Politics and Entertainment I

Many years ago I sat in the home a misguided radical history professor who had invited the local branch of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) to tell 20 students about “the American Road to Socialism.” The Party made a miserable presentation, based on the basic proposition, already shared by everybody in the room, that racism is a bad thing. The low point of the meeting came when another left historian made the not-so helpful observation that “Karl Marx wrote a book. It was called Capital, not race.” The high point came when the first professor, himself of working-class origin, noticed that the sports section of the party’s daily newspaper (still called The Daily Worker) gave the baseball standings of only the American League, omitting those of the National League. “How do you expect to reach the working-class,” he asked the CPUSA militants (one of whom slept through the entire presentation), “when you leave out half of the major league baseball teams from your sports page?” He added that he wanted to see how his favorite team, The San Francisco Giants, had done the day before. It doesn’t make much political sense, this professor argued, to treat entrenched popular pastimes like baseball or football with indifference or even, as is not uncommon among leftists, disdain.

This is why I cringed at the comments made by a leading Chicago anti-war activist right before a major antiwar march last spring. In directing his crowd on how to begin the march, the activist described the assembled protestors in baseball terms, distinguishing between “right, left, and center field.” For some reason, he added, “I hate baseball.” It was a passing comment, quickly forgotten in the rush of events. Still, I couldn’t help but think it indicated that this organizer would have a difficult time reaching out beyond the already-converted mass of peace demonstrators in front of him. There’s nothing wrong with – and much to recommend – mixing a little mass entertainment culture with your left political work.

It’s Not That Their Stupid

In modern America, however, there’s nothing like a healthy balance between left political culture and the corporate-crafted “popular” culture of mass spectacle, entertainment, celebrity and consumption. There’s very little of the former and there’s a superabundance of the latter, available around the clock on hundreds of channel choices that are delivered into the glowing boxes of an endless sea of inertly private households.

This imbalance leads to remarkable disparities in popular intelligence. Ordinary Americans can tell you intimate details of the personal lives of various celebrities and the precise changing story lines of various television shows. They can amaze you with elaborate and detailed knowledge of professional and collegiate sports, the complex financial facts of athletes’ contract negotiations, and the detailed facts of athletes’ legal troubles (e.g. Kobe Bryant). They have strong positions on Kobe’s Bryant’s rape trial, John Kennedy Junior and Princess Di’s respective bad marriages and/or tragic deaths, Ben Affleck’s love life or the latest episode of “Survivor.” If you listen to sports talk radio (a habit when driving to which I “confess” among fellow leftists), you hear any number of intricate and astute analyses, often advanced with remarkable passion from everyday callers.

These callers are not “dummies.” They’re quite bright, like the frivolous blond college student portrayed in the popular movie “Clueless,” who is capable of attending Harvard Law School (as she does in a sequel) but often indifferent to anything that really matters. They exhibit considerable brain power and related excitement when it comes to questions like whether Barry Bonds does or doesn’t deserve X million dollars a year or whether the instantly infamous Chicago Cubs fan who diverted a foul ball in game six of the National League Championship Series is to blame for the collapse of that team’s World Series quest and if that fan should have his name and address published in the local newspapers (the information appeared, enhancing the poor fan’s risk of being mauled by murderous Cubs die-hards). As the masses of Bolivia heroically braved US-funded state violence (at least 50 residents of that country had been murdered by that nation’s police and armed forces) to protest their government’s attempt to give away the nation’s natural resources (to the US), Chicago’s talk shows and populace buzzed with elaborate diagnoses and debate of the Cubs’ “epic” collapse and the sorry tale of the unfortunate fan.

Ask ordinary Americans about the details of political leadership, money, and policy performance or the basic facts of recent US social and foreign policy, and the response is less impressive. You get clueless statements of confusion and indifference and judgments based on a degree of knowledge inferior to what is widely known about things like Brad Pitt’s latest movie. Many Americans advance passionately held positions about celebrity, sports, and pop-culture “issues” but defer in utterly supine fashion to designated authority figures on crucial political and policy matters. A classic example of the latter tendency was the readiness of considerable numbers of Americans to accept George W. Bush’s patently false claims about the threat posed by Iraq – consistent with the astute political counsel of pop princess Britney Spears. Last September, Spears sat down with right-wing CNN political pundit Tucker Carlson to issue the following policy statement: “Honestly, I think we should just trust the president on every decision he makes and we should just support that.”

