Tag Archives: political campaigns

Peanuts and Politics

Things get vicious during election season. Yard signs. TV ads. Facebook posts. Tweets. Even memes. These things are expected and I can ignore them, share them, change channels, or whatever seems necessary, depending on whether I agree with what they say.

What really bugs me, though, is the use of beloved comic characters in political memes. It’s like when politicians use various rock or country songs at their rallies without the permission of – or paying royalties to – the artist. It’s rude. But more than that, it’s illegal. Creators need to be acknowledged for their work and not have it used without permission.

It doesn’t bother me so much when Hollywood stars are used in memes, for some reason. Sam Elliott, for example, appears in memes, usually with the tagline, “You must be some special kind of stupid.” I figure Sam Elliott is big enough to take care of himself, and if he or his agent objected to this use of his image, they could sue, or at least distribute a letter, counter-meme, tweet, or other communication objecting to the use of his image.

No, it’s the beloved icons of our childhood being used for political purposes that gets my goat (or donkey or elephant). The Peanuts characters, for example, appear in memes representing both parties. You see Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, and suddenly it’s a metaphor for some legislative policy or promise or position. Linus carries a protest sign with a political message on it that was never there in the original strip.

We (or at least I) don’t know what Charles Schulz’s political leanings were. Would he object to half of these appropriations of his characters? All of them? Which side, if any, should his estate sue or want to issue an injunction against? The answer is far from clear. But I, for one, would prefer to remember Peanuts the way they were in my childhood – naive, lovable Charlie Brown; trusting but insecure Linus; crabby Lucy; talented Schroeder; imaginative Snoopy; lovable Woodstock; and all the others.

In fact, the only remotely political thing I remember from the comics is that the three things one should never discuss with others were “politics, religion, and the Great Pumpkin.”

One set of comic characters you never see misappropriated, though, are Disney-owned ones like Mickey Mouse. Disney is notoriously litigious and goes after anyone who infringes on their copyrights. Even a school that used Disney figures in an unlicensed mural received a cease-and-desist letter and the threat of a lawsuit. Most creative types don’t have Disney’s vast power and considerable finances behind them. It may seem unkind for Disney to be so prickly about the use of their work, but they are merely exercising their legal rights.

If only all creative types could do so. I like to think that there would be fewer political memes starring Peppermint Patty or Calvin and Hobbes, and more original humor regarding political sentiments. I just wish the “wits” responsible for them would create their own cartoons and leave our childhood ones alone.

The Never-Ending Election

Vote ConceptI’ve been longing for the political season to be over – for the election and the vote counting and the inauguration, so that at least by January, we can all get back to normal life, whatever that is.

Then I realized that this election will never be over.

That’s been the trend with the last several elections. Even after the outcome should have been long settled, the sloganeering and mudslinging continue.

It may have begun back during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when roadblocks were slammed in front of his attempts at health care reform (and is it any wonder, considering that Hillary was put in charge of that instead of beautifying drug-free literate America or something similar?). Then came the calls for impeachment, which Bill prompted by sexual misconduct and lying about it, an age-old practice that no doubt more than a few members of Congress had also pursued. But that was about it for getting anything done that term.

The rhetoric was vicious. Once I was playing a party game in which you had a famous person’s name on your back and had to guess who you had based on comments and questions. The person with the Bill Clinton tag was told, “I hope you rot in hell.”

George W. Bush’s administration was not immune to the plague of hatred, though he had the advantage of calling anyone who opposed him unpatriotic because of terrorism and war and helping the enemy. There was lots of trivia to mock – mispronunciations and shoe-throwing incidents. But there were also more serious accusations that dogged him throughout his administration – that he had stolen the election, even though the Supreme Court said he hadn’t, and the “My Pet Goat”  blank response on 9/11.

And then there came Barack Obama. Commentary and opinions were vicious, both from political pundits and the general public. Some of it was intensely silly – the claim that he and Michelle shared a “terrorist fist bump” and that he had his very own dictatorial flag (which was actually the flag of the State of Ohio, which does feature a large “O,” standing for, well, “Ohio”). But more of it was appalling – comparisons to apes and Hitler, calls for lynching and assassination, and then, when Obama was duly elected, vows from members of Congress to make him a “one-term president.”

