11 May 2019

Alfred E. Neuman and the politics of mass culture

A minor kerfluffle erupted yesterday when Trump came out with a new insult directed at Pete Buttigieg -- "Alfred E. Neuman cannot become President of the United States."  My own reaction was "I don't see why not, when Biff Tannen is President right now."  Buttigieg has attracted some kudos for his own response:

Asked about Trump's put-down by POLITICO in San Francisco on Friday, the 37-year-old Buttigieg professed ignorance about the comic book character, whose fame peaked more than 20 years ago, while making a veiled reference to the 72-year-old Trump's seniority. "I'll be honest. I had to Google that," he said. "I guess it’s just a generational thing.  I didn’t get the reference.  It's kind of funny, I guess.  But he's also the president of the United States and I'm surprised he's not spending more time trying to salvage this China deal."

Alfred E. Neuman is not exactly a "comic book character", but let it pass.  I'm actually not so sure that Buttigieg got the better of this exchange.  Yes, Trump's insult was moronic, as all his insults are.  But the reference wasn't all that ancient or obscure.  Mad Magazine was a mainstream part of mass culture for decades, and Alfred E. Neuman is probably familiar to most people over 40 and a lot of people over 30.  That's half the population and a lot more than half the voting population.  Obama made a joke referencing the character in 2008.  Nobody then seemed to think it was bizarrely obscure.

A common trope directed against highly-intellectual candidates like Buttigieg is that they're culturally snobbish and aloof, disdainful of the interests and enthusiasms of ordinary people.  In most cases it's a false accusation.  I would certainly be vulnerable to such insinuations if I were running for office, given (for example) my total lack of interest in sports and the fact that I haven't owned a TV set in over twenty years.  In fact, this simply reflects my real interests, not snobbery -- some of my cultural tastes would strike most people as very "lowbrow" indeed.  But it's a meme that can stick, in politics.  By advertising the fact (if it's even true) that he didn't know who Alfred E. Neuman was, Buttigieg potentially gave it just a little more credibility in his own case.

This one exchange was likely too minor to have any real impact, but it's symbolic of something we need to watch out for.  As I pointed out here, the left does have a reflexive tendency to react with disdain and exasperation to the influence of celebrities and popular entertainment on the thinking of great masses of people -- and we're very foolish to do so.  That influence is vast.  Most people, most of the time, pay far more attention to celebrities or movies they like than they do to politics, because the former is fun while the latter is a dreary necessity.

I'll feel better if our eventual nominee is someone who is familiar with Alfred E. Neuman and suchlike imagery and concepts from mass culture.  It's trite but true that a lot of voters want a candidate who comes across like a regular guy they could have a beer with, even if he's smarter than most.


Blogger dellgirl said...

This is interesting and thought provoking, as usual. You have again put a lot of thought and hard work into this post. And, you did a great job of presenting it. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

Wishing you a Happy Sunday!

11 May, 2019 18:24  
Blogger The New York Crank said...

Too bad Alfred E. Neuman is not better known among a certain segment of the younger generation — I'm talking about those whose morning reading of the news consists of thumbing through their twitter feeds. Neuman shares a philosophy of life with them: "What, me worry?"

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank

11 May, 2019 20:02  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Not for a second I think Buttigieg did not know who Alfred was. I saw it more as not biting the Cheeto bullshit and calling him old.
Reading, my dear, is a subtle art. And Pete applied it here masterfully.


11 May, 2019 22:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Dellgirl: Thanks! It's a different viewpoint from most, anyway.

Crank: It's no wonder so many people don't have much idea what's going on.

Sixpence: The problem is that most voters don't read subtly. If the goal is to get people to vote for you, giving a snobbish or aloof impression is a problem.

12 May, 2019 07:24  
Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

Great piece, Infidel.

I confess that I've known who Alfred E. Neuman was for years--but then again, I'm someone whose parents let me and my brothers read MAD magazine when we were kids and well into our teen years.

"As I pointed out here, the left does have a reflexive tendency to react with disdain and exasperation to the influence of celebrities and popular entertainment on the thinking of great masses of people -- and we're very foolish to do so."

All too true. As far as I'm concerned, it's incredibly foolish to do this.

12 May, 2019 08:38  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marc: Thanks. Our politicians and activists have to realize that they need to win within the culture this country actually has, not in the culture they wish it had.

12 May, 2019 09:43  
Blogger Ami said...

Never considered the 'if I were to run for office' angle.
After doing so, I'm sure the masses would find it difficult to relate to me, too.

The perception that political candidates don't care or understand ANYTHING about our lives does affect how people vote. Or don't vote. That disdain from them is a huge part of voter apathy.

I still vote. Not because I really believe it makes a difference. More for the same reason many people go to church and profess to believe in a god. Fire insurance. You know, just in case.

12 May, 2019 09:48  

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