Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

04 JUNE, 2012

Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art


A brief visual history of political propaganda design.

The intersection of propaganda and creative culture has always been a centerpiece of political communication, from the branding of totalitarian regimes to the design legacy of the Works Progress Administration to Soviet animated propaganda. Now, from The Library of Congress — America’s most centralized collective memory — and Quirk Books comes Presidential Campaign Posters: Two Hundred Years of Election Art — a magnificent large-format volume of 100 tear-out, ready-to-frame political campaign posters from the Library of Congress archives, each contextualized by a short historical essay on the respective election, alongside its final electoral and popular vote statistics.

In the preface, NPR’s always-brilliant media pundit Brooke Gladstone writes:

We media consumers are far too jaded by national politics to be influenced by campaign posters, right? We all know that posters are blatant manipulations, intended not to inform but to enlist. They emphasize faces and catchphrases. They condense complicated issues into jagged little pills. They are blunt instruments.

At the same time, the most effective campaign posters of every era leave as much as possible to the voter’s imagination. They are like Japanese manga: the less detailed the image, the more easily we can identify with the candidate, the more space for projecting our dreams. The more specific the image, the greater the risk of creating a feeling of “otherness,” which translates into death at the polls.

What emerges is a quilt-portrait of politics itself, stitched together by a common thread of propaganda techniques and the underlying ideological necessities they bespeak, unchanging across the ages — all the more striking given many of these posters come from an age predating marketing as we know it and what Gladstone calls the “now never-ending research into the psychology of primary colors, the semiotics of sans serif, and the syntactics of the sound bite.”

1856: James Buchanan (Democrat) v. James Fremont (Republican) v. Millard Fillmore (American)

1860: Abraham Lincoln (Republican) v. Stephen Douglas (Democrat) v. John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat) v. John Bell (Constitutional Union)

1864: Abraham Lincoln (Republican) v. George B. McClellan (Democrat)

1872: Ulysses S. Grant (Republican) v. Horace Greeley (Liberal Republican)

Gladstone observes:

The ultimate lesson of this collection is how choppy those waters are. Political art is nothing less than an illustration of the skirmishes and stalemates that created and continue to animate the American experiment. As you look at each poster and read about each campaign, it becomes increasingly clear that the tug of war over taxes and trade, the distribution of wealth and power, and the role of government itself, will never end.

Every generation renews the battle and fights it again. And every time, political candidates borrow from past campaigns the lexicon of perpetual political war. It reverberates in the slogans and the speeches, the urgent need: for tax relief or social protections, for an active government or a dormant one, for war or peace, to stay the course or to change direction.

1908: William H. Taft (Republican) v. William J. Bryan (Democrat) v. Eugene V. Debs (Socialist)

1924: Calvin Coolidge (Republican) v. John Davis (Democrat) v. Robert La Follette (Progressive)

1928: Herbert Hoover (Republican) v. Al Smith (Democrat)

1948: Harry S. Truman (Democrat) v. Thomas E. Dewey (Republican) v. J. Strom Thurmond (States' Rights Democrat) v. Henry A. Wallace (Progressive)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1972: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. George McGovern (Democrat)

1980: Ronald Reagan (Republican) v. Jimmy Carter (Democrat) v. John Anderson (Independent)

1980: Ronald Reagan (Republican) v. Jimmy Carter (Democrat) v. John Anderson (Independent)

1988: George H. W. Bush (Republican) v. Michael Dukakis (Democrat)

2008: Barack Obama (Democrat) v. John McCain (Republican)

2008: Barack Obama (Democrat) v. John McCain (Republican)

At once a time-capsule of history and an invaluable timeline of design evolution, Presidential Campaign Posters offers a rare look at the craftsmanship of political propaganda and the abiding aspects of the human condition that it bespeaks.

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22 MAY, 2012

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See


The art-science of walking the fine line between keen and crass.

Since its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has garnered remarkable reverence as much for its editorial style as it has for its inimitable covers, a singular medium for political and sociocultural visual satire matched perhaps only by Al Jaffee’s legendary MAD magazine fold-ins. In Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See, Françoise Mouly, New Yorker art director of nearly two decades, offers exactly what it says on the tin — a delicious forbidden taste of the art that didn’t quite nail it, or nailed it a bit too hard.

From Monica Lewinsky with a lollipop to Osama Bin Laden appraising proposed designs for the new World Trade Center, the images come from a slew of beloved New Yorker regulars, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, R. Crumb, and Art Spiegelman (who happens to be Mouly’s partner), and explore — some might say, exploit — our most deep-seated cultural conceits, our grandest fears, our most irrational beliefs, and our greatest unspoken truths. What emerges is a fascinating and unprecedented glimpse of the creative process behind the art of walking the fine line between the humorous and the haughty, the keen and the crass, the unapologetic and the too unapologetic.

Before arriving at the right character set to poke fun at our fears of terrorism -- two Arab men -- Barry Blitt tried the idea with two children and two businessmen. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped -- the reference to the mild DIY explosive, despite the viral fame of the Mentos + Diet Coke mixing experiments, was deemed too obscure for the magazine's audience.

