I first "floated" this idea, in slightly different form,
in this essay published and broadcast in 2001 and 2005:

(More relevant than ever before, and getting more so by the day)

This was also broadcast as a commentary March 30, 2005
(day before April Fools'), on KUNM-FM

Jim Terr sneak-previews Stephen Soderbergh's latest film, featuring an unbelievable all-star cast: Susan Sarandon, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, LeeLee Sobieski, and Haley Joel Osment

From the Eldorado Sun, (now Sun Monthly) February 2001

I Saw This Great Movie....I Wish!  By Jim Terr ©

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins..." -H.L. Mencken

An Internet search finds 13,500 entries under "demagoguery" and almost 16,000 for "demagogue", yet most people are not familiar with the term. Webster's definition of a demagogue is "one who seeks to gain personal or partisan advantage by specious or extravagant claims, promises or charges."

Steven Soderbergh's new star-studded but low-budget film, "Young Demagogues' School," employs a broader meaning of the word, encompassing advertising, corporate and political public relations and propaganda, euphemism, calculated rectitude and good-old-boyism and deceitful punditry of all sorts. I'll go along with this more inclusive definition, since it covers the whole range of media manipulation and spin control which assaults and attempts to mislead us on a daily basis.

The premise of this new Miramax release is best described by a 1998 cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker: A small child in a suit and tie is declaiming self-righteously at a tiny lectern, his right hand raised in oath-taking position, while his mother, watching from the next room, says to a friend, "With the Suzuki method, they start them campaigning as early as three or four."

In "Young Demagogue's School," an exclusive prep school evidently located somewhere in upstate New York prepares young people to practice the skills of deceit which seek to dominate our political, commercial, cultural and even emotional lives, and which prop up the "culture war" which has replaced the external enemies of the Cold War.

In the "Rush Limbaugh Master Class," young demagogues-in-training are guided in the fine art of demonizing their opponents. In this disturbing sequence, Haley Joel Osment (the wonderful young co-star of "The Sixth Sense") draws a classmate's name from a hat, silently peruses a questionnaire listing her views on such mundane things as sports, fast food and music, and then cheerfully turns everything he knows about her into a withering attack on her character, intelligence and intentions -- almost as skillfully as the "master" himself.

Osment's mentor in this scene, Susan Sarandon (playing very much against type, or at least against her own real-life progressive political stance), combines a seemingly motherly instinct with a scary understanding of the manipulative techniques of advertising and P.R., and a ruthless determination to instill it in her young subjects.

Another frightening but funny sequence has Sarandon and her ditzy co-instructor, Annette Bening, leading the rowdy class through an exercise in framing a series of heinous political and corporate acts as good things we can't possibly live without, using the warm, fuzzy, soft-focus, saccharine-piano, "Morning in America" TV ad approach that seems to work so well for everything from ketchup to candidates -- and in giving them euphemistic, saleable titles.

The flip side, portraying good acts and initiatives as the greatest threats to democracy since Adolph Hitler, is practiced by our young demagogues using the growling, threatening, rumbling commercial style heard so often in political "issue ad" campaigns. Watching the students master these techniques and voices is at once fascinating and disquieting.

What emerges throughout the film is a bleak, sardonic view of a world controlled by spin doctors and their manipulative ads, phony news stories and industry-sponsored "astroturf" (as opposed to real "grassroots") citizen group campaigns. This is the Kafkaesque universe parodied weekly in Tom Tomorrow's comic strip, This Modern World, and by such cartoons as one that appeared in Time Magazine after Hillary Clinton's health care plan bit the dust in an industry-orchestrated orgy of recrimination: "Then came the TV scare ads: 'The Government wants to tear down our health care system and force us to have surgery performed by Motor Vehicle Bureau clerks!!'"

As owner and headmaster of the Young Demagogues' School, Martin Sheen (in a sharp departure from his usual television role as a liberal US President) does a chilling turn as a Machiavellian proponent of mastering demagoguery both as a career skill and as a defense against other demagogues. His simultaneous pursuit of both Bening and seductive student LeeLee Sobieski (Joan of Arc), effortlessly conducted behind the back of his hapless wife, Julia Roberts, represents an Oscar®-worthy performance for both Sheen and Bening.

Special mention is due to the ubiquitous Russell Crowe, who, in an amusing but unsettling sequence as the school's only male instructor (oddly, involved in none of the romantic or murderous sub-plots swirling around the other characters), tutors young Rory Culkin (late of You Can Count on Me) and Sobieski in the use of biting but innocuous-sounding "code words," in pretending to attentively listen to and advise a clueless President while in fact telling him what to think, and in subtly re-stating an opponent's position in terms that make him seem heartless and ignorant.

In fact, virtually all the tools of the advertising and PR trades are starkly exposed in this funny and touching yet disturbing film, which will premiere nationally later this month.

Actually, this movie will appear about the same time they make a film about America's most interesting character, Ben Franklin -- which is to say, probably never. But I can dream, can't I?

Oliver North has emerged as yet another hero on the political scene who skillfully employs references to his family and his moral virtue to divert attention from the magnitude of his immoral actions. His performance has been masterful.

North is touching deep emotional chords in the American public with his ramrod manner, his love of country and family and his insistence that all his actions have been undertaken in the service of his government. He possesses the defiant, arrogant style of the righteous, at once subservient to those above him who agree with his vision and contemptuous of all those who refuse to believe.

(North) is self confident and assured; he speaks from a deep reservoir of certainty that may be related to a strong religious conviction...he has mastered the dramatic pause and indignant tone needed to present himself as the faithful servant of his leaders.

(This chilling example of "calculated rectitude and good-old-boyism" courtesy of James M. Wall in The Christian Century, July 15, 1987)

Santa Fean Jim Terr is a song satirist, actor and video producer
who lives at www.Jim Terr.com.

And moving right along with the Ben Franklin idea, May 2008...