Of all the absurdities we lovingly call journalism, my favorite bit of intellectual calisthenics is the “X—It’s Just Like Y!” routine. Here’s how it’s done: Choose a hotly contested topic (abortion, social media, the war in Iraq), conjure an unlikely or forgotten figure or movement (Pee-Wee Herman, the Boers, Jean Valjean), and then, exerting the cerebellum as much as is possible, claim that the two unrelated phenomena are secretly the same.
Do it properly, and you might convince your readers that the Tea Party is the uptight brainchild of the Beat movement, or that Mark Zuckerberg is really a slightly taller, slightly more Jewish version of Alberich, the villainous dwarf antagonist of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Such are the glories of hyperlinked thinking—anything could pass off for anything else. Which goes a long way toward explaining this week’s midterm elections: When our pundits amuse themselves with games of conflation, we might be forgiven for thinking that a politician could be simultaneously a communist and a Nazi.
How to better understand this curious condition? Allow me to attempt an explanation by offering a flamboyant turn of my own: Jacob, the protagonist of this week’s parasha, is just like the Tea Party.
It’s a riveting story. After forcing his starving brother, Esau, to give up his birthright in return for a mess of pottage, Jacob collaborates with his mother, puts on Esau’s clothes, wraps animal hides around his arms to simulate his brother’s hairy limbs, and walks up to his elderly father. Isaac, frail and blind, is suspicious. “The voice is the voice of Jacob,” he says, “but the hands are the hands of Esau.” His doubts, however, aren’t strong enough; he blesses the disguised Jacob all the same.
In so doing, Isaac is like the rest of us. No matter what we hear, it’s what we see—and feel—that carries the day. Consider “Taking Television Seriously: A Sound and Image Bite Analysis of Presidential Campaign Coverage, 1992-2004,” a recent study by Indiana University’s Erik P. Bucy and Maria Elizabeth Grabe. The two scholars set out to examine the state of the sound bite, that ever-diminishing nugget of speech that is often the only form of political sustenance we get on TV. Updating earlier research, Bucy and Grabe confirmed that while in the late 1960s the average length of the sound bite was more than 40 seconds, the average in 2000 dropped below the 8-second mark. But sound bites, the two researchers discovered, weren’t the primal form of political communication on television. Image bites were.
“Even as candidate sound bites continue to shrink over time,” they wrote, “image-bite time is increasing in duration—and candidates are being presented in image bites almost twice as much as journalists.”
Taking a biological approach, the authors argued that their conclusion shouldn’t come as much surprise. They cited the renowned argument made by neurologist Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error, claiming that reason is far from being the final arbiter of perception. As vision is the most developed and sophisticated of our senses, the use of language, reading, and other complex and abstract forms of making meaning are “experientially remote,” Damasio said, and therefore less likely to guide us. Humans, Bucy and Grabe conclude, “are not primarily thinking beings who also feel but feeling beings who also think.”
This explains Isaac. Despite having reason to question Jacob, he dispelled his doubts and went ahead with his blessing. He knew it was wrong, but he felt it was right. Sensation spoke louder than words.
To hear Bucy and Grabe tell it, that’s true for us all. We may not go as far as to act in a way that would have tremendous implications on the well being of our family, but we would certainly let this vague, thumping, irrational feeling guide us as we go into the polling station. Which, in part, is why we have abandoned lengthy sound bites for radically shorter ones, and then abandoned those, too, in favor of images. Images appeal to the primal urges we have but that our minds sublimate, refute, alter, or manipulate. Our minds might have told us that Michael Dukakis, for example, was a serious, committed and intelligent public servant deserving of our trust, but our eyes saw a man who looked funny wearing a helmet aboard a tank. The same is even more profoundly true today: No wonder one of the most successful Democratic candidates this election cycle, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, won his Senate seat in part thanks to a highly visual stunt in which he shot the cap-and-trade bill with a rifle.
Like many reasonable voters, Esau, too, gawks with astonishment at the shenanigans that deprived him of his primacy. He can’t believe that all it takes for him to be cast out is a few dirty tricks. He shouldn’t be surprised, and neither should we. If there’s anything to learn from Jacob, and from this election cycle, and from modern communications research, it is that we are predisposed in favor of the emotional, the visual, the sensational, the mad, the impulsive, the liberating. To transcend all those and move into the elevated spheres of reason requires work, the kind of work that sets apart making statements about cutting the budget and being able to name a single program one might cut once in power, the kind of work so many of our newly elected officials seem disinclined to undertake. If we don’t want to end up like the dejected Esau, we must be vigilant and demand, at the very least, that they try.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.