A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Valley of the Zombies

Ever hear of the Valley of the Zombies?
No, not the cheesy 1946 British horror flick of the same name. I mean a term coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970 – sometimes called "the Uncanny Valley" – to describe a peculiar phenomenon of human perception.
His theory, which is all the rage among robotics experts and 3-D computer animators, goes like this: We love to anthromorphisize other creatures, right? (Think of all the people who call their dogs or cats their "kids.")
And they more these creatures look like us, the cuter they seem. Imagine a graph with resemblance to people on the X axis and cuteness on the Y axis, and the curve will be a straight 45-degree line.
Until they start looking a little bit TOO much like us, that is. Then, all of a sudden, adorable becomes creepy, and the line on the graph takes a precipitous dip.
Think of the Frankenstein monster. Or the undead in "Night of the Living Dead." Or, for that matter, zombies.
They're much more repulsive than, say, the Wolfman, the Blob, or the Beast from 50,000 Fathoms. It's that eerie, almost-but-not-quite resemblance that makes your flesh crawl.
And that brings us to Mitt Romney.
He's been criticized as robotic and inauthentic, but I don't think that explains why so many people find him so unsettling.
The root cause is his weird affect, including the bizarre things he blurts out – "Strange things are happening to me!" "I love those cheesy grits!" "I'm unemployed, too!" - and the way he stammers when answering the simplest question.
And have you ever seen anybody more uncomfortable in a pair of jeans? From an image viewpoint, he's stuck in the Valley of the Zombies.
This has nothing to do with politics. I have much more in common with Mitt than I do with, say, Rick Santorum. But Santorum, whatever you think of his politics, comes across like a real person.
Ditto for Newt, although he sometimes lapses into self-parody. And Ron Paul, who looks like a friendly little gnome who leaves copies of "Atlas Shrugged" in children's stockings at Christmas time.
I admit I'm talking style, not substance. But what do you think gets people elected?
Not substance. If it did, Richard Nixon, not Jack Kennedy, would have been elected in 1960. In fact, most people who listened to the debates on radio were sure Nixon outscored Kennedy on points.
But not the people who watched on TV. To them, it was a contest between the past and the future – between the young, vigorous Kennedy and the old, stodgy Nixon.
Ironically, Nixon was a young man, too – only 47. But, as journalist Richard Reeves noted, "Nixon was an old man's idea of what a young man should be."
You could see the difference in their campaign photos. Both chose pictures from their service in World War II. But Nixon's showed him posing stiffly in his Navy dress blues, while Kennedy's was an action shot of a bare-chested JFK at the helm of PT-109, sporting aviator shades, a battered fatigue hat and a grin that stretched from ear to ear.
It was enough to overcome fears of a Catholic president then; and unless Mitt gets real, it could be enough to overcome fears of an African-American president now.