The Manchurian Candidate:  What triggers our political behavior?

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My oldest sister passed away ten days ago.  The news was gut wrenching, the realization that I would not see her again or hear her voice saddened me greatly.  The event also caused me to reflect on what I would do with the rest of my working life.  To spend my last years in this physical realm not maximizing my best self or skills would be a waste, so I decided to step up my writing efforts; to do what I am best at.

It is easy to get distracted, to get bombarded by life’s distractions, to have its wind shears cut through you.  And it is easy to feel alone especially if those closest to you make you a tactical part of their agenda while totally disregarding your self-interests.

Fear not.  This is a political blog where I tie motion pictures and the political narrative of the day so I won’t wax too sentimental, but this personal event along with the war in Eastern Europe, the midterm elections, the economy, and recent and on-going mass shootings had me thinking about what triggers our behavior.  With this in mind, I thought about revisiting the movie, The Manchurian Candidate, for my case study.

Released in 1962 in the midst of the Cold War, The Manchurian Candidate has as its backdrop the story of ‘Raymond Shaw’, a Korean War soldier, who has been mentally manipulated (brainwashed) by Chinese and North Korean intelligence to kill a U.S. presidential candidate.  Laurence Harvey gave what is touted as one his best performances, playing an aloof ex-soldier who was summarily hated by his fellow squad members and his mother, played by Angela Lansbury

His cold, humorless persona made him no friends, but I found his ice-cold character as not soulless.  Shaw turns out to be the perfect canvas that portrays his struggle to control his own destiny, to push back against what seems to be his mother’s plans for young Shaw’s political career which we see are really her plans for increased political power.

One of the poignant moments in the movie is where we see Shaw’s cold exterior melt away as he finds love with and acceptance by ‘Jocelyn Jordan’, played by Leslie Parrish, and her father, ‘Senator Jordan’, played by John McGiver. Seeing Shaw go from steely exterior to smiling and laughing at the dinner table with the Jordans gave me a glimpse at what could have been for the character had his environment been loving.  The ability of Mr Harvey to portray the two sides of the character to me is what made his performance in this movie the more powerful.

In the end, Shaw could not find a peaceful way to defeat the mental manipulation.  The tragedy was that he lost his battle for his soul.  When he says to his former commanding officer, ‘Bennett Marco’, played convincingly by Frank Sinatra, “They can make me do anything, Ben”, that, to me, foreshadowed a tragic ending.

It is easy post 2019 to be a little cynical by echoing Shaw’s observation that “They can make me do anything.”  The American labor markets were disrupted by government restrictions on entry into public places without masks or other health screenings.  The payout of stimulus checks to the workforce encouraged people to delay return to work which in part resulted in backlogs in delivery of goods and services. 

The economic recovery is too hot, however, as an inflation rate of 8.3% year-over-year and full employment as exemplified by a 3.6% unemployment rate now has monetary policymakers raising interest rates to cool things down.

And adding to the economic distractions are the social unrest.  Blacks are asking (still) whether this government is committed to protecting our physical persons when white teen-agers are able to access semi-automatic rifles and murder blacks en masse from a place of racial animus.

I have heard rumblings that there must be a cabal pushing buttons behind a green curtain.  The conspiratorial view is heightened when groups like the World Economic Forum get together at Davos and opine and strategize about new world orders, reminding us, as the late comedian and social commenter George Carlin did, that there is a club calling the shots and “you ain’t in it.”

I think in the end, what really triggered ‘Shaw’ and what really triggers us is fear.  Fear that we cannot be our true selves; that any attempt at self-awareness will be blocked by lack of support from our traditional social agents with an agenda of their own.  Our social agents whether family, religious groups, government institutions, have as their goal the maintenance and expansion of their existence which depends on the individual playing his or her role in that expansion.

To keep from being triggered, we may have to develop the power that is already within, trust it, and develop a roadmap for navigating the external turbulence.

As ‘Shaw’ found out, it is easier said than done … but it’s necessary.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Alton Drew

8 June 2022

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