Herman Cain may not be a serious candidate for President of the United States. But he knows a thing or two about commercial branding in a mass market. Take another look at this viral video from his campaign and ask yourself what he’s selling:
Lots of people smoke. Yet, in our media culture, showing someone taking unwholesome satisfaction from a drag on a cigarette just isn’t done. It’s a breach of social etiquette, like belching audibly at the dinner table. It helps to decipher Cain’s message if we stop and reflect a little about how etiquette works as a medium of communication.
When you let loose inadvertently at the dinner table you’re supposed to excuse yourself. The more unconsciously you do it the better because the point of apologizing isn’t to express remorse at having done something that’s wrong on the merits. (That’s why knowing that social situations arise in other cultures where a hearty dinner-table belch is not only socially permissible, but obligatory, doesn’t keep us from apologizing in less exotic circumstances.) A belcher owes the rest of us an apology less because he's done something wrong than because it's something that the right people just don't do.
Etiquette is about sorting the right people out from the wrong people according to the right people’s arbitrary conventions. Excusing yourself for an inadvertent belch is a way of signaling that, having been properly brought up, you don’t need to be told that sort of thing just isn't done. The element of arbitrariness explains why an apology stakes a claim to a place in polite society all the more forcefully the more thoughtlessly it’s rendered. And it helps explain why the right people’s smugness reliably generates resentment among the wrong people.
So when Herman Cain—a cancer survivor no less—lends his name and his visage to a video showing his campaign manager dragging gratefully on a cigarette he’s belching on purpose with his mouth wide open. Kevin Drum speaks for right people everywhere when, contemplating the video, he proclaims: “Herman Cain officially declares himself a joke.” Yet the sly smile that crosses Cain’s face at its end tells you that he’s not the butt of this joke, and it gets funnier every time one of the right people can't tell who is.