The 2006 and 2008 election cycles suggested a new day was dawning for citizen engagement with politics via Internet-circulated video. In 2006, Senator George Allen was caught on video spewing racial hatred to his rural Virginia constituents. When this “Macaca” video was posted to YouTube, the seeds to Allen’s downfall were planted. In 2008, an array of citizen videos concerning the campaign appeared on YouTube, many that were highly creative. They injected the language of irony and satire into the realm of what had become, in the television era, banal political speech dominated by focus-group tested messages crafted by professional spin doctors. What is more, YouTube served as an archive where citizens could search and retrieve these messages at will. It seemed that citizen-generated video might invigorate the electorate and give a new charge to democratic participation.
But as with most new technological advances, there is a looming dark side. And in this instance, it seems that Michael Moore’s chickens have come home to roost. The political right is increasingly using Moore’s guerilla video tactics of confronting public figures and recording their responses for public display. As with Michael Moore, the goal has little to do with conversation, discussion, or debate, and more to do with public embarrassment and the advancement of one’s own thesis. It is a form of street theatre. It is also typically a full-frontal assault on truth.
Bill O’Reilly’s producers have been doing this for well over a year. Anti-Acorn advocates were successful at it. Now we see a Republican entrepreneur and right-wing functionary named Jason Mattera doing the same. He runs his own website, and uses these guerilla video confrontations with numerous Democratic political figures to promote himself and his book Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation (published through Simon & Schuster, no less) via YouTube and other sites.
The latest video making the rounds is Mattera’s confrontation with Senator Al Franken about the health care bill, including a supposed section that allots $7 billion for jungle gyms. The provision, of course, says nothing of the sort, but instead says that (as Media Matters reports in its “fact checking” of Mattera) “entities receiving grants may use them toward activities such as ‘creating healthier school environments, including increasing healthy food options, physical activity opportunities, promotion of healthy lifestyle…and activities to prevent chronic diseases.’”
The dark side of all this, it seems to me, is how little truth matters when it comes to visual rhetoric. Mattera has constructed what elsewhere I have called a “believable fiction” or what Farhad Manjoo calls “true enough.” It may not say jungle gyms explicitly, but that is what it means, so it might as well say jungle gyms, Mattera asserts. Stephen Colbert, of course, calls this “truthiness.” Whatever we call it, it is a clear example of how truth really doesn’t matter in such videos—it is the performance of truthiness that triumphs. The Democrats in the videos are made to look stupid, arrogant, or elitist, while Mattera comes across as the brave citizen “speaking truth to power” or doing the job an investigative reporter would do if the media weren’t so liberal.
Given that the political right has demonstrated a willingness to believe almost anything (i.e., death panels, fake birth certificates claims, Obama as the anti-Christ), we should probably pause to reflect on the potential damages that will arise in the days and years ahead from this conjunction of supposed indexical “proof” with a certain section of the electorate’s will to truthiness. Visual rhetoric, as manifest in political videos such as this, is revisiting the dark side. Let’s look for a new hope in the foreseeable future.