Learned a new word this week: “bobbleheads.” More precisely, I learned a new metaphor, having heard the word itself long before, applied to those silly little dolls, with large heads, that bob up and down, because connected by springs to their small bodies. They are also known as “wobblers,” I believe.
But thanks to Fox News (we practise complete candour in this column), I now know that is what you call the people who are placed behind, for instance, the president of the United States when he is making a major policy address from some field location—“applauding, laughing, smiling and bobbing their heads” to every presidential “nuance.” Depending on the subject of the speech, these human dolls will be decked out in medical jackets, construction helmets, college gear, whatever.
Politicians wonder sometimes why the public are so cynical, but only because they don’t know the meaning of the word “cynical.” I have spent a measurable part of my life pleading for a deeper appreciation of it. Sure it means sniffing, sneering, scoffing. It comes from Greek through Latin cynicus, meaning dog-like. The Cynics were an ascetical sect of intellectuals in ancient Greece, their students like dogs at the feet of their professorial masters. And by gradual extension, from the teachings of this sect: “currish, churlish.” And perhaps, “yappy.”
The word is now being extended in the wrong direction: away from dog-like and toward cat-like, I think. Whereas, I want the focus moved from the dog back to the master; and thus in the direction conveyed by our English adjective, “Machiavellian.”
A cynical operator treats humans like dogs. Instead of reasoning with them, he manipulates with treats, and soothing words; or by invoking bogeymen, arousing fears, and pulling on their bureaucratic leashes. He teaches them to heel, stand, sit, sit and stay, fetch, beg. And all the while pretending to be humble; “the dog’s best friend.”
The phenomenon is hardly restricted to politics. All “lifestyle” advertising is based on similar forms of cynical manipulation; on the creation of quite crass associations between the product and the customer’s little panting ego.
“Don’t tell me about your grass seed, tell me about my lawn,” an advertising professional once explained to me. That is how the salesman should manipulate the potential purchaser of grass seed. Far from feeding his own ego, the salesman should manipulate that of his “target,” leading him by increments of happy association from his natural skepticism to irrational desire. It’s not just the money, but the thrill of persuading some half-wit hedonist to buy something that he doesn’t need, and never previously wanted.
Forget what this shampoo is made of, or that it costs $11.95; you need to know that it will make you sexy. It will turn you from the mousy little string-mop entity that you are, into a ravishing Brazilian supermodel. A bargain at the price!
The political equivalent is, “Vote for me, and you will feel good about yourself.” You’ll be caring and sharing, much more intelligent, in with the winners, and cool, way cool. Vote for the other guy and all you’ll ever get is some miserable tax cut. And you’ll feel like such a dork.
Which takes us back to the bobbleheads. To say it is a form of cynical manipulation would be stating the obvious, and yet, it works. All presidents have aides, and their core job description is orchestrating the bobbleheads—on many different media planes. They wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t pay off.
Likewise, we wouldn’t have “lifestyle” advertising if “the people” weren’t stupid enough to fall for it. Market research shows it works every time. And that market research is, along with the extravagant promotional campaigns, a large part of the price tag, on that $11.95 bottle of shampoo. Another large part is taxes, built into every stage of production, and not just the sales tax at the end—the final tax on the taxes (until governments add a “green” surcharge).
Mass manipulation wouldn’t be possible without people organized into a mass, and the means of delivering messages to them through mass media. Our democracy today is mass democracy, something almost infinitely removed from the original Greek idea, of democracy on the direct, personal scale.
Yet, mass manipulation can disintegrate in an “Oz moment”—named from the famous movie, when a curtain is pulled by the dog, Toto, and the Wizard appears at work, on his console of levers, wheels, and gizmos, exposed as a well-meaning fake. (It is a sublime movie.)
On Wednesday, I was writing in qualified praise of the U.S. “Tea Party,” with its “back to Kansas” agenda. In articles to come, God willing, I want to wrestle with what I believe to be our greatest political challenge: how to dismantle our morally and fiscally bankrupt “mass democracy”—or “bobblehead democracy,” if you will. And, how to return to the kind in which the citizen himself participates in decisions directly and personally.