday. Perry, who garnered national attention with his rally, The Response, once again invokes—or at least should cause one to question—the manner in which religion has been interwoven into a political climate that has, of late, seemed to largely fixate on the economic issues of budgets, debt, and unemployment.

Without diminishing the importance of these topics or their coverage, the recent debates in Iowa suggest that understanding the potential impact of religion in the various GOP campaigns is of value whether one identifies as Republican or not. Beyond the gaffe of news anchor Ainsley Earhardt, and the larger discussion (and negotiation) of Mormonism that it references, religion’s presence seems to have manifested in subtle, but potentially significant, ways throughout this campaign season.

Responding, perhaps, to a recent poll that indicated Americans’ preference for a strongly religious President (despite not being able to correctly identify the specific beliefs of major candidates), Fox News displayed a graphic during the Iowa debates that indicated three pieces of information:  religion, marital status, and number of children. Interestingly, this graphic was paired with another image showcasing each individual candidate’s political experience, perhaps suggesting that Fox News considered these two sets of information equally important for viewers.

And, in a way, maybe they are.

During the debates on Thursday, Byron York asked candidate Michele Bachmann about how her religious beliefs—specifically her belief in the virtue of submissiveness—might affect her behavior, citing her prior decision to become a tax lawyer as a result of her understanding of God’s desire as channeled through her husband. Although this inquiry elicited a strong display of displeasure from the audience as extraneous or unfair, the question seemed designed to probe Bachmann’s decision-making process in the past as well as what might shape her choices in the future if she were to become President.

So maybe the relevant concerns aren’t necessarily what religion a person is or isn’t (although this does not excuse the propagation of misinformation), but rather specifically how these beliefs influence a candidate’s perception of the world and the behavioral responses that those filters elicit. Undoubtedly, religion plays a role in shaping our understanding of the world and the range of perceived actions that is available to us at any given moment.

But beliefs aren’t exclusive to the religious community:  if the recent skirmishes over the federal debt ceiling have taught us anything, it is that we demonstrate a potential aversion to complexity or are perhaps slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of problems posed by the modern world. Our own response to these looming presences is to streamline the world, tending to engage with our environment in the specific, and limited, ways that align with our mental picture of the world.

So, before we criticize Rick Perry’s drive to ask God to fix America—as tempting it might be for atheists and secularists—we need to examine the human desire to seek out, and ascribe to, simple answers that are readily available in times of crisis. This impulse, which seems to have largely assumed the form of religious rhetoric in the current round of Republican campaigns (and one might even argue that the content itself is not necessarily spiritual in nature if we look at the reverence given to the invocation of Reagan) seems to be the real, and often under-discussed, issue at play. Although a more arduous task, I believe that appreciating the power and presence of religion in this process will afford us a richer understanding of the American people and their relationship to contemporary politics.

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies the relationship of personal identity to the body. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties.

Read up on Chris’ pop culture musings or follow him on Twitter as he searches for LA’s best iced coffee.