Thanks to my students Nathan Martin, David Carver, and Travis Jordan for their comments on that Obama video I posted yesterday. See their discussion on their excellent online magazine they and others have put together, entitled Patrol Magazine. What got ME about that video was the robotic chanting, “O-ba-ma. Oba-ma. O-ba.me.” I will quote Travis on the subject:
A hiss beneath a rotted log, a growl from the tall grass, the click of a hammer in the shadows of a slum. Sound is the sense of fear. We can dodge and fight what we can see, but what we hear can only warn us that we are in peril. When a sound provokes dread or terror, it is because we fear what makes that sound, or rather, we fear what the maker of that sound can do to us. A snake can bite you, a giant cat can eat you, and a gun can shoot you. But that’s about it. While a hiss, growl, or click can illicit the fear of these grave calamities, the threat is limited to you, and you may get away or survive. That is why these sounds ring weak and hollow compared to the roaring whisper of a chanting mass.
If the chanting mass wants to kill you, you will die. If it wants to kill your family, torture everyone who ever knew you, and exterminate your race, you cannot stop them. The chanting mass can destroy the things and people you love more than yourself. The threat does not die with you, but endures until the spell binding the throng is broken.
This is why, nine second into the “We Are the Ones” video, I froze. An inhuman voice began rising, eventually dominating the song’s rhythm. It sounded as if the uncountable throng were summoning a spirit for them to unconditionally obey. There was no emotion or reason in the chant. It was powerfully hollow, proclaiming the inevitability of the mass will.
The meaning of the word isn’t inherently disturbing. The vacuous liberalism of the testimonies is nothing we haven’t heard before. But we have heard that sound. Whenever a people has felt abandoned, wherever a nation has decided to bring about the future, that sound has rung through streets, halls, and stadiums.
The music isn’t menacing and the face on the wall isn’t scowling. But when has it ever been? Of course, Obama is no Hitler, just as McCain is no George Washington. But the names synonymous with genocide and tyranny were never caught without a smile and a tune people couldn’t get out of their heads. Since what was catchy in 1930’s Germany isn’t catchy today, we might have to use a little imagination to create an equivalent mental image of a dangerously charismatic demagogue. Or we can just watch this video.
To truly understand the power of chant, try to create two neighborhoods of make-believe. The first is easy, as it is eerily represented by “We Are the Ones.” But that scenario alone provides a one-sided understanding. Now imagine the name chanted is your favorite public figure. The coordinated testimonies and soulful rhythm all just feel so right. You could not have written the rhetoric better yourself. Is the chant still creepy? It should be.