Cooler heads called for at least respecting the office, if not the person holding it (though I know at least one person who referred to George W. Bush as “Chimpy McWhistleAss,” then called for respect for “Mr. Obama”). Passing any legislation through Congress proved next to impossible, calls for impeachment were rampant, and Obama was castigated for everything from appointing various “czars” (a common practice and the usual name) to vacationing in the foreign land of Hawaii. Count the number of times he has been called unpatriotic, ignorant, treasonous, tyrannical, obstructionist, poorly educated, racist, Islamic, and evil. I can’t.

So I have not little hope, but no hope that after the election in 2016, the political rhetoric will simmer down. No matter who is elected, governing will be nearly impossible. If Trump wins, his opponents will still call him a failed businessman, tax cheat, and serial womanizer who is unprepared for presidential responsibilities and has stupid hair. If Clinton wins, she will continue to be called a cheat, liar, and traitor, and will be stuck with the nicknames “Hitlery” and “Killary.” There have already been calls for her impeachment before the election is even decided. How can either of them govern with all that baggage to tote?

Will anything substantial be done in the next President’s term in office? Will Congress back down from its obstructionism? Will America be great again or be respected by other nations? Will ordinary citizens stop seeing the government as their enemy and their neighbors as fools? I think we all know the answer to that.

I fear our political system is broken. It was once hoped that the aftermath of 9/11 would bring us together as a nation, but instead we are more divided than ever. What will it take to heal these wounds, inflicted from both without and within? Can anything short of revamping our entire political system, from candidate selection to campaign funding to the electoral college, make us whole again or even patch the cracks?

It would take an extraordinary president, a retreat from partisanship, a calming of the waters, a shift in values – a lot of work from a lot of people who are right now tearing our country apart. Frankly, I don’t see it happening any time soon. But how much more of this division and ugliness can – will – America stand?

Make America Great Again: What Does It Mean?

If you’ve been conscious for the last few months, you’ve heard this slogan from the Trump/Pence political campaign.

But what does it mean?

I’m not a political junkie; I’m a word nerd, so I thought I’d approach the phrase from the perspective of language. I’ll leave the verb out of this discussion (if anyone wants to make a run at it, go ahead). I’ll concern myself with the terms “America,” “Great,” and “Again.”smiling woman with text bubble of american flag

America. What do we mean when we say “America”?

First, and perhaps obviously, we don’t all mean the same thing. Some people define America as “the greatest nation that God ever put on the planet.” But we’ll get to great later. Let’s stick to America for now.

The geography of America really is great. We’ve got those amber waves of grain, mighty redwoods, rocky shores, gorgeous beaches, and a really grand canyon. But that’s just real estate. Without people, all you’ve got is empty space.

So. People. Americans. Now comes some of the language theory. Whatever comes without a hyphen or adjective is considered the norm – standard, real, if you will. Anything with a hyphen or adjective is considered outside the norm and must be defined by that – African- American, Mexican-American, Muslim-American. The language involved implies that true Americans need no hyphen or adjective, and that’s apparently what many people believe –that if you’ve got a hyphen or an adjective, then you’re not really an American, or at least not as American as someone without an adjective or hyphen. Ironically, this means that the original Americans, the people who lived here before the rest of us immigrated, are no longer what is considered standard American. They need an adjective – Native American.

But America is all its people. not just those without hyphens. Immigrants too, which except for the Natives we all are. If the immigrants are illegal, they may not be considered real Americans, but they are part of the American workforce, doing the jobs that other Americans don’t really want because of low pay and unpleasant working conditions – gardening, child care, domestic servants, agricultural workers, and so on. Without their work and their contribution to the American economy, America would be a very different place. Many of them desperately want to become citizens, but even if they do, they’re still hyphenated Americans.

Should they be considered Americans? Right now any of them born in the United States are simply and legally U.S. citizens. The Constitution says so. If that needs to change, so does the Constitution, and that’s no simple matter. What the Constitution really says is to me something that ought to be taught in every American school, in every grade, until the people understand such apparently perplexing concepts as what freedom of religion really means and how difficult it is to change or amend the Constitution. Maybe this was supposed to have been taught, but evidently it didn’t stick with many former students.

