Dumb or Smug – But Useful

Orwell warned us about 1984 – but he didn’t warn us about PowerPoint. The first version of that presentation software came into the world on August 14, 1984 – designed for the Macintosh and called “Presenter.” In 1987, as it had been adapted to DOS-based machines used in the business world, it was renamed “PowerPoint” – mostly due to problems with trademarks and that sort of thing. No more overhead projectors or printed placards on easels, or scribbling on flip-charts – and anyone with half a brain could offer a cool presentation. That was good, but that was the end of life as we knew it, or the end of any sort of subtle, nuanced thinking. Life was reduced to bullet-points and crude clip art, fixed and unchangeable, no matter what questions anyone in the audience raised. The facts were simple, really. The medium was the message, as that Canadian fellow had said.

You could argue that PowerPoint actually changed the decision-making process. The amount of information in a presentation had to be condensed, so detailed information, which is kind of useful in making informed decisions, was in the thick handouts no one read. There were the five bullet-points on the slide – using more than that was considered showing off or trying to be confusing. Things were simple really, as the medium forced you to make things simple, even if they weren’t. And you did your presentation, and damn, everyone agreed with you – things were simple, really. By the late eighties it was PowerPoint at every employee orientation, and every workshop, and every off-site where the important people met to decide how to save the company, or corner the market, or take over the world, or all three. The Lieutenant Colonel in the family, with battalion command, sometimes pulls out his PowerPoint slides – the unclassified ones – to explain what he’s up to these days. The Army thinks in PowerPoint. The whole Pentagon does, as do the defense contractors and consultants. That’s the world now.

As for Orwell, Winston Smith, now an alcoholic reconciled to his impending execution, accepted what the Party said and sincerely celebrated the news bulletin reporting Oceania’s decisive victory over Eurasia. And “he had won the victory over himself – he loved Big Brother.” It must have been the PowerPoint slides. PowerPoint can do that to you.

The big guns in general semantics and language theory, from Korzybski to Korzybski’s student S. I. Hayakawa, and beyond, have long argued that you can only think with the words the language makes available to you, so there are some things you can’t think because you don’t have the necessary words available. And everyone knows the French think differently than we do because they’re always using the subjunctive, indicating the possible that might not be true, while we don’t and make do with the less subtle conditional. Would that this were not so, but it is. (That’s a joke, if you know those words.) And PowerPoint is like that. It doesn’t allow subtlety or complexity, or even nuance. It limits you.

Or it makes you dumb, and the case in point is what Ben Smith reported in Politico on Wednesday, March 3rd:

The Republican National Committee plans to raise money this election cycle through an aggressive campaign capitalizing on “fear” of President Barack Obama and a promise to “save the country from trending toward socialism.”

The strategy was detailed in a confidential party fundraising presentation, obtained by POLITICO, which also outlines how “ego-driven” wealthy donors can be tapped with offers of access and “tchochkes.”

The presentation is here – delivered by RNC Finance Director Rob Bickhart to top donors and fundraisers at a party retreat in Boca Grande, down Florida on February 18 – and Smith contends that “in neat PowerPoint pages, it lifts the curtain on the often-cynical terms of political marketing, displaying an air of disdain for the party’s donors that is usually confined to the barroom conversations of political operatives.”

It seem that simplifying things for the medium of choice forces things to their most basic level, and it isn’t pretty – 1) “What can you sell when you do not have the White House, the House, or the Senate?” 2) “Save the country from trending toward Socialism!”

That’s it. But what would a PowerPoint presentation be without clip art?

One page, headed “The Evil Empire,” pictures Obama as the Joker from Batman, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leaders Harry Reid are depicted as Cruella DeVille and Scooby Doo, respectively.

Cool – and Smith reports that the document, which two Republican sources said was prepared by the party’s finance staff, is now causing no end of trouble, and that it’s bad news for Chairman Michael Steele. The party is pretty fed up with him – he’s a loose cannon always blurting out strange things. The trust and allegiance of major donors matter – they’re good for thirty grand a year each. And this sort of thing is embarrassing. It’s about choosing which sucker to tap:

Under Steele, the RNC has shifted toward a reliance on small donors, but the document reveals extensive, confidential details of the strategy for luring wealthy check-writers, which range from luxury retreats in California wine country to tickets to a professional fight in Las Vegas.

