Posted in: Election 2012

A Strong Response

By | December 9, 2011

One of the benefits of living with people who make their academic homes in seven different Harvard departments is that you get some pretty interesting tidbits that you wouldn’t hear otherwise.

My music major roommate, for instance, recently sent an email to our email list:

 Just realized this: the music in Rick Perry’s new anti-gay ad is by Aaron Copland, a famous 20th Century American composer…who was an outspoken gay Jew. [Update: the music is not actually by Copland, but is a cheap knock-off of sorts of Copland’s Appalachian Spring according to The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross ’90.]

Copland also supported the Communist Party in the 1930s.

This revelation was surprising, but by no means the most surprising aspect of the mini-firestorm that has been the reaction to Perry’s “Strong” ad.

To be honest, I have been most surprised by the fact that everyone else seems, well, surprised.

I suppose upon first seeing the ad (due to my Politico procrastination during reading period, I saw it fairly early on) I expected some small degree of outrage among the Harvard student body and the blogosphere. Many people, however, are acting like President Obama just hurled a racial epithet at black people.

Did you not think Rick Perry believed these things? Really, if we’re going to be honest, this is hardly even gay-bashing by this Republican primary’s standards. Rick Santorum, probably the only person in the race who actually cares about social issues, routinely blames the breakdown of the American family—and by association the growing acceptance of homosexuals—for the country’s precarious economic position.

Furthermore, Facebook and the interwebs more broadly are overflowing with people who seem to think that this was actually a bad political move for Perry. This is dumbfounding. Perry’s campaign is on its last breath after the “Oops,” incident. If he wants to stick around in this race he needs to outflank Newt Gingrich on the right, and—just as importantly—he needs to hang around long enough for people to remember Gingrich’s baggage  and forget Perry’s debate debacle. That requires money. The “Strong” ad is a quite transparent attempt to woo evangelical voters and donors. Sure, long-term, were Perry to win the nomination, the ad could cost him in a general election, but you can’t afford to be thinking long-term when you’re at 6 percent in the polls and are running to win, not to put issues on the table or set up a 2016 run.

To be honest, I’m not even willing to call the ad a political mistake yet. What was the underlying message of the ad? That Christians are scorned by our secular society, and that Perry is willing to stand up despite that. The blowback over the ad supports that thesis better than any comprehensive analysis of American society ever could. The ad has people talking about Perry and not just about the Mitt v. Newt battle. I guarantee you it has evangelicals thinking that Perry is the candidate that most deserves their donation.

The other surprising aspect of the response to the ad has been its rapid meme-ification. Memes and parodies based on the commercial have exploded, and generally poke fun at the ad as reflecting an unpopular, reprehensible, and even evil opinion. On the surface, these are all just funny jokes at the expense of a candidate that large swaths of the internet find offensive.

I think they say something more important about our political culture.

I don’t want to be a curmudgeon and come down against memes (who doesn’t love a good lolcat every now and then?), but the immediate impulse to lampoon someone you disagree with strikes me as less-than-helpful to the democratic process.

Rick Perry, despite the political motivations for running the ad, really believes what he’s saying. More than that, he holds at least some of the opinions expressed in the ad because of his religion. While this doesn’t strike me as quite as making-fun-of-him-because-of-his-religionish as the truly stupid Tebowing trend, it certainly doesn’t acknowledge those basic facts.

As a Christian, I can think of more than a few good counterarguments to Perry’s ad that don’t include associating him with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. It seems to me that advancing arguments as to why you think he’s wrong would be considerably more constructive than libelously suggesting that he likes Rebecca Black.

I know that the memeifiers aren’t trying to be constructive. I know they’re just trying to get a laugh. But when we as a society immediately jump to mocking someone that throws out an opinion we find disagreeable, something is wrong. Rick Perry might not really be strong. He might be flat-out wrong. But we’re no stronger if we snicker instead of standing up and saying why he’s wrong.

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