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CONVERSATIONS: Language and Symbolism in the 2008 Election
Tony Brown
Brian Dauth
Bob Hoeppner
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez
Mindy Nettifee
Genevieve Van Cleve

BOB HOEPPNER: To me, anecdotally, there is one major criteria for how people think and express themselves. Some people think primarily in terms of differences; others think primarily in terms of connections. My perception is that conservatives/Republicans tend to see differences; liberals/Democrats are more likely to see connections; moderates/Independents shift between the two. Republicans will tell you how Iraq is different from Vietnam, Democrats will tell you how it's the same, and Independents will say it is like this and not like that. Admittedly, this is gross generalization, and there are individual exceptions, but it serves me as a rule of thumb. When two people discuss, and one primarily sees differences where the other sees connections, the odds are greatly against a civil and productive discourse. They are operating from such fundamentally different premises of processing information that each can be logical and yet see nothing but illogic in the other. We see this dynamic played out in the public arena. Example: Obama does not disown his former pastor for his hate speech because it reminds him of his white grandmothers apprehensions. He sees an equation where others see a significant difference between the wacky public statements of a spiritual leader and the confided fears and stereotypes of a private individual. And some will say that the pastor's statements were not wacky. And there we are.

TONY BROWN: I’ve always believed that symbolism is the single most important factor in any Presidential election — more important than issues in a lot of ways.  People in general, I think, care less about most issues (of course, there are always one or two issues they care about and know more deeply ) on the detail level than on whether they feel that the candidates they support match up with their own notions of what the office of President symbolizes — great leader, CEO, commander (or commentator) in chief, articulator of new or old vision...whatever.  So in this election, where the candidates themselves are by their very nature carriers of heavy symbolic weight in the American subconscious (a young man of color, a woman, an older white man) the words they speak will by sheer force of history take on even greater symbolic weight.  

I bet I’m close to my opening 200 words, but I’d also like to say that no matter how this election plays out, I think that the fundamental way that this country views the nature of political speech will be altered, at least in part by having had the experience of hearing from some different points of view.  Just hearing Barack Obama say directly some of what he said in “the Speech,” for instance, has put a lot more on the larger American table than it’s had to deal with for a while.  Not that it hasn’t been said before – it has.  But it’s been mostly said by poets, artists,  and those in the trenches of the race question in this country — most prominent Presidential candidates haven’t said it this way.  It can’t be ignored after this, and while the practical nature of the speech may be in question, the symbolic nature of who said it and how it has been received is tremendous in tis implications for the future.

BRIAN DAUTH: Every four years Americans have the chance to cast their ballots for the spectacle they want to play in Washington, D.C. over the next four years, and, if voter turnout is any guide, the last few carnivals on offer were none too appealing to a majority of the population.

But friends, acquaintances and pundits tell me that 2008 is different: the electorate is energized and voters are committed (except for a handful of pesky Democratic superdelegates).  Wanting to be a good sport, I have given close attention to the out-of-town tryouts occurring across the country in preparation for opening night in Denver and Minneapolis.  While I am glad that the spectacles are more appealing this year, I am disappointed that the lead producers remain the same: an elite happy to share both its cash and its expertise with all three shows currently on tour (a most bounteous generosity considering that one must fold before Labor Day and a second a few months later).  So I wonder: will these new spectacles recoup(erate) their backers’ investments?  What if various backers have different notions of recuperation?  Will some be remunerated in words and symbols, while others receive power and wealth?

GUY LECHCARLES GONZALEZ: A former POW turned Republican, a controversial former first lady made New York Senator, and a bi-racial Senator forced Black walk into a bar...and all hell breaks loose!

To say this year’s Presidential election is loaded with symbolism is an understatement of epic proportions, and the multiple controversies that have already blown up thanks to comments, some innocent, some not-so-innocent,  made by candidates, surrogates and supporters alike – Racism? Check! Sexism? Check! Ageism? Hell, why not! – are but a modest prologue to what’s likely to come once the Democrats finally agree on a nominee. Every choice of word, phrase, analogy and metaphor has been, and will continue to be, parsed, sliced and diced in ways that would make a poetry workshop facilitator feel inadequate.

