In Washington earlier this week we saw at first hand the power of rhetoric when used to incite violence. But it’s not only rhetoric that influences what we think, but imagery too. My colleagues at King’s Centre for Strategic Communications (KCSC) are amongst the world’s leading experts on ‘the Propaganda of the Deed’ or POTD and the events this week were classic case of just that. The images of an iconic place – the Capitol Building – being stormed reminding us of the power of place in our collective imagination. The Ka’ba in Mecca, St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. These places stand as symbols of much bigger ideas and in a sense this is what makes them sacrosanct. This is what draws pilgrims by the millions to them. And the same is true of the US Capitol, or the Houses of Parliament in London. Visitors come to see, to experience directly the essence of democracy in these places. Places of reasoned debate by representatives chosen by the people themselves.
After an hour or so of watching news feeds, and with our bellies full of despair, we settled down to watch Paddington 2. There’s a hilarious scene where Paddington includes a red sock into the grey & white prison laundry irreversibly turning all the prison clothing pink. (We’ve all been there right?) The following day, in more sombre mood I texted my friend N in Boston to convey my condolences about the storming of the Capitol. She was heartbroken by the events but had got up early to watch the confirmation ceremony, greatly encouraged that democracy had after all prevailed.
“We watched it too”, I told her, “but now the image of that chamber with its blue patterned carpet, once a symbol of democratic government, is instead associated with chaos, anarchy and violence”. When the Reichstag was torched in 1933 German democracy burned with it. Fortunately for us all, this is not the case here; the outcome of the riots in Washington concluded with the election result being confirmed. But the image of Wednesday night’s rioters in the chamber is the red sock in the white wash and the stain will be hard to remove. POTD is powerful stuff. As N and I signed off our text conversation, she sent a salutary volley across my bows “Last time it was the British who burned DC…” Touché my friend!