Ex-Communists are clapped out

Chicago Diary

A couple of East European guests at the Democratic convention - one an ambassador, the other a political scientist - remarked that they could not bring themselves to clap with everybody else. The event evoked painful memories of forced applause at Communist Party conferences at home. An eerie thought, but not a surprising one. The Democratic Convention, like the Republicans one two weeks ago, is a rigorously regimented affair. More fun, more circus, but for the benefit of the television-masses the political commissars have repressed dissent and orchestrated displays of monolithic party unity around the beloved figure of the Leader.

The subordination of political substance to an atmosphere that blends soap opera, rock concert, cup final and Christian revival meeting ensures maximum suspension of critical thought. How else to explain the rapt wonder with which the conventioneers listened to the charismatically challenged Al Gore? The Vice-President is a man who delivers a speech as if he has difficulty reading, with the consequence that in each sentence he places the rhetorical emphasis on the wrong word. No matter. His job was to herald the Second Coming of the President, and the audience willingly suspended its disbelief. Thus the crowd listened open-mouthed to his phenomenally wooden narration of how he lost his sister to cigarettes, and cheered as if a goal had been scored at every ill-judged pause.

Every convention speaker, however inept, knows the secret of transforming dross into gold. You just chuck in one of the stock phrases guaranteed to elicit a Pavlovian response. "Restore the American Dream"; "the future of America's children". These words, in these combinations, induce chemical reactions in the brain which translate into feelings of well- being. Brezhnev knew the trick. He used words like "the downfall of bourgeois capitalism" and "the dictatorship of the proletariat".

No phrases resonate more widely in America than the ones coined by the advertisers. Take Nike's slogan, "Just do it". At an anti-abortion rally in Parking Lot E, the designated "protest zone" 200 yards from the convention, a man was wearing a T-shirt that read, "Don't just do it! Do it for the Lord!" On the other side of the family-values divide, a young man was spotted strolling along Michigan Avenue, Chicago's Oxford Street, with his arm around a woman. His T-shirt message? "I just did it".

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