Best case scenario, Americans are forced to confront a myriad of issues that have bubbled under the surface for years and the country takes a sincere step towards a “more perfect union”. Worst case scenario? The cynics are right, no one pays any attention and it really doesn’t matter who the President is.

Most writers of any modest level of experience, myself included, would be forgiven for expecting the latter, but there should be no forgiveness for those who would choose to enable it.

GENEVIEVE VAN CLEVE: Looking at the Democratic Primary from my myopic, Texas-size lenses, I have to say that they've done exactly what you want presidential candidates to do. They've turned out the base, excited the electorate, and have caused us to go completely crazy figuring out how the delegates will be selected via our primary/caucus/county-state convention process. The Texas system rewards the grass roots. The longer you keep your volunteers involved after the primary the more delegates you can pick up. You see our delegate counts aren't final until the state convention in June. Most importantly, McCain can't get any coverage for love or money – but that's all inside baseball.

In the last week, the back and forth between the Obama and Clinton Camp has turned sour. Surrogates and staff have been fired or resigned for stretching the boundaries of good taste and fair play to the limit. While most campaigns participate in and weather these risky messaging games, the Obama/Clinton contest doesn't and cannot operate like MOST CAMPAIGNS. Clinton and Obama are sifting through the country's dirtiest laundry. Our inability or unwillingness as a nation to address sexism and racism has come home to roost this year.

Obama's speech last week was historic. While he is not my preferred candidate, I was moved to tears by his words describing and defining his views about race relations as told through his personal story. It was uplifting. It was honest. ...And by the polling numbers, it's not getting the traction he needs to seal the deal. In fact, he's slipping. I believe if the tables were turned and Clinton was to offer a speech about sexism, the reaction would be even worse.

We are at a crossroads. As a group, we seem eager for a president of color or a woman president. In fact, we already have elected officials that more closely reflect the general population in all kinds of positions all over the country. The presidency is different. It is the ultimate power role in our country. The president is the father at the head of the table. He's the commander in chief. HE's the most powerful white man in the world.

To win this race, Americans are going to have to face their racism and sexism. They are going to have to come to see the highest position in the land as the property of all of us and not just rich, white men.  We are asking Americans to do something difficult and necessary. As writers and thinkers I feel like we have an obligation to help people see the bigger picture and acknowledge the uglier, more sinister picture that lies directly beneath the surface. Ultimately, we must use our words to inspire and push and cajole and hammer our listeners through this step. It's time.

MINDY NETTIFEE: I have been obsessed with this primary race for, let's see, going on 13 months now.  To see a black man and a woman compete for the top of the Democratic presidential ticket is not only exciting and transformative on a personal level, but it sort of justifies the four years I wasted spent studying political science in college, arguing about nonviolent social change and feminist theory.  And it almost justifies the last seven years of painful disillusionment and horror and helplessness as, in the words of Reverend Wright, our chickens came home to roost. 

How many moments did I reassure myself that things had to get this bad before the pendulum could swing in the other direction, before a society fat on economic prosperity would wake up and take the wheel?  And in any of those moments, or in my wildest fantasies, did I imagine that I would be voting for anyone but a white man for the job?  No.  For me, this is the moon landing. 

But on to the topic at hand.  I think as poets, we're all drawn to the magic and machinery of language, by all the ways it can be used to build reality.  The machinery of political speech is unique.  Because political speech addresses a very large and diverse audience, the masses or the collective or whatever, it has a relatively small vocabulary of shared meaning to draw upon.  It has to rely on symbolism and vague phrasery to communicate.   It creates this amazing theatre of iconography where political candidates basically become empty vessels upon which people can project whatever meaning they want or need to.  So Barack Obama becomes, for some, the long-awaited harbinger of "hope" and "change," and social justice, whatever that means to them; and for others perhaps a symbol of the "other," the "unknown quantity," or another privileged man who coasts to the top on his charisma.  And so Hillary Clinton becomes all the things we hate and love about non-sexualized female power—the nagging voice of the mother, the untrustworthy manipulative politician, the hawkish, "too-male" Margaret Thatcher, the woman-as-graceful-survivor, the glass-ceiling aspirer who works three times as hard to get half as far.  What we see in them says a lot more about who we are than who they are.

