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Don’t Have a Real Public Issue? Go Tabloid: Kerry and Election 2006

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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.[5] 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.[6] 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.

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About Jayson Harsin

  • Bill Biddle

    Thank you for that clear analysis.

  • http://www.pearlsbee4swine.blogspot.com jayson

    Thank you for reading, Bill!

  • Kirk

    I could give a damn about a percieved insult to the American soldier as he contributes his share of the 650000 or so deaths that this phony war has brought to mankind not just America.

    Donovan said it best:
    He’s five foot-two, and he’s six feet-four,
    He fights with missiles and with spears.
    He’s all of thirty-one, and he’s only seventeen,
    Been a soldier for a thousand years.

    He’a a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain,
    A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew.
    And he knows he shouldn’t kill,
    And he knows he always will,
    Kill you for me my friend and me for you.

    And he’s fighting for Canada,
    He’s fighting for France,
    He’s fighting for the USA,
    And he’s fighting for the Russians,
    And he’s fighting for Japan,
    And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way.

    And he’s fighting for Democracy,
    He’s fighting for the Reds,
    He says it’s for the peace of all.
    He’s the one who must decide,
    Who’s to live and who’s to die,
    And he never sees the writing on the wall.

    But without him,
    How would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
    Without him Caesar would have stood alone,
    He’s the one who gives his body
    As a weapon of the war,
    And without him all this killing can’t go on.

    He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,
    His orders come from far away no more,
    They come from here and there and you and me,
    And brothers can’t you see,
    This is not the way we put the end to war.

  • Bob Jones

    Wow, could you be more liberally biased – what on earth does Foley have to do with any issue? He was seized upon in the same way by democrats, hey – maybe its karma.

    Politics are rough and messy, but don’t kidd yourself into thinking its only the Republicans who do the mud slinging.

  • http://ask.afpc.randolph.af.mil/pubaffairs/servicedemographics.asp?prods3=2303&prods2=313&prods1=79 Military Info

    FYI. Air force statistics:

    Academic Education
    – 49.2 percent of the officers have advanced or professional degrees
    — 39.4 percent have master’s degrees, 8.5 percent have professional degrees and 1.3 percent have doctorate degrees
    — 22.8 percent of company grade officers have advanced degrees; 16.5 percent have master’s degrees, 5.9 percent have professional degrees and .3 percent have doctorate degrees
    — 85.4 percent of field grade officers have advanced degrees; 70.7 percent have master’s degrees, 12.1 percent have professional degrees and 2.5 percent have doctorate degrees

    – 99.9 percent of the enlisted force have at least a high school education
    — 73.3 percent have some semester hours towards a college degree
    — 16.2 percent have an associate’s degree or equivalent semester hours
    — 4.7 percent have a bachelor’s degree
    — .7 percent have a master’s degree
    — .01 percent have a professional or doctorate degree

  • http://www.pearlsbee4swine.blogspot.com jayson

    #3 you miss the entire sociological context for the numbers about education among recruits. If you don’t like killing, maybe you should ask how one gets to the point of finding the military attractive. Or will you resort to a simple genetic explanation or something?
    #4 What are you talking about? Is this spam you drop on every comments section? Tell me where I’ve said it’s “only the Republicans who do the mud-slinging?” I’ve said again and again, in other columns, and implied here, that the entire political culture and style of communication is rotten. If you want to give Democrat, NGO, corporate, front group, examples, be my guest. I’ll hardly disagree, unless I think it’s poorly analyzed.
    #5
    Thanks for the Air Force stats. How many of the young men dying in Iraq are Air Force?

  • http://parisblagueur.blogspot.com/ le Meg

    I find it interesting that in a piece about branding that the comments from #3 so nicely illustrate the problem: slinging a label and hoping that it will do the analytic work in place of an actual argument.

    Nice piece, Harsin.

  • Bill B

    #3
    No soldier, no war. A nice concept but education is precisely the thing that is most within our control to arm (no pun intended) young adults with, to possibly avoid the choice of becoming a soldier.

    Now the whole no soldier, no war concept is pie in the sky idealism and as such is (if at all) a healthy number of years away from this world as worldwide moral (r)evolution would be necessary.

    ———————————————

    crowds out real debate

    This drives me bonkers. So much non-sense gets the limelight while real issues get little attention or go untouched.

    We’re destined to continue on this course until we demand more…or it becomes fashionable for the media to seem like they care.

    —————————————-

    #4
    If the justification for the responses to the Kerry/Foley issues are deemed comparable by the republicans, it goes a long way toward explaining where we are now and why we’re here.

    —————————————–

    Nice piece, btw

  • http://www.dcblogs.com kob

    Kerry’s perspective is Vietnam era and it was absolutely true that if you didn’t go to college you were in rotation for the draft. I’m of that era and understood where he was coming from. During the Vietnam era, college students received a draft deferrment as long as they didn’t flunk out.

    Bush served in the National Guard and that was better than a deferrment. Serving in the Guard was a safe bet for avoiding serving Vietnam, and it was very difficult to join the Guard for that reason.

  • Nancy

    Good piece. The truth is that labelling & demonizing over trivialties is endemic to both parties, because both parties are so totally averse to actually DOING anything substantive: they might actually have a real position held against them by some hypothetical swing voter somewhere sometime. It’s also easier to stand for nothing, and do nothing, and say nothing, and think nothing, & mouth platitudes & draw red herrings with smoke & mirror fake “issues” like flag burning & the like. It stems from cowardice, laziness, greed, and corruption.

  • http://www.nrlc.org/ Anthony G

    There is going to be alot of people voting democrat is this election because they believe that if the dems the house or senate then they can get us out of Iraq. This is not true because Bush is still president and he has that power over the congress. What the Dems will do while in power of the house and senate is cut military funding so in turn we will be cutting pay for the soldiers and be sending them to combat with equipment that is not up to date. Is this really what people want?

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    Oh fuck, Anthony Grande is back. There goes all hope of a decent conversation…

  • MCH

    Really…Hey Grande, what are you doing on the internet? You swore up and down that you were going to enlist in the Marines after graduation.

  • Jewels

    Anthony makes an excellent point. He really knows how to set the liberal bias proponents on edge too which makes it interesting.

    The thought that without soldiers there would be no war is a ludicruous and delusional theory. The history of mankind is rife with war. It is the nature of the beast. To think that if we as a country, should bypass having any form of military, considering the very real evil ideologies roaming the planet (which have no consideration for the peaceniks wanting to spread love and not war) is idiocy.

    Soldiers in our military provide a similar service for our greater good comparitive to what police and firemen do on smaller, localized scale. Without protection spawns chaos with chaos comes the destruction of a nation and life as we know it. Cutting military funding hurts our country, hurts our troops striving to protect our way of life.

  • Bill B

    Uh, I don’t see much of a point at all from AG seeing as the CIC has already subscribed to the cut & run um, timetable er, benchmark, that’s it, benchmark plan which, in one form or another, is the most likely path out of Iraq.

    Even if the dems took congress and decided to cut funding, not at all likely at this point, it would indeed be the CIC who’d have to decide whether or not to pull out the soldiers.

    He didn’t seem to have a problem sending them there in insufficient numbers and ill equiped, so maybe AG’s analysis is possible. Except they would only stay if George wanted them to.

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