Art Spiegelman winked at Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom from Want' to comment on anti-Muslim violence.

Immediately preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christoph Niemann captured the anti-French sentiments sweeping America.

After Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was assaulted by white NYPD officers in 1997, Harry Bliss zeroed in on then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's semi-secret paranoia.

Though Art Spiegelman didn't make the cover cut with this 1993 sketch, he and Mouly made it into the family's Christmas card that year.

Much of what makes the book special — and, no doubt, what makes New Yorker covers sing — is Mouly’s relationship with the artists, whom she consistently encourages not to self-sensor or hold anything back. There emerges a kind of “fail better” mentality, underpinned by her conviction that even the most outrageous idea may serve as a gateway to an inspired, publishable line of thinking.

The book’s companion site offers a weekly cover contest, the entries to which have been surprisingly excellent. My favorite, by writer and illustrator Ella German, came last week, themed “The Gays,” in light of the recent historic moment for marriage equality, but also referencing Maurice Sendak, who had passed away the previous week. Though far from a gay rights activist, Sendak lived as an openly gay man with his partner of half a century. The two never had the opportunity to marry.

What Here At The New Yorker did for the magazine’s editorial voice on its 50th anniversary in 1975, Blown Covers has done for its brand of visual satire, offering a rare glimpse of Oz behind the curtain. And to those whose first blush might be that Oz is better off unseen and omnipotent, Mouly offers the following lens in this interview on Imprint:

One could have to do with demystifying, making the process more predictable. But I actually think that it’s so rich and so interesting that it’s actually even more interesting if you have a sense of how the images are thought about, rather than less. It doesn’t explain anything because it still is genius when somebody gets the right idea.

Images courtesy of Abrams Books

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18 MAY, 2012

5½ Timeless Commencement Speeches to Teach You to Define Your Own Success


The great and terrible truth of clichés, why success is a dangerous bedfellow, and how disappointment paves the way for originality.

It’s that time of year again, the time when cultural icons and luminaries of various stripes flock to podiums around the world to impart their wisdom on a fresh crop of graduating seniors hungry to take on the world. After last year’s omnibus of timeless commencement addresses by J. K. Rowling (“Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself. But poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.”), Steve Jobs (“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”), Robert Krulwich (“You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back. This is the era of Friends in Low Places.”), Meryl Streep (“This is your time, and it feels normal to you. But, really, there is no ‘normal.’ There’s only change, and resistance to it, and then more change.”), and Jeff Bezos (“Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice.”), here are five-ish more packets of timeless wisdom.

Across them runs a common thread of what seems to be as much a critical message, the message, for the young as it is an essential lifelong reminder for all: No social convention of success should lure you away from or could be a substitute for finding your purpose and doing what you love.


In 2005, David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class at Kenyon College with a remarkable speech that revealed in equal measure his singular, potent, wildly eclectic mind and his wounded spirit, peeling the curtain on the triumphs and tragedies of being David Foster Wallace. When Wallace took his own life in 2008 in a way referenced from the podium, the address took on a whole new layer of meaning for those who revered, mourned, and tried to understand the beloved writer. In 2009, the speech was adapted into a short book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

Full transcript here.


In 2009, the great Ellen DeGeneres — icon, notorious happy-dancer, and one of my big heroes — sent off the graduating “Katrina class” at New Orleans’ Tulane University with a hurricane of a speech that swirls you into a whirlwind of wit and humor, shakes you up with its humility and deeply personal candor, and puts you back down with a new understanding of

As you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity, and not to give into peer pressure; to try to be something that you’re not. To live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way. So to conclude my conclusion: follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, and by all means you should follow that.


Earlier this week, Aaron Sorkin took the stage at Syracuse University and addressed the graduating class with equal parts wit, wisdom, and disarming candor. His remarks about how the government failed to address the dawn of the AIDS epidemic because a disease that affected mostly homosexuals didn’t seem worth the trouble, and how misguided that was in retrospect, make one think of the recent momentous strides forward for LGBT rights and wonder with what mix of bewilderment and shame we might look back on the days of government-sanctioned bigotry in a few decades.

Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt. My junior and senior years at Syracuse, I shared a five-bedroom apartment at the top of East Adams with four roommates, one of whom was a fellow theater major named Chris. Chris was a sweet guy with a sly sense of humor and a sunny stage presence. He was born out of his time, and would have felt most at home playing Mickey Rooney’s sidekick in “Babes on Broadway.” I had subscriptions back then to TIME and Newsweek. Chris used to enjoy making fun of what he felt was an odd interest in world events that had nothing to do with the arts. I lost touch with Chris after we graduated and so I’m not quite certain when he died. But I remember about a year and a half after the last time I saw him, I read an article in Newsweek about a virus that was burning its way across the country. The Centers for Disease Control was calling it “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” or AIDS for short. And they were asking the White House for $35 million for research, care and cure. The White House felt that $35 million was way too much money to spend on a disease that was only affecting homosexuals, and they passed. Which I’m sure they wouldn’t have done if they’d known that $35 million was a steal compared to the $2 billion it would cost only 10 years later.