While fascinated and enchanted, I am also deeply suspicious of that theatre, in the same way that I am suspicious of manufactured spiritual experiences (and there is definitely a relationship between those two things.)  It's become some great intellectual exercise this last year, trying to constantly read between the lines, to see the person behind the speeches and the messaging and the symbolism and get a good read on where exactly they compromise their integrity, and what kernel of insanity or disregard for their personal well-being could be motivating them to want so much power.  But it is just an exercise, the demystification.  In November, people will line up in record numbers, some of them who have never voted before, and cast a ballot based ultimately on some gut reaction to the symbols and messaging and aura of the candidate.  And in the meantime, we get to have a conversation in public that we never get to have (ah!)—about racism and sexism and power.  We get the chance for once to expand that small vocabulary of shared meaning we all have with each other.  I'm game.

TONY BROWN: So with all that said, here’s an odd question:  Are we making more of the symbolism of the race and its candidates than we should?  Is our enthusiasm at seeing a field made up of representatives of such symbolically loaded people adding more weight to their words than is strictly right?  

I know my own answer, based on my own history of involvement in Presidential politics.  Hell, I’m the guy who’s never voted for either a Republican OR a Democrat for President.   My own devotion to seeing viable third parties get a toehold in this game is so strong that I rarely pay this level of attention to what the major party candidates say, at least in terms of making a decision on who to vote for.  I have always voted for a candidate somewhere to the left of the Democrats, and have since 1980.  That will likely change this year, as I’ve gotten swept up in the Obama enthusiasm to the point where I’m likely to vote for him if he’s the candidate — and I know that a good part of that enthusiasm is based on the need for a powerful, symbolic change at the top.  Clinton still feels too much the old school Democrat for me to be entirely comfortable with trusting the historic symbolism associated with her — although I do suspect I’ll go there anyway in November if she’s the candidate.  

I’m so NOT on McCain’s page that I’m not even thinking about him — but I’ll admit it:  “old white guy” archetypes are playing a part in my not listening to him.  

So — somewhere under all that that fuzziness is the question of whether it’s any better for me to be thinking this way than it was for those who voted for “that not-so-bright frat boy who sounds kinda like Forrest Gump” to be thinking that way back in 2000 and 2004.    I saw both Presidential contests back then as being very much about image and symbolism — Gore vs. Bush was as much a likeability thing as it was anything else to my eyes, and I STILL haven’t figured out what Kerry symbolized to people.  I think that was part of the problem, because I suspect I wasn’t alone in that.

Damn, this is wooly headed stuff.  I need 5,000 words to get it right.  But I think the basic point is there...

BOB HOEPPNER: I'd like to know what people think about the penalty of using language and symbolism in ways that some think are inappropriate. The most recent example I can think of is the Obama staffer who resigned after calling Hillary a monster. According to, a monster is one who inspires horror or disgust. Are we so squeamish that our political campaigns can't express disgust with each other? Or has the word "monster" become so overloaded with the connotations of genocidal dictators and serial killers that it's outrageous to use it for expressing express horror or disgust that a particular person might become president?
Okay, I'll admit that the use of such language is not conducive to civil discourse. But living in a society that supposedly values freedom of speech means sometimes having to hear things you'd rather not hear. And the penalty is to essentially vanish from the public forum? It seems to me that we've become so careful not to say anything offensive that we are hamstrung when it comes to substantive discussion. Not that name-calling someone a monster is substantive discussion. But what's so wrong with asking "What do you mean by that?" instead of screaming "Get out! Get out! GET OUT!"
The taboos involve not only words, but ideas. I'm thinking of Whoopi Goldberg, who pointed out that Jimmy the Greek was fired simply for saying what she said was the truth. And she said, in TV, if you say the truth, whoosh, you're gone. How truthful Jimmy the Greek was is debatable, but it does somewhat limit the debate when the person who raised the point is broomed out of the room.
Certainly people have the right to boycott any entity which they feel expresses itself inappropriately. And a company can let go anyone responsible for inciting the boycott. Which underscores that freedom of the press belongs to those who own the press. And language and symbolism are shadows that dance around the flickerings of power.

MINDY NETTIFEE: Ah, the monster comment.  In which Samantha Power forgot the rules of engagement with reporters from obscure newspapers. 