For example, the President cannot by himself (or herself) change the Constitution. If anyone wants an amendment that would not grant citizenship to everyone born on U.S. soil if they were born to illegal immigrant parents, or to cancel the Second Amendment (to choose two not entirely random examples), there is a long, difficult process involving not just Congress, but the states. A certain number of states must approve – ratify – the new Amendment and have only a limited time to do so. It’s harder than you think. That’s the kind of thing that ought to be taught in school. No one just waves a hand and takes away birthright citizenship or guns.

Great. All of that leads us to the question of what great means, in the context of America. I think it’s great that America can add new amendments to the Constitution when they think of a great new idea (like Prohibition) and repeal amendments that turn out to be really bad ideas (like Prohibition).

Other things that are great become not-so-great when you take them too far. Strength is great; being a bully isn’t. Free speech is great; terrorist or assassination threats, not so much. (Free speech is another idea that ought to be taught in school. It doesn’t mean what many people seem to think it means. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

The thing is, you don’t get to be great simply by saying that you’re great. That’s like calling yourself a karate black belt or a tenured professor or a Senator or even a McDonald’s manager. Those are things you have to earn. You have to do great things, like joining other nations in defeating Hitler, or having ideas like “no taxation without representation,” or saying things like “all men are created equal” – and putting them into practice. That’s the tricky part.

Let’s face it, we’re never going to all agree on what “great” means. I may be a great poker player, but to someone else that’s not great, it’s being good at a silly, materialistic game. Another person may scoff at a parent who’s great at planning birthday parties – but that parent is showing love of family and creating something great for others. Is a chef great? Is a food bank volunteer? Is a pro athlete great? Is a high school coach? Many times it’s in the eye of the beholder.

So, is America’s greatness in the eye of beholders? Are we saying great things but not putting them into action? Do the opinions of the rest of the world count? Because a lot of other people and other countries – and some Americans – seem to think that America falls short in some aspects of greatness. Refusing to abide by treaties we have signed. Quibbling over the meaning of “torture” instead of just not doing it. Not doing right by our veterans in terms of housing, health care, and jobs.

Some other countries are greater than we are in certain areas – mathematically, provably so. Many other countries’ education systems produce students who outscore ours in math and reading. Some unexpected countries such as Estonia and Singapore have lower maternal death rates than America does. Are not educational achievement and maternal health great things, and do we not fall short in them? Or is America always great in all things?

Again. The word “again” implies that there was once a time when America was great, but that we no longer are. It used to be that saying America isn’t great was a serious political mistake, but apparently now it’s okay.

To say “make America great again,” (once we’ve figured out “America” and “great”) we must define a time in the past when America was great, that we now need to return to.

So when was that time?

As a character in Seanan Maguire’s novel Once Broken Faith says, “Anyone who says the past was perfect is a liar and wasn’t there.”

What about at the founding of the country? Wasn’t America great then? Yes, it was a great time of great ideas to build the foundation of a great nation. But it wasn’t so great for anyone who wasn’t a white, male adult landowner. Those were the only people who had much say in what America would be and what would make it great. Imagine if today no one who rented a house or apartment were allowed to vote; if women were the property of their husbands; if there were no laws against child labor and child abuse; if an entire segment of society suffered the cruelties of enslavement. Not so great, eh?

What about the Fifties? Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best? (Never mind that those were Hollywood fictions, not documentaries, and no more real than The Walking Dead or Modern Family.) Again, not great for everyone – domestic abuse victims, children targeted by sexual predators, drug addicts, the mentally ill (which at the time included homosexuals, according to the DSM, the psychiatric “Bible”, and too many others to name. These are not recent phenomena. We just didn’t have names for some of them then, or kept them behind closed doors, unspoken and ignored.

The Sixties? The Eighties? Any decade – any year – you look at, is a mixture of great things and not-so-great things. Can we really go back to the great ideas, accomplishments, institutions, without going back to the wars, injustices, and problems that co-existed with them? Even if we have learned from our errors so we wouldn’t repeat them (a dubious concept at best), can we really believe that the world – that America – would exist in a stasis of greatness with no new difficulties and horrors to face?

