I am reluctant to even speak about this issue out of self-loathing for falling into the worst practices of this mediated political culture I spend so much time complaining about. So let me just use the opportunity to say the John Kerry remarks, which the GOP PR machine has seized upon and gleefully fed to the ever-hungry tabloidizing news lions, are simply more proof of the rottenness, superficiality, and war of distraction that infantilizes American voters as much as Kerry's statement infantilized American soldiers.
GOP supporters want to make Kerry's statement an election issue. The fact that it has nothing to do with public policy or visions for legislation is of no importance. Or rather it's of the utmost importance when politics is nothing but branding. In branding theory from business marketing, the idea is that your product, no matter how shoddy by comparison or identical to your competitor's, must simply differentiate itself by association with images, values, desires with which audiences will identify strongly, emotionally, devoutly. They get a symbolic satisfaction out of consuming the brand. And here with Kerry we have it. Of course, Kerry has been out lobbying for Democrats in this election race. He hammers away at Iraq as a failed Bush foreign policy, which, of course, millions of Republicans agree with if one believes the polls.
Yet Kerry puts his foot in his mouth with a remark suggesting that the worst American students end up in the army and thus in hellholes like the war in Iraq. Interestingly, it took me a fair amount of searching to find exactly what Kerry said, and as usual, given the soundbite culture, I don't know the context of what he said just prior to and after the statement. Here's what he said and then what he says he meant to say:
"Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
This statement is, at face value, unmistkably insulting to troops in Iraq and American soldiers in general. As with all of us sometimes, Kerry claimed that it just didn't come out right.
Here are the "prepared remarks" he released, which show how the actual public speech always deviates from the prepared script, sometimes in catastrophic ways.
"I can't overstress the importance of a great education. Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."
Whether this is crisis communication spin or the real situation is up to the charity of the reader (which means one's interpretation will fall into partisan line — branding and its loyalty again).
What Kerry said was insulting. But was its gist false? Not according to the Heritage Foundation:
Given the nature of the military rank structure, most enlisted recruits do not have a college education or degree. Members of the armed forces with higher education are more often commissioned officers (lieutenant and above). In 2004, 92.1 percent of active-duty officer accessions held baccalaureate degrees or higher. From 2000 to 2005, between 10 percent and 17 percent of active-duty officer accessions held advanced degrees, and between 35 percent and 45 percent of the active-duty officer corps held advanced degrees. This indicates that officers continued their education during the course of their military service. [Notice they curiously don't give the percentage of enlisted recruits with a college education, though they do for the officers. Guess I have to look somewhere else to find that percentage.]
Indeed, one is supposed to have a high school diploma to be a recruit, but there are documented cases where military recruiters have coached high school dropouts to make fake high school diplomas and pass drug tests. The point is not that soldiers are stupid, but that American wars are not fought by those with the monopoly on the social, economic, and political resources (education, family, and neighborhood situation which affects educational and professional opportunities, as does violence and security in one’s environs and on and on).
But Kerry does not appear to have developed that line, which he knows would be immediately labeled not just “liberal” (as that throwaway demonizer goes) but “radical” or “extremist” by his opponents (as those who are incapable of arguing may use against me here for even mentioning it). He is not gutsy enough to pursue that line of argument. Nor are many, if any, mainstream politicians. That sort of line is branded negatively in association with scenes from Michael Moore’s patently un-persuasive cheerleading routine Fahrenheit 9/11. It is more likely that Kerry did mean to say something like “If you don’t study and take learning seriously, you end up getting yourself and others into a quagmire like Iraq: just ask George W. Bush.”
Kerry also apologized, which, though a common “crisis communication” tactic of last resort (first the PR gurus counsel you to ignore, then deny, etc.), is more than I can say for all the misleading statements and propaganda with which the Executive branch has bombarded their own citizens, from “fake news” (your tax dollars at work) to claims of Iraq to Al Qaeda links, to name just a few that have resulted in tragic misunderstandings on the part of millions of fine Americans. Need I remind anyone that, as recently as September, just under half of those polled still believe there is a connection between Hussein, Al Qaeda, and 9/11 (46%).
So if they want to distract from serious election issues by catching Kerry with his foot in his mouth simply to destroy the Democratic brand, let’s take the opportunity to talk about what sort of a society we have where the Heritage Foundation tells us that college graduates are officers, leaders from day one in the military, and the rest are rank and file and in a much more vulnerable — systematically. But more than anything else, let’s note that the wide circulation of the Kerry story on the media agenda crowds out real debate about social issues that underpin those number of non-college degreed soldiers, which, as I suggest, are tied to lots of policy problems. It also crowds out the larger issue of this catastrophic war, its mismanagement, the unethical premises for it, which have also been used as a screen for cutting back taxes and thus social programs that would potentially, ironically, change those statistics about who serves on the front lines.