I don't think the word "monster" carries any especially negative connotations.  But calling your opponent a "monster" is a pretty clear cut case of demonization, which is Propaganda 101.  And that should carry a stiff penalty in a campaign that claims to transcend partisanship and divisiveness itself.  Maybe if this weren't such a contested race, where one wrong move could signal "inviability," (whatever that is a euphemism for. )

Mostly I just felt sorry for Samantha Power, whose infraction was really a pretty rookie move.  I found more interesting the fiasco of Geraldine Ferraro, herself a symbol of female power, who claimed that Obama was "lucky to be black."  Maybe she believed her status as a trailblazer would protect her from charges of racism while she waded into the racism/sexism minefield.  Does she really think that Barack Obama's blackness confers on him special powers in this election more so than Hillary Clinton's white womanhood?  In trying to acknowledge the unique power of his symbolism, she hit the exact wrong note, implying reverse racism and a negatively connoted affirmative action.  Her defense of her comments played out like the "Unbearable Whiteness of Being."  As an admirer of Geraldine Ferraro, it was a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

And to respond to Tony a bit, I agree that it's hard to tell sometimes if we have all become a little hyper-sensitive or if we have permission, finally, thanks to the historic nature of this race, to have a public discourse we're not usually allowed to have.  The conversation about racism and sexism, and while we're at it homophobia, is dying to be aired in news stories that don't begin with a date, a time and a violent act. Is there a "right" amount of weight to confer to public words?  Do the words we use create our reality?  Or is the path to healing through irreverence? 

Either way, this is a significant moment in American history, when two candidates representing two groups of people who did not have the right to vote at the start of this so-called democracy are attempting to ascend to the highest symbolic office of the land.  So yeah, candidates and their surrogates do not have any leeway, and all speech will be combed for meaning.  Symbolism and imagery have always played a heavy role in presidential elections, and more so in the age of electronic media.  I know I cringed when the photos of John Kerry on his ski vacation at his $4 million dollar home in Idaho made their way on to front pages.  Or when his "French roots" were the 2004 topic of discourse.  I knew those were knockout blows in the war of American patriotic symbolism.

Can we expect the same fate for this year's democratic front runners?  Of the current volley of symbols, imagery and subtext alternately sliding off and sticking to the Democratic candidates, what will this election's swiftboating look like?

GUY LECHARLES GONZALEZ: Bob said: "...freedom of the press belongs to those who own the press. And language and symbolism are shadows that dance around the flickerings of power."

Well said. The Samantha Power incident is a good example of where the power of language and symbolism and the power of the press intersect, as an inappropriate but arguably innocuous comment was blown up into something well beyond its contextual importance.

It's difficult to have a sincere debate about actual issues, as so many claim to prefer, when one has to navigate a playing field littered with politically correct landmines and a media determined to run over every single one of them. It's also disingenuous to claim to want such a debate when Power's "monster" comment is deemed a legitimate cause for her to be forced to resign her position.

This disingenuousness ultimately manifests itself in the many so-called "dogwhistle" comments made by the candidates' surrogates, or the candidate themselves, throughout the course of the campaign that allows unsubstantiated claims or allegations to be dropped into the discussion without being properly vetted.


It's no surprise then that some of the best coverage of this year's Presidential campaigns has been presented not by the mainstream media but by smaller niche publications and independent blogs, courtesy of writers who make an effort to process the canned talking points they're offered and dig a little deeper to get to the underlying truths beneath the symbolic window dressing.

Like organized religion and the IRS, language and symbolism ultimately have the most power over the least informed.

TONY BROWN: Charlton Heston died yesterday, which to me in some strange way seems to have a bearing on all this talk of symbolism and politics.

Heston was one of those stars who seemed larger than life, coming up as a star during a time when stars were symbols – they represented something larger than mere good acting or art or even celebrity; they were archetype for larger aspects of American culture.  Whatever you thought of Heston's conservative politics and his association with the gun lobby, it's hard to deny that he found a place in the mythological firmament of pretty much anyone who knew anything of his career, whether your permanent association with him was formed primarily from his roles in The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Soylent Green or Planet of the Apes.  Negative or positive impression aside, the point is that he made an impression larger than any truth about the man himself might suggest.

It seems to me that Americans have frequently looked for that same kind of larger than life quality in their Presidential candidates.  I think it predates Reagan, although that certainly is the most recent example of the yearning; this year, we've got a fascinating case with three candidates who appear to truly embody competing archetypes of the perfectibility of the American Dream.

