“No Fireworks on the Fourth of July?”

Virginia Postrel

Virginia Postrel

Virginia Postrel‘s book The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, published in 1999, has long been one of my favourite libertarian works: smart, funny, level-headed (that is, not dogmatic). Her more recent work has focused on the nexus of business and aesthetics:  The Substance of Style came out in 2003, and The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion was published last year. For an online discussion this summer organized by the Cato Institute, Postrel returns to the subject of politics, contributing a nifty piece called “No Fireworks on the Fourth of July?” A couple of snippets:

In an ideal world, political discourse would consist only of logical arguments backed by empirical evidence. Visual persuasion would have no place.

There would be no fireworks on the Fourth of July; no pictures of the president speaking from the Oval Office or grinning at children or greeting soldiers or reaching over the sneeze guard at Chipotle; no “Morning in America” or “Daisy” commercials; no “Hope” or “We Can Do It” posters; no peace signs or Vs for victory or Black Power salutes; no news photos of gay newlyweds kissing or crowds celebrating atop a crumbling Berlin wall or naturalized citizens waving little flags; no shots of napalmed girls running in terror or the Twin Towers aflame; no Migrant Mother or dreamy Che Guevara; no political cartoons, Internet memes, or Guy Fawkes masks; no “shining city on a hill” or “bridge to the future”; no Liberty Leading the People or Guernica or Washington Crossing the Delaware; no Statue of Liberty.

In this deliberative utopia, politics would be entirely rational, with no place for emotion and the propagandistic pictures that carry it. And we would all be better off.

At least that’s what a lot of smart people imagine.

It’s an understandable belief. Persuasive images are dangerous. They can obscure the real ramifications of political actions. Their meanings are imprecise and subject to interpretation. They cannot establish cause and effect or outline a coherent policy. They leave out crucial facts and unseen consequences. They reduce real people to stereotypes and caricatures. They oversimplify complicated situations. They can fuel moral panics, hysteria, and hate. They can lead to rash decisions. Their visceral power threatens to override our reason. …

As political persuasion, fireworks are a liberal remnant of the pageantry and magnificence used by authoritarian rulers to inspire popular loyalty. Think of Elizabeth I’s annual progresses, the coronation of Napoleon, or Moscow’s recently revived May Day parades. You give the public a show that simultaneously provides aesthetic pleasure, makes people feel part of something bigger, and reminds them that you can wield some pretty impressive force. Even in its darkest forms, such as Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, magnificence aims primarily at winning and reinforcing followers’ uncoerced allegiance. While the spectacle may be intimidating to outsiders, within the group it engenders pride, devotion, loyalty, and love. Fear is mostly a side effect.

Other types of political spectacle do, however, seek to instill terror as a means of enforcing compliance.

The piece is worth reading in total.


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