Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sex, Politics and Hope

"Because of its power to siphon emotion out of distinct ideas, the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation. It enables people to work for a common end, but just because the few who are strategically placed must choose the concrete objectives, the symbol is also an instrument by which a few can fatten on many, deflect criticism, and seduce men into facing agony for objects they do not understand."
                                  - Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, p. 235

"Sex is currency," sings songwriter Jon Foreman. This simple, blunt truth is seldom noted in public. It has become the bread and butter of sales directors, advertising firms and marketing strategists. Open any newspaper, website or television channel of note and you are sure to find a scantily clad model promoting anything from beer and cosmetics to bathroom cleaner and oil changes. Sex truly has become "currency," the value of one's humanity reduced to a matter of dollars and cents. Anything can be sexy; anything can be saleable.

Yet, at its root, the use of sex in advertising is cruel not simply because it slyly renders a world in which humans are deprived of personal qualities, turning sex into a stoic, even mechanical 'transaction,' but because these advertisements cynically exploit the most powerful and distinctly human of forces: hope.

Gnawing doubts, disillusionment and, simply put, the desire for a better life are projected onto these advertisements. Models' knowing looks and mirthful gaits act as a scintillating mirage, assuring the viewer that contentment is just, almost, within reach.

To put it another way, these advertisements and, within this context, sex itself function as potent symbols. They are sufficiently nebulous as to appeal to a whole array of longings and fears, while appearing sufficiently brazen and sharp as to recommend themselves as the solution. In this way, both model and voyeur prostitute themselves to whatever promises to be the most compelling solution, the climactic resolution to a tiresome and internally waged war of attrition. 

For others, these advertisements are poisonous to hope. The ideal embodied in the perfectly-poised model with their lithe figure and carefully-etched smile seems too far out of reach. When juxtaposed with their own sullied self-image the contrast appears too formidable to ever be reconciled, causing the beholder to despair as they spiral downwards to ever darker depths.

In short, advertisements, and those which employ sex in particular, manipulate the most powerful and human of experiences, hope, for their own end. Emotive symbols are minutely studied before being deployed for maximum effect, their targets being the very aspirations, desires and angst common to humankind. Yet, during this process the very mindset and values of all who are involved inevitably shift, even as they attempt to fulfill the desires and expectations which drew them towards the mirage's promise in the first place.

Even so, the symbols maintain their fatal attraction. And this is their great genius: even as the targets (desires) move the symbols manage to keep their siren-like appeal, retaining their lustrous veneer by staying ever within reach while never grasped. Their pointed ambiguity allows them to be all things to all people and, just as spectacularly, realign in accordance with each person's changing fantasies and whims -- even while contributing to their despair.

When taking into regard the destructive effects of this process one must ask, 'when a person is willing to manipulate hope, what aren't they willing to do?' Hence Coca-Cola has historically had no qualms against marketing its products in third-world countries, using deceptive advertising that talks up its supposed health benefits to credulous poor people. That these people may choose to purchase Coca-Cola over healthful foods for their children because of advertised nutritive benefits is of no concern to the image-makers, so long as they get their fill.

Much the same can be said of lottery cards. 'But they are just games,' you may say, ' plus only those who are stupid see them otherwise.' But what about the 'stupid,' especially if the 'stupid' happen to be innumerate poor people on a fixed-income with dependent children? Ever dollar blown up in smoke on a lottery card may very well mean an empty stomach and gnawing hunger pains for those children who, for no fault of their own, find themselves living amidst the blight of hunger and penury.

The lottery card is perhaps the starkest example of how hope can be exploited. Even if the 'stupid' poor person knows the odds, the possibility of deliverance from want and the general ignominy of poverty can prove all too powerful a force. After all, what do they have to lose? The lottery's allure, in this light, is not only powerful but its logic inescapable.

Those who run the lottery may claim that it "does good things" but this is little more than a grotesque form of self-delusion. The entire enterprise is premised on the manipulation of hope, encourages gambling addictions and lacks any intrinsic economic value. When one takes into consideration the incalculable human suffering caused the lottery system, its "good things" appear as little more than trite acts of penance for cardinal sins.

It is important to note, however, that hope is not only manipulated by those who are trying to sell soda or lottery tickets. The ways in which politicians draw on the hopes of the wretched is perhaps the most cynical; it is certainly the most perfected.

Republicans preach 'family values,' a moniker so all-encompassing as to mean absolutely nothing, before attempting to eviscerate healthcare legislation that could actually give families a modicum of security upon which to subsist. They speak about 'shared sacrifice' during periods of economic crisis, while stashing assets abroad and attempting to prolong tax-cuts for the most affluent members of society. Then, with stentorian resonance, they rail against supposed dangers outside while relentlessly working to maintain a porous and woefully under-regulated weapons market at home.

But let us not be mistaken, the differences between the Republicans and Democrats are relative and negotiable. Democrats wax about 'peace' and vilify the warmongering of Bush while assiduously working to maintain lethal drone operations worldwide. They too speak about 'shared sacrifice' during times of economic uncertainty before bailing out the crooks who created the mess in the first place. Lastly, when allusions are made to the old and, as of yet, unfulfilled promise to shut down the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, the public is met with a wall of steely silence.

In politics as in advertisements, very rarely has there been "Hope" that "we can believe in."

Hope is something that is distinctly human. People alone are capable of looking at the world and not only seeing it how it is, but how they would like it to be. It is because of hope that we experience ecstasy and abandon when our dreams are fulfilled, and despair when dreams are deferred or our hopes undercut. 

To live is to hope.  

Because hope is part of the essence of being human, it is foolish to live without taking note of exactly what our hopes and dreams are. For hopes and dreams are never neutral but actively influenced by external forces, even ones with their own agendas. The hopes which are truly worthy are also never neutral. If they were then they would resign themselves to the status quo; in short, they would not be hopes. Thus to hope is something fundamentally subversive -- and totally human.

Sorting through what is false and true, however, is an arduous process which requires honesty and humility. To question the values around which our lives are constructed is never easy but necessary if we are to live true life -- life to the full. It is to sort through the propaganda, self-serving rationalizations and alluring lies which hold us back from hopes worth believing in. 


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