Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pigs and lipstick

"I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals." -- Winston Churchill

"I am very proud to be called a pig. It stands for pride, integrity and guts." -- Ronald Reagan

"[A] single pig can consume two pounds of uncooked flesh every minute. Hence the expression, 'as greedy as a pig.'" -- "Bricktop," Snatch, Guy Ritchie, 2000

"Hey, a sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I'd never know, 'cause I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That's a filthy animal. I ain't eat nothin' that ain't got sense enough to disregard its own feces." -- "Jules," Pulp Fiction, 1994

The poor pig does not get a very fair shake in literature. The pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) are stand-ins for communists (Snowball is said to represent Trotsky, and Old Major is said to be either Karl Marx or Vladmir Lenin or a combination of both); in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the severed pig's head is regarded as a savage diety by the eventually animalistic boys who find themselves marooned on the island -- along with their hapless, glasses-wearing compatriot, the chubby boy known as "Piggy."

Pigs then, one might guess, are fortunate to be blissfully unaware of the metaphors we use them in. Pigs are, genetically speaking, strikingly similar to humans, so much so that their organs in some cases can be used in humans as transplants. Despite their reputation as "filthy animals," both by pop culture (see above) and religion (see the Torah), pigs are naturally rather fastidious about their upkeep and hygiene. 

But their reputation as dirty, loathsome things persists, and it is as such that they are used in our present-day analogies.

"You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," said U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, talking about U.S. Sen. John McCain's recently-rebranded campaign of "change."

Obama has since come under fire for the comment. Republican boosters (and, I'm sad to say, the news media) nation-wide have crowed that the presidential candidate from Illinois was most certainly referring to McCain's pick for vice president, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who, during the Republican National Convention in Minnesota, joked that the difference between a bulldog and a "hockey mom" was lipstick.

Therefore, the logic seems to run, Obama must have been calling Palin a pig.

It isn't the case (Obama was actually referring to McCain's economic policy and deriding him for suddenly painting himself as a "change" candidate), but that's almost beside the point. What has happened is that attention has successfully been diverted from the question of "Where do the candidates stand on such-and-such a policy" to "who called who what barnyard animal?"

This makes my current field of study -- political science -- supremely frustrating. What's the point in learning about this stuff if ("We The") people pay about as much attention to the political process as pigeons do to traffic patterns?

I'm just a student, and a new one at that, in political science. But in my first few weeks of study, the subject of voting behavior has come up in discussion. It's difficult, apparently, to accurately model voting behavior, because mathematically speaking, there's really no reason to vote -- there's no "margin." Any individual voter has an infinitesimally small chance of actually having any impact on the eventual outcome of a national election.

It follows, then, that doing any serious research into what candidate will actually influence policy the way one wants is subject to the law of diminishing returns -- you're putting more time into a choice that still has a near-zero impact. Why bother?

But people do vote, and perhaps that's a phenomenon that can't be easily represented by equations comparing x and y. People still (less so now than in years past, maybe) understand that voting is their one shot at participating in democracy -- although the time they spend balancing one choice against another may be severely curtailed.

My guess is that both parties are aware of this, and are (more or less successfully) campaigning with it in mind. It's a little frightening, since there are two months between the party conventions and the general election, and at least two of the days in the interim have been spent figuring out the importance of an offhand reference to a pig and the makeup it might wear. Out of the 54 days between the close of the Republican National Convention and November 4, that's 3.7 percent of the time... which of course is time we aren't spending talking about issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the country's flagging economy, energy policy and education.