Wednesday, January 24, 2007

One leg at a time

When I lived alone, between marriages, I watched a lot of television. But now I live in a house where the tv set is in the basement. Out of sight, out of mind. Mostly I have NPR on the radio, and that’s about as close to mainstream electronic media as I get. Yesterday, though, a commentator on NPR suggested that it might be interesting to watch for body language cues during the State of the Union broadcast. So I trundled downstairs with my wife and we watched.

What a bunch of dorks! I say that in full knowledge that I’m a dork myself and this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. But I mean it in the most loving way. The American public, for all its foibles and shortcomings, elects a lot of truly unattractive, ungainly, awkward, fashion-impaired people to the national legislature. This is a good thing. It means that in this age of expensive television advertising during every campaign cycle, when cynical pundits pontificate about how easy it is to manipulate public opinion and the extent to which we vote for the taller and better-looking candidate, people vote for content over form. I find that heartening.

I also find heartening the fact that biology was on display last night.
  • The camera was on Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff at one point when the President (yes, I still capitalize it; sue me) used the word homeland in his speech. Chertoff, who had a serious and attentive expression on his face and ramrod-straight posture, reflexively jerked his head the instant the word was uttered.
  • You know, I’m sure, of the classic demonstration of peer group pressure. Four people get into an elevator. Three of them, the experimenter’s confederates, turn to face the back of the car. The fourth, the experimental subject, turns around too. Last night, when the President introduced people in the gallery—modest, humble people—they stood there clapping wildly for themselves, simply because everyone else in the room was clapping.
On the one hand, the fact that we behave as the animals that we are means that logical and rational discourse and decision-making are always challenging. On the other, the fact that we behave predictably means that it’s at least theoretically possible to provide incentives for people to behave better (however you happen to define better). And while this is interesting to think about at the global scale, it is also instructive at the local scale—because the same psychological characteristics that affect our behavior in the world also affect our behavior as we cogitate, write, edit, read, and interact with others in the privacy of our homes and offices. Food for thought.


Diane S. said...

I was also somewhat appaulled at the behavior of "American Heroes" on display at the State of the Union. Has this always been a part of that speech, or is this George Bush's special little contribution?

Anyway, I was taught that if other applaud you (or toast you at a dinner) you sit and look humble, or if necessary stand and look humble, but in no event do you join in the applause or drink a toast to yourself.

I was also amazed at the level of applause and ovation for the President's plan to "augment" the troops in Iraq. ("This is not an escallation, this is an augmentation.") I thought most of the Democratic party was against this policy, but it wasn't just one side of the room applauding and jumping to their feet.

Thank you for your recent contributions to my blog. You've led an interesting discussion, and I'm in your debt.

Dick Margulis said...


I think it may have been Ronald Reagan who started the business about introducing invited guests in the gallery. I know for certain that Bill Clinton did it (but if someone with a better memory than I wants to say who started the practice, I'm willing to be corrected).

As for the the applause on "augmentation," it wasn't clear to me that large numbers of Democrats applauded. I was having some trouble figuring all that out, because of the choices of camera angles. In past State of the Union addresses I've watched, the television direction was such that it was easy to see one side of the room applauding and the other side sitting on their hands. There seems to have been a conscious decision to avoid that shot this year, the more to befuddle the viewing public.