Back in the days of Hollywood's early adolescence, producer/director William C. deMille (being Cecil's, more gifted, less narcissistic older brother and Agnes' father) facetiously proposed the formation of a syndicate to purchase an island on which a new state should be erected, to be named "Villainova." According to the elder deMille (whose kid brother changed the spelling of the family name to "DeMille"), the inhabitants of Villainova would be supported in luxury by a tax on Hollywood studios, which in return would receive the right to make the heavies in all their pictures "Villainovans." In this fashion they could hope to avoid the protests of foreign governments and domestic pressure groups when one of their nationals or members, fictitious or real, was portrayed on the screen in a less than favorable light.
I recently came across this long-lost chestnut while researching a new book on the history of Hollywood. My first thought was "Brilliant! Just what American politics needs . . . Villainovans . . . a universal go-to-and-blame-everything-on-'em group of sinister nogoodniks." Yes, I am being a bit silly and jocose here. But so too was Bill deMille; why should I be either utterly serious or totally realistic? Then again, perhaps what American politics needs is some sort of cardboard cutout; a universal target we all can point fingers and fists at, thereby permitting incumbents and challengers to deal with positions and issues, rather than what we might term "the banality of puerility."
Of course, broadly speaking, Republicans and Democrats do have their own versions of Villainovans; for the former its liberal Democrats; for the latter, conservative Republicans. When it comes to the banality of puerility, neither side gets a pass; both seek to make the other appear the absolute embodiment of hard-hearted, chuckle-headed ignorance. There are several problems with this, not the least of which is that neither side truly believes the eyewash they publish. Modern political stereotyping is so arch, so odious, that an ever-increasing number of Americans have chosen to simply take a pass and opt out of the system. "There's not a whit of difference between the parties," more and more claim. "All they care about is catering to the needs and wishes of their wealthy backers . . . not average citizens like me." When all candidates and office-holders do is point fingers at one another; when real, substantive debate and action are replaced by blame, the evisceration of personal reputation and acts of incivility, American politics becomes little better -- and a whole lot less entertaining -- than a third-rate reality show on cable TV.
Of course American politics have long included a significant entertainment factor. Take as but one example, the 1840 presidential race pitting the 68-year old Virginia Whig William Henry Harrison against the incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren. The Whig campaign was replete with slogans ("Tippicanoe and Tyler too"), songs ("With Tip and Tyler/We'll bust Van's Biler/Farewell dear Van/You're not our man"), banners, placards, balls, cider barrels, and plenty of free food. The campaign's centerpiece was a gigantic fifty-by-one-hundred foot log cabin in which literally thousands of Whig partisans could listen to long-winded speeches extolling the virtues of Harrison and the Whig platform, while damning the vices, ineptitude, and reckless partisanship of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and the Democrats.
The election hinged on convincing the voting public that Van Buren -- the son of a Kinderhook, New York saloon keeper -- was an out-of-touch aristocrat, and that Harrison -- a seventh-generation Virginia slave-owning plantation owner -- was a down-to-earth man of the people. Somehow Harrison's handlers pulled it off; Old Tippecanoe easily defeated The Little Magician taking nearly 53% of the popular vote and winning 19 of the 26 states. Despite its high entertainment quotient, the campaign did manage to discuss most if not all the serious issues of the day.
Unlike today, when all we seem to learn is just how evil the other guy -- or gal -- is.
Increasingly, I get the sense that the number of people who believe anything they pick up through political ads or observe in televised debates is swiftly diminishing; more and more people have come to grasp the sad fact that the last thing in the world campaigns and debates seek to do is illuminate, elucidate or illustrate. Perhaps that is the point; to so frustrate and insult people as to keep any and all but the most hard-bitten partisans -- those with skin in the game -- away from the polls.
Last night's second gubernatorial debate here in Florida serves as an example of all that is worst in American politics. About 500 people attended the debate between incumbent governor Rick Scott and former governor Charlie Crist. The highlight of the evening occurred even before the debate commenced; Scott refused to go on stage until Crist removed a fan from inside his lectern. Once Scott was convinced to step up and act like a man -- let alone a governor -- the debate went from bad to worse. All we learned was how bad, evil, craven, contemptible, untrustworthy and duplicitous the other guy is; of how everything wrong with Florida can be blamed on Scott's predecessor, Charlie Crist, while everything right about the Sunshine State has happened on Rick Scott's watch. Sadly it was about as illuminating as a flashlight with a dead battery. And, it likely didn't change anyone's vote -- despite the two candidates having already dropped more than $60 milllion in negative ads . . .
All across the country, in campaign after campaign candidates -- both incumbents and challengers -- are shedding darkness where there should be light, talking smack where they should be trying sincerity. There actually is a difference between the parties; mostly in what they would accomplish in a less politically puerile world. One look no further than Democratic and Republican stands on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, voting rights, nominations to the Federal bench, gun control, education, infrastructure, health policy, etc., to see get a sense of those fundamental differences. The problem is, these differences are rarely exposed to the clear light of day. Far too frequently, they -- and those who espouse them -- are buried under an avalanche of pitiable political grime. When this happens, we are all the losers.
I for one think William deMille had the right idea: let's blame it all on the Villainovans. Once we've got that one settled and behind us, we can hopefully move away from the banality of puerility and begin acting like adults.
Copyright©2014 Kurt F. Stone