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Poetry Propoganda

What place has poetry in a post-truth world?

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A supervillain for post-truth times? Loki, the trickster

In a post-truth world, poets can be superheroes. We have special powers to illuminate the truth, and prick the bubbles of lazy fiction. We can bend words to say the right thing. 

This week, ‘post-truth’ was declared international word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. I like new words, so I doff my cap to folks like Oxford-educated Michael Gove, former Education minister, who managed to spin the word ‘expert’ into an insult. And to Donald Trump, whose airy assertions have swept away any sense of proportion or of being achievable: “I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively…”

But its only poetry right?  It’s totally ineffectual and harmless  

There’s an Eyoreish English view on all this that galls me. Here’s the nutshell: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making” .  Auden wrote this in his poem “In Memory of W.B.Yeats”. Confusingly, he wrote it about a man who sparked a nation’s literary renaissance, transformed the way people thought about Ireland, became an Irish senator and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Makes nothing happen. Really?

Oppressive regimes must firmly believe poetry can make things happen. Poets have been locked up in droves over the years. People like  Osip MandelstamWole Soyinka or now  Ashraf Fayadh – accused of inciting atheism in his book Instructions Within.

Poetry changes hearts and minds, it allows people the ability to experiment with new ways of thinking

For example, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, thought something might happen. They set up the literary review L’Étudiant Noir in Paris in the 1930s, birthing a surrealism-inflected poetic movement Négritude which took ownership of blackness in literature, and gave black poets a strong new voice. Senghor went on to become the First President of Senegal, and Césaire became the highly influential mayor of  Martinique’s Fort de France. I’d call that something.

So if poetry can make things happen, what should we do?

I see an opportunity for poetry in a world where pernicious myths are taking hold, where toxic, half-witted fictions about people’s differences are taking root.

We live in a time when words are being weaponised to forge terrible myths. Luckily, poets understand myth and fiction, poets understand rhetoric and how to manipulate words. This is not the time for poetry to become despondent. We need to fight back with what we have, our words. We need to stretch our minds to imagine new pathways around the challenges to come. We have to remind everyone that despite the efforts of politicians to incite a hateful focus on people’s differences, humanity is universal.

This post-truth time should never be accepted, or normalised. It is not normal. Employing dog whistle racism is never okay. Humiliating the disabled is never okay. Litigimising mysogeny and violence towards women is never okay. Hatred towards LGBT or transgender people is never okay.  And anyone who voted for a candidate or cause, who decided that, although distasteful, they could live with any of the above needs to take a good hard look at themselves.

Time to climb off my virtual soapbox. One last thought…

Where politicians build walls, poetry builds bridges.

 

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Advertising Marketing Politics

The US Presidential election viewed as marketing

So following my look at the marketing slogans used in Brexit back in June, it came as little surprise that the Make America Great Again, message trumped the Stronger Together message.

Once again, the learning is this: PUT A DAMN VERB IN YOUR SLOGAN IF YOU ARE ASKING PEOPLE TO TAKE ACTION.  Every copywriter knows people need to be told how to respond to the message you have just given them. It’s not called a ‘call to action’ for nothing, it needs a verb. I find it a mystery that this was able to escape the notice of the both the Remain campaign in the UK, and the Hillary campaign in the US .

maxresdefaultStronger Together, echoed Britain Stronger in Europe with its hanging comparator. Stronger than what? Neither has a call to action. What do you do with Stronger Together? Go out and hug someone?

Of course, the thinking behind it is clear. Opposing the wall-building, happy to be divisive Trump campaign, the Hillary side wanted to present itself as bridge-building, and inclusive, ergo: Stronger together.

All good in theory, till your figurehead and brand ambassador describes half the voting population as ‘deplorables’. D’oh!

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Make America Great Again is a far stronger slogan. The voter can infer that a vote for Trump will make the place he or she loves, and calls home, great again. As someone who has visited the  US many times,  I found everyday patriotism far more evident there than any other country I’d visited. Old Glory flutters everywhere, while the pledge of allegiance to it is repeated by every school child in the country.

Make America Great Again, also paralleled the UK Brexit Leave campaign’s Let’s take back control in that it hankered back to a mythical past. Making America great again, sounds like something no American could disagree with. But surely, as Michelle Obama and others pointed out, America is already great.

But Make America Great Again  compares the America today with a nostalgic America, against which reality can only fall short. The slogan seems positive but there is an engine of negativity in the word ‘again’. A provoker of the angry question, so why isn’t America great any more?  And then, ‘who is to blame?’

This campaign was bold. It could have been flipped to make it seem that Trump thought that  America was no longer great. It plays with the never-to-be-spoken fear that the US will one day no longer be top nation. Just as the Brexit campaign still talks to the UK’s faint memories of former dominance.

But as an emotive, action-provoking slogan, Make America Great Again beats Stronger Together  by a country mile.

* * * *

It is a popular revolution. It seems that Brexit provided at least part of the blueprint for Trump’s election. We are told those who have been left behind by an increasingly globalised capitalism, who feel marginalised by ‘liberal-elites’, have had enough. Donald Trump, (again borrowing some of the more extreme Brexiter’s clothes) positioned himself as a highly patriotic candidate with easy solutions, who unashamedly played to bigotries.

Sadly, the vision of the future both Trump and Brexit offers is unachievable, however. Their vision of the future is a myth about what happened in the past.

As someone who loves literature, I know that myths are powerful things. In fact these two post-factual elections show that myths beat facts hands down.

For me this turbo-charging of a national myth is alarmingly reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. This mood in the US and the UK, allied to increasing nationalism in some European countries, could destabilise Europe. This is exacerbated by the possibility of NATO withdrawal, and Putin’s territorial ambitions. Add China’s expansionism, and the threatened tearing up of climate agreements, which will accelerate huge global migrations, the future is in want of hope right now.

Or perhaps everything will be okay. Please, God, let it be okay.