Moral and Political Idiocy

Populist firebrand Jim Hightower makes a useful distinction between literal stupidity and moral-political stupidity when he argues that “the greatest offense against our society these days is…the persistent, insidious effort by those who shape our culture to reduce the American citizenry to idiots. From corporate advertisers to political sermonizers, from boards of education to the entertainment programmers, their goal is idiocy. By ‘idiots,’ Hightower refers to “more than the constant charge that we’re all a bunch of dummies. That’s just manufactured media fluff.” Further:

Far from being a nation of numbskulls, people (and especially young folks) are smarter than ever. But to what end? The original Greek word ‘idiotes’ referred to people who might have had a high IQ, but were so self-involved that they focused exclusively on their own life and were both ignorant of and uncaring about public concerns and the common good. Such people were the exact opposite of the Athenian democratic ideal of an active citizenry fully involved in the civic process, with everyone accepting their responsibilities to each other and all of humankind. This is the ideal that Jefferson and Madison built into our nation’s founding documents, the ideal that Lincoln embraced when he spoke of striving for a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” the ideal that Justice Louis Brandeis was expressing when he wrote that “The most important office” in our land is “that of a private citizen.”

Be an involved citizen? Forget about it, Jake. Don’t waste your time. Get a job, keep your head down, play the lottery, don’t be different, take a pill, watch “reality TV,” buy things, play it safe, live vicariously, don’t make waves, pre-pay your funeral. Oh, and on those big questions-such as economic fairness, going to war, “rebalancing” that liberty/security equation, and the shrinking of democracy itself-don’t hurt your little gray cells by focusing on them, for there’s not a lot you can do about them, we know more than you do, and don’t worry … we’ll take care of you. Go about your business-be a good idiot. (Jim Hightower, “Don’t Be an Idiot,” In These Times [September 3, 2003], available online at http://www.inthesetimes.com/comments .php? id= 341 _0_4_0_M)

The only problem with Hightower’s excellent analysis is its overly strong conflation of the corporate mass culture with exclusive self-involvement. That culture cultivates a considerable attachment to things and personalities outside of self, since good consumers cannot be too inner-directed.

Wanting What We Get

Consistent with Hightower, the disparate popular intelligence described above is neither accidental nor the predictable expression of the peoples’ supposed inherent taste for entertainment over reality. It is chosen for the American populace by the masters of a corporate communications empire that dedicates the great majority of its broadcast spectrum, print copy, and shelf space to morally idiotic (in the Greek sense) sports, entertainment, personal consumerism (which also dominates vast swaths of news programming during commercial breaks), and individual lifestyle issues – the latter dedicated to the quest for purely personal solutions to life’s problems (e.g. the popular personal finance guru Suzy Ormann’s manic preachings on fiscal responsibility and the “road to wealth,” understood to apply only at the level of the individual household, the only meaningful unit beyond pure individual). Do consumers of this shallow fare get what they want – as the media bosses claim – or simply want what they get?

There is no objective, independent scientific evidence to show that the populace prefers entertainment to reality. At the same time, dominant media’s treatment of “reality” encourages mass withdrawal from democracy and the public sphere by making political and public life practically unintelligible. Reflecting a rigid elite consensus on how issues are to be framed and topics chosen, mainstream news is stuck within a narrow ideological spectrum that mandates biased, confusing, and uninspiring coverage. It is forbidden to tell the population what is really going on at home and abroad, making it exceedingly difficult for harried, time-squeezed ordinary people to determine whether or not Iraq really had “weapons of mass destruction” (forgetting of course that Uncle Sam possesses more WMD than any nation in history) or why the US (the supposed beacon of global freedom) has the highest incarceration in the world (to give two among countless possible examples) without undertaking their own exhausting independent research projects. Under the at-once Orwellian and Huxlean (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World depicted a nightmarish future in which totalitarian elites entertained the masses to political death) power of the dominant media corporations, current events are presented in a chaotic, de-contextualized, uninspiring (the heroic rebellion of the workers and peasants of Bolivia cannot be presented in a serious and justly favorable light), fatalistic/determinist (how many times were we told that Bush’s attack on Iraq was “inevitable” even as the majority of the world’s population opposed American “war” plans?) and power-worshipping fashion that seems calculated to send us all running to sit-coms, personal finance gurus, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), Dr. Phil and/or the local psychiatric and related pharmaceutical authorities. At least MTV, WWF, the sit-coms and the movie channels are openly fictitious and contrived, making no pretense of doing anything other than putting us to moral, intellectual and political sleep.

That’s the way the corporate wizards of media Oz want it. The dominant media’s masters and their sponsors and allies have little interest in encouraging the populace to meaningfully grasp and act upon social and political reality. They do not wish to disturb powerful interests and market segments (inlcuding their own) by flashing too much veracity across their powerful, thought- controlling and sensation-generating screens and print-spaces.

They are certainly not ignorant of the degrading effect their pseudo-popular mass culture has on the character of popular intelligence and the people’s capacity for and interest in democratic self-management. They are quite aware of the toxic and authoritarian synergy that exists between the news and the entertainment components of their vast communications empires – a topic to which I will return in a future commentary on the American corporate entertainment state.

Paul Street ([email protected] [email protected]>) writes on race, class, imperialism and thought control. His book Empire Abroad, Inequality at Home: Writings on America and The World (Paradigm Publishers) will be published next year. [email protected]>

Leave a comment