Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Can I spin you straight to a thought?

The funny thing about studying political communication is that we seem to constantly criticize it. We agree that the media needs to be more responsible; we agree that politicians need to be more responsible. As academics we seem to distance ourselves from the problem, as if pointing out problems in a society somehow separates us from them because we have the power of knowledge on our side. The downside to all this is that once done with university or grad school, students of politics look to join this system they all unequivocally agree is messed up. I have the same problem right now; the classic case of ‘to be or not to be’. Let me explain, there is this whole debate about spin doctors and political consultants--- that because of these smart mouthed lot democracy as we know it is being undermined- a ‘packaging of politics’ if you will. At the same time, with 24/7 news channels always on the alert, always asking questions (right ones or wrong ones), a need for information is created, and this is how the vacuum is filled in.

There is a documentary called The War Room. It focuses on Clintons campaign managers et al during the 1992 elections against the incumbent George Bush. James Carville seems to leap up from the movie and remind you that politics is fun; it’s a game; it’s a chase. There is a side to it that’s not just governing but the getting there. The 1992 elections changed the way elections were fought because of the intense nature of the campaign, the idea that Carville and his lot were tracking all developments- media, Republican etc and were ready with an answer or a spin. Spinning, which is now frowned upon for good reasons, was considered an art at the time and the best spinners pitted against each other after important political events.

I was walking to Sainsbury the other day, talking to a friend of mine about 1984. We were discussing how limiting vocabulary limits thoughts because how can you have thoughts if those words and concepts do not exist. This is probably the main reason new words and slang keeps getting incorporated into dictionaries every year; each new word is a new thought, a new idea, a world of possibilities. I remember taking a class where we discussed the Enlightenment; because people were more interested in studying concepts such as (for example) homosexuality instead of condemning it straight, they founded a whole new medical language to understand different aspects. The opposite can happen too; some outdated forms of conversations can fail to have an impact because the meaning just is not the same today. Baz Luhrmann tackled this very same problem twice (that I can think of right now), in his movies ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Moulin Rouge’. What did he do? Well for Romeo and Juliet he shot the movie in such a way that many a times the Shakespearian language took on a literal meaning so that the audience could understand the dialogue. Two incidents jump out; firstly the guns were called “swords” where sword was the brand name of a gun. So after establishing that connection, it did not seem odd that for every duel the characters called for swords but whipped out their guns. The second scene, which I think might be the first scene in the movie shows the two gangs of boys fighting at a gas station; and the tension is mounted because a stray gun-fire or match could cause the whole place to go up in flames. By creating a very modern but tense scene, he brought the play into the modern world. Luhrmann had an opposite problem with the dialogue of Moulin Rouge; for no love songs that he could write could quite capture what he was trying to explain; the immediate connection between Satine and Christian (that’s Ewan McGregor). So what did he do? They made a medley of 20th cent love songs that were hits because that is the language of love for his audience. The result? A very different and brilliant movie.

The point of this deviation was to stress the importance of language in communicating thought. Be it science that creates it own language or movie/films that seek to reinterpret their language to suit a modern audience, the signal can be quite strong. And politics in the same way needs to have a language of its own, something so simple yet so strong that it does not get lost in the vast array of entertainment and news we consume everyday. And when such a mechanism is applied in a democracy, sooner or later, allegations are made that it is in fact, trying to subvert it. So what becomes of the joy of it, the challenge of it.. the reason democratic politics came about in the first place? Can I really sit and write a paper on how bad political consulting is for the common man because it gives him less access to the candidate in question when all I can think of after reading Carville’s account of the election is how much I want to be part of one!!![Read this book for fun; its quite a roller coaster—called All’s Fair: Love, War and Running for President. He wrote it with his wife Mary Matalin who was working for Bush’s campaign so it’s got a bit of a love story in it too!] It’s a funny world we live. I remember once I was completely unable to study for a history exam. It just was not happening and this friend of mine came to my office and suggested w play chess. We got so involved in the game that afterwards I thought of that piece of history as a game of chess—who made what move- it became a game in my head and I wanted to see who the political superior was-- and everything remained in my head. We talk of the decline of empires and everything else, and in our valiant effort to criticize (even if from a academic POV) we forget to have fun with it. We forget that politics is a tricky game and you need to be very sharp to do well.

