Friday, October 31, 2008

I Put This Floor in This House

Dispatch 15
I Put This Floor in This House
David Levi Strauss

The political campaign ad for television is certainly one of the most degraded forms of public communication we have. It was base to begin with, built on a tissue of half-truths, innuendoes, and outright lies, and designed to appeal to our worst tendencies: fear, greed, insecurity, and selfishness. Most of the ads aired by both sides in this presidential campaign have been negative hits on one’s opponent.

Until last night, when, six days before the election and flush with more donated money than any candidate in history has had at his disposal, Barack Obama bought thirty minutes on prime-time TV, right before what turned out to be the final game of the World Series, to make a final pitch to American voters.

It begins with an image of American beauty and bounty: a field of Kansas wheat blowing in the wind. Then a traveling shot of the prairie as the voice-over begins, “With each passing month, our country’s faced increasingly difficult times . . .” The candidate then appears, already at home in a less austere version of the Oval Office, and sits on the edge of his desk to speak to us. He’ll tell us the stories of four working families and their struggles, and what an Obama presidency will do to help them. “Everybody here has got a story.”

The structure of the ad is consistent and sound. Each family’s story is followed by Obama’s policy proposals to address their issues. These are the problems, and these are the solutions. There are moments of great subtlety and effect, as when Larry Stewart, retired after working thirty years on the railroad, sits in his house in Sardinia, Ohio, and says “I put this floor in this house.” When he retired ten years ago, he lost his health insurance and had to take a job at Wal-Mart at age 72, as an “associate salesman.” “In other words,” he says, “I just sell stuff, that’s all.” That is, I don’t make things anymore, like I built this house. I just sell stuff, cheap, that other people now make elsewhere in the world, to other Americans like me who can’t afford to buy stuff we make ourselves anymore. And we are told that this is now our work, to consume, to buy and sell stuff we don’t make to each other. This is what we’ve been reduced to, far away from “an economy that honors the dignity of work.”

Each family story, from Kansas City, Missouri, Sardinia, Ohio, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Louisville, Kentucky, tells a part of the catastrophe we’ve been led into: forty-seven million people without health insurance, $10 billion a month in Iraq, and an economy built on easy money, debt, and consumption.

John McCain and Sarah Palin are never mentioned in this ad. George W. Bush is never mentioned. It’s not about them. It’s not even about Barack Obama. It’s about us. The entire ad, from amber waves of grain to God bless America, is about the idea of us, and what would happen if we decided to take back our country.

One of the marks of a world-class practitioner is that he can take a degraded form and breathe new life into it. Political analysts will be talking about this ad for a very long time, because it transcends the form.

But it doesn’t transcend reality. All of these stories of people who are hurting now are haunted by the realization that more pain is on the way. The current financial crisis will certainly lead to terrible economic effects over the first term of the Obama presidency. The real pain hasn’t even started yet. It’s going to be bad, and it’s going to be worst for poor and working-class families. To get through it at all, people are going to have to come together to enter a “new era of responsibility,” and abandon the politics of resentment and fear that have reigned over the last eight years.

“In six days, we can choose hope over fear and unity over division. . . . In six days we can come together as one nation and one people, and once more choose our better history. That’s what’s at stake.”

[Filed on Thursday, October 30 , 2008.]


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