Great events tend to move more by image than by realities. At their most powerful, images are perceptions that grip the mind stronger than statistics, scientific studies, expert testimony, education, and the other tools of reason. We are experiencing a massive image shift right now, and since so many of the new images contain threat or at the very least uncertainty, no one knows how this will change reality.
One image is of a dominant Asia, especially China, poised to disturb the American way of life. According to this image, the Chinese worker, toiling for pennies a day, is stealing jobs by the millions from the American work force.
Another image is of skyrocketing oil prices destroying world stability.
Another is of the U.S. winning the war in Iraq after the success of the surge headed by Gen. Petraeus.
Finally, there’s the image of Barack Obama, a secret Muslim weak on national security, fighting against John McCain, a war hero who can better protect us against Al-Qaeda.
The point about all these images, whether they are true, false, meaningful, or absurd, is that they have sticking power, quite mysteriously so. Once people get attached to them, they push reality out of mind the way heroin fills the opiate receptors in the brain and block out the body’s own ability to create pleasure and inhibit pain. In the case of Obama’s image, up to 15% of the electorate in some states holds only two bits of knowledge about him, that he is Muslim and is associated with the raving Rev. Wright, never mind the direct contradiction between the two.
Obama is stuck with fighting image to image against John McCain, not issue to issue. He is by any reasonable judgment a far superior candidate, but images trump reality when they are powerful enough. Ever since Richard Nixon discovered that he could win elections by creating false images about war protesters, the civil rights movement, and liberalism in general, Republicans have become experts at negative images that frighten people, arouse xenophobia, furtively play on racism, and trumpet nonsensical slogans like “It’s morning in America.”
In the current presidential race, the ability of images to paralyze thought has to be dismantled, because a rising China, uncontrolled oil prices, global warming, and terrorism were spun into image problems instead of real ones. The 2004 election was an exercise in mass hypnosis, whereby the Bush administration, freighted with overwhelming deceit and failure, sailed to victory on images of fear, in particular al-Qaeda. Can the America public be weaned off soundbites, slogans, trivial distractions, gossip, and smear campaigns with no basis in fact? For the first time in forty years, it does seem possible. Otherwise, Obama will have to play catch up and devise a set of new images powerful enough to drive the old ones out of our brain receptors. May the best image win, for once.