The 72-page document was provided to POLITICO by a Democrat, who said a hard copy had been left in the hotel hosting the $2,500-a-head retreat, the Gasparilla Inn & Club. Sources at the event said the presentation was delivered by Bickhart and by the RNC Finance Chairman, Peter Terpeluk, a former ambassador to Luxembourg under President George W. Bush.

The RNC reacted with alarm to a question about it Wednesday, emailing major donors to warn them of a reporter’s question, and distancing Steele from its contents.

The email came from RNC Communications Director Doug Heye:

The document was used for a fundraising presentation Chairman Steele did not attend, nor had he seen the document. Fundraising documents are often controversial. Obviously, the Chairman disagrees with the language and finds the use of such imagery to be unacceptable. It will not be used by the Republican National Committee – in any capacity – in the future.

But there was the section of the presentation headed RNC Marketing 101 That presentation divides fundraising into two traditional categories, lays out the details of how to approach each group, and get their money:

The small donors who are the targets of direct marketing are described under the heading “Visceral Giving.” Their motivations are listed as “fear;” “Extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration;” and “Reactionary.” Major donors, by contrast, are treated in a column headed “Calculated Giving.” Their motivations include: “Peer to Peer Pressure”; “access”; and “Ego-Driven.” The slide also allows that donors may have more honorable motives, including “Patriotic Duty.”

It was pretty cynical. There was nothing on policy or on principles – just how to play the rubes, and play the ego-heavy smug rich rubes differently than dumb-as-dirt and proudly ignorant rubes:

The center of that plan is an extensive, and colorful, schedule of events. Along with traditional fundraisers with conservative luminaries including Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, the party plans to raise $80,000 for a trip to London to meet David Cameron, the British Conservative Party leader, on September 17.

The RNC’s “Young Eagles” – younger major donors and the only group, according to a major donor, continuing to pull its weight financially – are invited to a “professional bull riding event” in October, expected to raise $50,000, and to a no-holds-barred Ultimate Fighting Championship fight in Las Vegas the same month, expected to raise $60,000.

The RNC’s aim, according to one section of the document: “Putting the Fun Back in FUNdraising.”

Look! Something shiny! And each group will fall for it.

Alex Koppelman at salon.com has these comments:

It hasn’t been terribly hard to divine the Republicans’ strategy for motivating their base this year — they’ve made it pretty clear, after all. It’s fear. Fear of President Obama, fear of change, fear of some giant socialist revolution, of death panels, of government bureaucrats and liberals and anything else that might pop up. Still, you wouldn’t expect the Republican National Committee to come right out and admit to that.

That’s exactly what RNC Finance Director Rob Bickhart did, however, as part of a presentation he gave to donors and fundraisers last month.

The presentation includes “several slides that portray the GOP’s own supporters in a very negative light, giving the impression that the RNC believes its donors are stupid, and that it plans to treat them that way.”

And as for the rubes who are reached through direct marketing efforts, the dumb-as-dirt crowd:

The latter group, the slide says, gives for visceral reasons: “Fear” and “Extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration” are listed. The slide also tags this group with a term usually used in a less-than-flattering sense: “Reactionary.” The major donors don’t fare much better; they give, the slide says, for “Networking Opportunities” and “Access” and they’re “Ego-Driven.”

And Koppelman points out that the Democratic National Committee “used the occasion for a particularly vicious slam” against its Republican counterpart:

“If you had any doubt, any doubt whatsoever, that the Republican Party has been taken over by the fear-mongering lunatic fringe, those doubts were erased today. The Republican Party, which barely 20 percent of Americans will even admit they belong to anymore, seems hell bent on damaging their battered brand even further by engaging in the most despicable kind of imagery, tactics and rhetoric imaginable,” DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.

“It’s no wonder the RNC reacted with alarm when they learned the American people would see this presentation. This revealing document proves what the Republican Party has long denied. But now, by their own admission, the express strategy of the Republican Party is not to offer new ideas, but ‘fear.’ Republicans can no longer deny that they are peddling fear when they are literally selling it as their path back to power.”