The question I think we face is when looking at this campaign is this: which of those competing versions of the Dream will be the most potent?  And will we be able to separate the Dream from reality -- will we look past the powerful tug of symbolism at the candidates as humans with skills and experiences and visions that will translate into action?

Then again – do we ever?  I'm not sure of that, as I said earlier.  I'm not even sure that the symbolism isn't MORE important than the reality.  I'll be watching with interest as we all try to answer that question.

BOB HOEPPNER: I suppose one of the tricky things about the symbolism in the current campaign is that none of the characters is a simple symbol, but a palimpsest of symbols. Clinton is a symbol of woman, and is also a symbol of the Bush/Clinton dynasty which has held executive office (President or VP) since 1980. If she were elected and served for two terms we will have had a Bush or Clinton as Prez or VP for 36 years. And so we have an alternative within the same party of the symbol of change, a relatively new senator who also happens to be a symbol of black America on the strength of half his DNA. He's also the symbol of anti-Iraq war, with John McCain being the symbol for and Hillary having been for and now against. John McCain symbolizes the male white establishment, and also veterans. Obama seems to symbolize inspiration and hope, while Clinton symbolizes what ambition can achieve for a woman if she doesn't stay home baking cookies. McCain seems to symbolize all that being old and white and male grants you (and detracts from you) these days. It's as if different symbols have been crazily scribbled over and over on the same piece of paper, making a symbolic Rorschach in which you can see anything you want.
Some people vote on symbology, some vote on party, some on their perception of the individual. I don't know how the pie is sliced, or how you could accurately measure it. If nothing else, to engage with campaigns on a symbolic level has a measure of entertainment value. And after all, that's what we're really about. Let bad things happen, as long as we can watch it on TV. As long as it provides fodder for our workplace jawjacking, let it be this person or that person who disappoints us. Whoever is elected will disappoint everyone at some time or another. I think Lincoln said something like that. Hmm, think about that. The kind of ridicule that Lincoln was subjected to, the process which resulted in us getting, well, a Lincoln. Now that we're oh-so-sensitive about the slightest variance from our Puritanical standards of correct behavior, we're doing all we can to ensure the process will result in the bland leading the bland. Of course, none of the candidates are bland. And neither are a lot of us. Perhaps that why it all strikes me as a bit hypocritical.

BRIAN DAUTH: Reading over the contributions, I must say that I find them all thoughtful and reasonable (no surprises there).  As a result, (and in a crucial way) I have found it difficult to respond.  Part of my writer’s block may stem from the fact that I am a critic and not a poet.  I like symbols well enough, but when writing, I feel my responsibility toward symbols depends upon where I run into them.

In a work of art, I am happy to point out symbols when they occur and advocate that a spectator roll them about in her imagination with joy.  But symbols encountered in the public sphere arouse in me the strong urge to unmask them and reveal the (usually fraudulent) wizard behind the curtain.  William S. Burroughs’ imperative that writers show readers what is at the end of their forks is a mandate I took to heart when I first read it years ago.

So the present proliferation of symbols in the world at large (especially in the political arena) frightens me.  As people become more and more inured to dealing with symbols, I fear that they will come to take the symbolic for the real.  In the last analysis, whether or not a black man or a woman becomes the next president means nothing if the incoming administration does not improve the material and economic welfare of blacks and women over the course of the next four years.  With Obama (the favored candidate of the Greenwich hedge fund gang) and Clinton each taking over $100 million from Wall Street, I hold out little hope that either will have the ability or even permission to effect substantial societal change.  Americans will vote for and receive a new symbolic façade on the same old capitalist bullshit.

Speaking of symbols, as I write we have the Olympic flame being extinguished in Paris on its way to Beijing.  Hurrah!  Hurrah!  Will such a gesture have any effect on what is going on in Tibet?  I doubt it.  But I am sure it made all those involved in the disruption feel good about themselves.  And ultimately isn’t that what makes playing with symbols so much fun?  On an aesthetic level, savoring symbols can be a source of intense pleasure.  In real life, taking symbolic action can make people feel that they have done something that will contribute to positive change.  They then turn back to the everyday routines that in five minutes immunize the status quo against the assaults of ten thousand symbolic gestures.