Douglas Rushkoff on the Inauguration Event
By Arnold Kling
Some excerpts from his 1999 book, Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” say. Chapter three is called “Spectacle.”p. 113:
Like so many other venues for mass communication, today’s sports spectacles are desperately looking for new ways to appeal…A well-designed spectacle has the power to unify tens of thousands of different people into a single, cheering mass. However the energy of the mob may have been directed in the past–toward particular political, religious, or cultural ideologies–today an afternoon at the Meadowlands has been fine-tuned to elicit our allegiance to the corporations sponsoring the game.
That is, he predicts that large corporations will try to use the inauguration as an opportunity to strengthen their brand identity.
When we are part of a crowd, we are free to experience heightened levels of emotion that just aren’t possible for smaller groups. Relieved of our responsibility to make considered judgments, we can allow ourselves to be swept away by the enthusiasm of the greater body. Whatever the crowd has in common–yet may not be free to express in daily life–is amplified by the intensity of the spectacle and the protection that the anonymity of the mob affords…
Throughout history, nations and their leaders have used this sense of mass complicity and celebration to unite their constituencies, especially against foreign threats.
we are brought into unfamiliar emotional territory. We feel alive as never before, and strangely honest–as if in our daily lives we have been living a lie. We may shed tears of joy or sadness, but underlying these tears is a sense of rage at not having been allowed to express these feelings all along, which magnifies the rage even more…Because spectacle is capable of inspiring dormant rage, it is a powerful medium for delivering rhetoric, even in the service of racist ideologies…Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief Paul Joseph Goebbels were masters of the political pageant.
Hitler chose to conduct his annual rallies ata Zeppelin field…But by 1934, as he began to gear up his supporters for global conquest, he enlisted the genius of architect Albert Speer to build a correspondingly more inspirational stage set.
For emotional, religious, and even poiltical effect, Speer commandeered 130 antiaircraft searchlights and spaced them at 40-foot intervals around a giant field…The immense rays of light rose more than 20,000 feet before diffusing into the heavens…
Speer’s intentions were to overwhelm rationality with grandeur and to mask naked rhetoric with emotion. His theatrics worked so well that the architect found himself drawn into the spell. He reported in his autobiography that he remembered attending the rallies and admiring Hitler’s speeches. But on rereading them years later, Speer claims he had no idea what it was that he had admired: “I found it incomprehensible that these tirades should once have impressed me so profoundly. What had done it?”
Think of any great spectacle as having three main acts. First, unify the crowd; second, stoke their passion; and third, speak as God or Nature…
The Nuremberg rallies began with unifying rituals before Hitler ever took the stage. Men representing various local and competing groups entered separately holding flags, then marched together with Rockette-like precision into huge revolving swastikas…It’s the same technique used today in the videos that precede every NBA basketball game…
Hitler began with the simplest of commonalities: They all were men. He told them how “the man’s world is the State” and the “woman’s world is her husband, her family, her children, and her house.”
While individual tales often are told during spectacle gatherings, the speaker always raises his rhetoric to more totemic and universal themes near the climax. As he does so, he becomes a lightning rod for the entire group’s righteous indignation…In Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 documentary about the Nuremberg rallies, Triumph of the Will, Hitler walks a tremendous gauntlet, apparently mourning the deaths of some soldiers in coffins…Then Riefenstahl cuts to where Hitler is looking–not at the wreath or the funeral pyre at all, but at the giant stone swastika above it. An attack against a symobl is more spectacular than one against human beings. It is universal.
At precisely the moment that the crowd makes the leap from personal to universal rage, the speaker can embark on his third and most difficult task: presenting himself as the voice of God…Hitler used religious phraseology to cast himself in a messianic role: “How could we not feel once again at this hour the miracle that brought us together!…Not everyone of you sees me, and I do not see every one of you. But I feel you, and you feel me!…It is a wonderful thing to be your Fuhrer.”
At the end of nearly every inspirational rally, the audience is entreated to take a collective oath. In the midst of a crowd of thousands of brethren, we are to pledge our support. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to rationally consider what we are doing. Hitler went so far as to threaten his followers with punishment for noncompliance…
I don’t mean to imply that every spectacle is necessarily coercive in its intent or its effect. But spectacles do function to suspend rational processes in favor of emotional ones. The intellect is neutralized, along with its ability to protect us from hateful or illogical rhetoric. We are made vulnerable. Maybe our only choice is to understand the intentions of a spectacle’s organizers before we attend.
…spectacle can offer us rare access to the subconscious as well as the mythic sides of our individual and collective experience. But it grants this same access to whoever might be hoping to engineer our sentiments toward his own ends. Revel at your own risk.