Am I saying that Chris would be alive today if only he’d read Newsweek? Of course not. But it seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less of each other, and that’s got to change. Your friends, your family, this school expect more of you than vocational success.


Philosopher Daniel Dennett once offered his key to the secret of happiness: “Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” In his 2008 address to the graduating class at Wesleyan University, Barack Obama put it just as eloquently: “[O]ur individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.”

[S]hould you take the path of service, should you choose to take up one of these causes as your own, know that you’ll experience the occasional frustrations and the occasional failures. Even your successes will be marked by imperfections and unintended consequences. I guarantee you, there will be times when friends or family urge you to pursue more sensible endeavors with more tangible rewards. And there will be times where you will be tempted to take their advice.

But I hope you’ll remember, during those times of doubt and frustration, that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world. Because all it takes is one act of service — one blow against injustice — to send forth what Robert Kennedy called that tiny ripple of hope. That’s what changes the world. That one act.


Count on Conan to hit on the Big Truths with his signature blend of irreverence, self-derision, and keen cultural observation.

For decades, in show business, the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host The Tonight Show. It was the Holy Grail, and like many people I thought that achieving that goal would define me as successful. But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you. In 2000 — in 2000 — I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.


Though not technically a commencement speech, this remarkable keynote address by Ray Bradbury at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea is brimming with the kind of invaluable wisdom you wish someone had pinned to your mind in your early twenties, so you could laminate it for the rest of your life.

I want your loves to be multiple. I don’t want you to be a snob about anything. Anything you love, you do it. It’s got to be with a great sense of fun. Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say “Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…”, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.

Now, what I’m thinking of is, people always saying “Well, what do we do about a sudden blockage in your writing? What if you have a blockage and you don’t know what to do about it?” Well, it’s obvious you’re doing the wrong thing, don’t you? In the middle of writing something you go blank and your mind says: “No, that’s it.” Ok. You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying “I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.” You’re being political, or you’re being socially aware. You’re writing things that will benefit the world. To hell with that! I don’t write things to benefit the world. If it happens that they do, swell. I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to have a hell of a lot of fun.

I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. I want you to envy me, my joy. Get out of here tonight and say: “Am I being joyful?” And if you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.

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15 MAY, 2012

Sex and Punishment: A 4,000-Year History of Judging Desire


How we went from medieval male marriages to executions to marriage equality.

It’s a momentous year for LGBT rights, with Barack Obama’s recent historic endorsement of marriage equality reminding us how far we’ve come since the days of legally punishing sexual orientation — for a grim flashback, we need look no further than computing pioneer Alan Turing, whose centennial we’ll be celebrating next month and who committed suicide shortly after being criminally prosecuted for his homosexuality. Whether bigotry can ever be wholly uprooted from insecure hearts and narrow minds remains to be seen, but we’ve certainly come a long way. How, exactly, did we get here?

In Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, writer and lawyer Eric Berkowitz explores the millennia-long quest to regulate and mandate one of the strongest drivers of human behavior, and the tragic deformities that result from the dictatorship of external authority over the most intimate of inner realities. Tracing how we went from the male bonding ceremonies commonly performed in medieval Mediterranean churches to the lesbian executions in 18th-century Germany, along the entire spectrum of cultural attitudes towards mistresses, goat-lovers, prostitutes, medieval transvestites, adulterers, and other sexual-norm nonconformists, Berkowitz brings an eye-opening lens to one of the most mercilessly judged yet universal aspects of being human.

In the period up to roughly the thirteenth century, male bonding ceremonies were performed in churches all over the Mediterranean. These unions were sanctified by priests with many of the same prayers and rituals used to join men and women in marriage. The ceremonies stressed love and personal commitment over procreation, but surely not everyone was fooled. Couples who joined themselves in such rituals most likely had sex as much (or as little) as their heterosexual counterparts. In any event, the close association of male-marriage ceremonies with forbidden sex eventually became too much to overlook as even more severe sodomy laws were put into place.

Particularly interesting is a discussion of same-sex female relationships, which most scriptures — even those most vehemently condemning of male-male sex — have historically ignored, not because those were considered acceptable but because they appeared too unfathomable to be considered at all:

Can two women love each other sexually? Eighteenth-century morals said no, at least where the females involved were respectable. Among the better classes, lesbian relations were impossible to imagine. Good women could love and embrace each other, sleep together, and write each other passionate letters; all that was noble. But loving and making love were entirely different matters. Unless they were gratifying their husbands, women of ‘character’ were imagined as sexually numb creatures. British judges allowed that females of ‘Eastern’ or ‘Hindoo’ nations might act differently, but not the women of the ‘civilized’ world.

Boing Boing has an excerpt. Sex and Punishment is fascinating in its entirety.

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