I think I AM going to get into politics. Someone once told me that in order to do so I needed to put all my idealism in a box and lock it. Well you know what, I’m going to be idealistic for as long as I can, I’m going have fun with whatever form of politics I get into- consulting, campaigning, writing--- because I am going to be there because I enjoy it—and who knows? Maybe someday I’ll come up with a new word to really capture this feeling. And hey, I would have created a new way of thinking about something!

Friday, February 03, 2006

All in the name of..........?

I was reading another blog- I can't remember the link right now, but basically a bouncer from some really hip clubs in New York started keeping a blog about all the crazy things that would happen to him and now he has a book deal. But along with fame comes recognition...and you are no longer just someone writing a blog, but people can identify you. I found another blogger talking about the same issues, wondering what it means if you cannot (do not) give out your blog address to people you know; what does it mean? Are you more honest when people aren't looking? Is it easier to talk in the dark? Funnily enough, when I was in Delhi over the winter a friend of mine called me very excitedly saying that she had just been introduced to this blog written by a delhi girl- a journalist- and it was very well written, she could recognise some of the people being talked about, and was trying to guess who the girl was. I actually know that girl- not well, but we were friends in pre-school and so we always have a chat when we bump into eachother now. But I wondered, perhaps I would have been writing about more personal issues if I knew that no one reading my blog knew "me" but instead I went and gave this link to everyone I knew. Its interesting. But the way I see it, my diary (which I'm too lazy to write!!) and my blog have two distinct purposes in my life. One is private. Even if I changed all the names to secret codes and left it in a coffee shop in New Zealand, it still wouldn't do! One is not. Because I'm not trying to discover myself, or figure out my life, I'm actually trying to figure out this crazy world we live in. And so here goes::

Now something very appalling happened to my friends recently. They got attacked by some drunk British-Indian guys on campus because the drunks thought my friend was pakistani and proceeded to assualt him. The girl with him jumped in to stop the attack and got punched rather badly in the process. The next day, she had some boys come to apologize on behalf of the attackers. In the light of day things seem clearer, embarassment is more pronounced. Or so we hope. It makes me really sad to think, and even if I give them leeway for the drunken excuse-- that it would be a cause of hatred to these educated Indian boys who are essentially British by birth, to find a pakistani boy in their midst. I've put out my hypotheses on what could be the root cause of such an action... I am a student of history and political science after all. But it really hurts me more now because I have some really great friends from Karachi-- and random acts of violence by Indians against Pakistanis just seem so misguided now.

Two days ago after dinner with some friends from class we went to my friend Noel's house. He described how, when on the India-Pakistan border he saw Pakistanis waving to him from the other side. It was an emotional experience, and also one that made him think about how political the problem between the two countries are. He said something to me that rung so true; that when the press in both countries blame the other for any sort of problem, it creates an impression that the ENTIRE country is just plotting and planning... that we really do hate eachother. But real life experiences and friendships teach you more than ever that political propoganda is a scary and powerful tool. One that breeds hatred, one that divides us on religious lines, and affects people who are not geographically in either of the countries.

Last week in my International Media Management class I argued that Samuel Huntington was partially correct; there is a clash of civilizations- something the Prof said he did not agree with. Religious clashes are as old as time.. as far as I can remember, the Christians, Muslims and Jews have been at eachothers throats. Sometimes when you walk down the street, having a great day or deciding where to go this weekend, its not tough to tell yourself you have a nice life. But no doubt about it, we live in a time of war. Everywhere, all over the planet, there is death and disease. Although I imagine every period in history was the same; we just have better media to actually bring all of it to our living rooms now. A Danish cartoon, offensive perhaps, but a cartoon nonetheless, has led to a string of demonstrations and even led to Syria and Saudi recalling their ambassadors. But shouldn't we try and practise tolerance and forgiveness, the pillars of religion that people are ready to DIE for? I'm not going to point out the obvious here.

Sometimes, sitting in this tiny room on campus I don't quite know what to make of all these things. More appalling than the cartoons is that the Ayatollah called for Rushdie's DEATH after Satanic Verses, or that a documentary filmmaker (on violence against Muslim women) was killed too. Somedays I'm really happy I don't subscribe to any particular religion. Because by now I think I would have changed my mind anyway.