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."
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!!'"
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
chilling example of "calculated rectitude and good-old-boyism"
courtesy of James M. Wall in The Christian Century, July 15,
Fean Jim Terr is a song satirist, actor and video producer
who lives at www.Jim Terr.com.
moving right along with the Ben Franklin idea, May 2008...