And Koppelman called a former RNC official who told him that he believes “the story here is not the contents of the presentation but the fact that it became public.” You just do not leave copies of such things behind at the hotel:

“I would be kicking somebody’s ass for leaving something like that lying around,” the former official said. “It’s certainly not something that Chairman Steele needs to be dealing with, given his tenure as chair of the RNC, because it seems like just when things quiet down, something else comes up. To me, at least, in reading this and looking at it probably the bigger story is these things just keep popping up under his watch, as opposed to the actual content of this.”

The former RNC official did describe the material as being in “very poor taste,” especially the images of Obama, Pelosi and Reid, and that the presentation was “ham-handed.” But, they said, “I wouldn’t say there was anything in there that really shocked me or surprised me.” Referring to party committees and interest groups on both sides, the former official added, “Maybe I’m coming across as cynical, and I don’t mean to be, but I guess from long years of doing this I’m not particularly shocked to see this … I think that this is probably unfortunately a reflection of the state of political affairs today.”

Yep, everyone’s a rube, and loves Big Brother.

And Kevin Drum at Mother Jones adds this:

You know, when liberals claim that conservatives are rabid reactionaries motivated by fear, hatred, and greed, they say we’re a bunch of coastal elitists who are out of touch with the feelings of real Americans living in the heartland. But guess what? In the privacy of their own fundraising PowerPoint presentations, it turns out that Republican Party honchos describe their base pretty much the same way…

So the small donors, the targets of direct marketing, are described as “visceral” givers motivated by fear – and by “extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration” – and they’re reactionary. And the major donors are treated in a column headed “Calculated Giving” – their motivations are “Peer to Peer Pressure” and “access” and are “Ego-Driven.” They’re all rubes.

That being how this is framed, Drum adds this:

So who do you think should be more offended by this: small donors or major donors? I say major donors. The small givers are characterized as fearful and reactionary, and who knows? They might actually glory in that description. (“Reactionary? Hell yeah.”) But the major donors who are supposedly motivated by peer pressure, access, ego, and greed? It’s possible that their egos are so big they’ll just assume this applies only to other major donors, not them, but probably not. If I were them, I’d be pretty pissed.

In any case, pay no attention to all this. “Chairman Steele did not attend” the presentation an RNC flack assures us. “Obviously, the Chairman disagrees with the language and finds the use of such imagery to be unacceptable. It will not be used by the Republican National Committee – in any capacity – in the future,” he said.

Too late – and PowerPoint is just dangerous.

And NYU journalism professor Eric Alterman comments here:

In many ways, the document is a parody of what liberals think conservatives are actually like.

The small-donor schmucks – the ones who give of their tiny incomes so that fat cats might enjoy even more tax breaks – are to be shaken down on the basis of their stupidity. Under the heading “Visceral Giving,” the rich Republican folk seeking to bilk them describe their rationales for giving as “fear” (of a black planet?) based on “extreme” feelings and a “reactionary” outlook. The Commies at The Nation could not have put it any better themselves. Meanwhile, the fat-cat donors are credited with more “Calculated Giving.” They don’t trumpet the scare tactics: rather, they need to have their egos stroked with “Peer to Peer Pressure” and “access.” Both, presumably, get their tchochkes, though one imagines they get more tasteful – or less scary – as one moves up the money ladder.

And Alterman is disturbed that the party “also appears to be selling meetings with Washington Post – ex-New York Times columnist – William Kristol.” He wonders if that really can be kosher with Post policies.

But that’s the least of the issues raised here. You have a document from a major political party laying out what seem to be the facts – those who support us, who believe in us, who vote for us, and most importantly might give us money, are dumb and easily lead, or so wrapped up in themselves we can pick them clean before they realize what happened. On a slow news day that was an interesting scoop.

But it wouldn’t have been possible without PowerPoint, the key software application that made us just that way – dumb or smug. And now we don’t know how to be anything else.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Republicans, Republicans' False Populism, The Politics of Cynicism, The Politics of Fear, The Politics of Resentment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dumb or Smug – But Useful

  1. Don Ritchie says:

    I’m jealous. You did a much finer job on this story than I did.

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