Make America Great Again. It’s a great slogan, until you look at it more closely. As always with slippery language, there’s a lot lying hidden under the surface. Let’s drag it out and talk about what it means, and how we really can improve America.

Wouldn’t that be great?

 

Where Music and Politics Meet

This land is your land,
This land is my land,
From California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.

This, the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s famous American ballad, is all that most people know of the song. It is repeatedly sung at patriotic events, civic occasions, and celebrations of American holidays.

According to Wikipedia, Guthrie wrote the song “in critical response to Irving Berlin‘s ‘God Bless America,‘ which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent.”

If people know any more of the song, then they know one or two of these verses:

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway,
I saw below me that golden valley,
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled, and I followed my footsteps
To the sparking sands of her diamond deserts,
All around me a voice was sounding,
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, then I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling,
A voice was chanting as the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

There are other verses, though, that aren’t commonly sung or even remembered. In them Guthrie spoke of the plight of ordinary people caught in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and the economic crisis that afflicted the whole nation. These verses are usually left out because of their political/economic message, which were deemed sympathetic to communism.

One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people,
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if,
This land was made for you and me.

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
Was a great big sign that said, “Private Property,”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking my freedom highway,
Nobody living can make me turn back,
This land was made for you and me.

Another verse, added by Guthrie’s friend, folksinger Pete Seeger, takes the political/social message even further, and includes a Bible reference:

Maybe you’ve been working as hard as you’re able,
But you’ve just got crumbs from the rich man’s table,
And maybe you’re thinking, was it truth or fable,
That this land was made for you and me.

With the political season heating up, Woody Guthrie has been much on my mind lately. Politicians have been quick to use popular songs in their campaigns based on their titles, but ignoring the lyrics. “This Land Is Your Land” was used in 1988 by George H.W. Bush. Guthrie, being long dead, couldn’t complain.

Other choices have been, well, problematic. In 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot used Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy,” a song about hopeless love. In 2000, George W. Bush was threatened with a lawsuit by Tom Petty to stop the candidate from using the singer’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and was criticized by other performers for using their tunes. (Primary candidate Mike Huckabee was also asked in 2008 to stop using Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.”)

As The Washington Post reported,

The most famously misread song may have been Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” During his 1984 reelection campaign, President Reagan praised Springsteen’s “message of hope” during a stop in New Jersey. It wasn’t clear which song, or songs, Reagan meant (and there’s no record of Reagan’s campaign actually playing the song), but many assumed he was referring to “Born,” the title track of Springsteen’s best-selling album at the time. The song, of course, is about the opposite of hope; it’s the anguished cry of a Vietnam veteran, returning home to bleak prospects (“I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go”). Springsteen later expressed irritation at being made an implicit part of Reagan’s morning-in-America reelection rhetoric.

Nor is this a phenomenon whose time has passed. Although the election season has barely started, there has already been at least one controversy. Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young (who of course can’t vote in American elections) can still express his opinions of them.

Young objected when Donald Trump’s crew played “Rockin’ in the Free World” during Trump’s trip to the podium to announce his campaign for President. As breitbart.com noted (http://www.breitbart.com/big-hollywood/2015/06/23/after-shaming-trump-neil-young-allows-bernie-sanders-to-use-campaign-song/), “an official statement from Young’s camp immediately responded, “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for President of the United States of America.” He had not authorized Trump’s use of the song, though the candidate’s campaign manager asserted that they had paid for the rights to do so. (Rights to use a song can usually be purchased from the music publisher.)

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, folksingers wrote songs specifically about the various issues that arose in elections (“The Draft-Dodger Rag,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” CSNY’s “Ohio,” “National Brotherhood Week”). That song trend was satirized in Tom Lehrer’s “The Folk Song Army” and is rarely seen these days, except perhaps on open mic nights at local bars and coffee shops. The day of protest songs sung by thousands at rallies or played on the radio has largely given way to the shouting or chanting of slogans (“Feel the Bern”) or general feel-good patriotic pop or country-pop songs. “God Bless the U.S.A.” might just replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. (It is easier to sing.)

God, I miss Woody Guthrie! I bet he’d have a thing or two to sing about this election cycle.

By the way, what do you suggest? Let me know what you think would be a good campaign song – for either side.