Monday, January 04, 2010

Pop Politics? Political/Entertainment Crossovers

Guess what Nicolas Sarkozy, Kim Jong-Il, and Gordon Brown have in common?

  1. They are all heads of state and major players in world politics.
  2. They are all controversial figures, to varying degrees (as if any head of state isn't.)
  3. They all made the 2010 GQ Worst-Dressed list.
 If you answered "all of the above," you are correct. I discovered this from the same Yahoo News rundown that told me that Rod Blagojevich was going to be a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice. If I remember correctly, this show used to feature real people who were really trying to launch a career in business. Okay, or grub for money from Donald Trump, but the point is they weren't already established. Blagojevich, who was already rejected from "I'm A Celebrity- Get Me Out Of Here!" for being insufficiently famous   fucking annoying  prohibited by the judge in his trial for conspiracy charges, seems to be trying to reinvent himself as one of those celebrities who's famous for...being famous. (cf. Paris Hilton, Tila Tequila and the entire Kardashian family). This is presumably so that people won't remember that he's actually famous for attempting to sell a Senate seat in the most obnoxiously brazen way possible.

This leads me to two points. One is that there are two accepted ways for people to become famous for nothing, and I'm really, really glad that Rod Blagojevich went the reality TV route rather than having a really slutty Myspace page with a leaked sex tape. The second is that we seem to have lost the distinction between our political figures and our popular entertainment. Now, some people might argue that there wasn't much of one in the first place, but most of the crossovers I know involve entertainers breaking into politics, not the other way around. Ronald Reagan's presidency, Ah-nold's term as the Governator, Al Franken's senate seat, and Jesse "The Body" Ventura's political career are a few examples.

Entertainers who later moved in political circles, though, were at least acknowledged to have made a career shift. Now, it seems that the drive is to bring the political circles into the realm of popular entertainment. How else do you explain Michelle Obama hosting an episode of Iron Chef in the White House garden? (Can you imagine, say, Mamie Eisenhower allowing a TV crew into the White House garden?) Or Joe Biden appearing on the Daily Show as a sitting Vice President? For the record, I love the Daily Show. I think it's TV's most reliable take on current issues and the more serious politicians we can get on there, the better. Still, having the Vice President on a talk show is a new level of media access.

This means that the political world seems more accessible in everyday life, which is both a wonderful development and a double-edged sword.  I think that in a world where breaking news is Tweeted and people expect to give their leaders real-time feedback, a truly open administration could make people realize that none of us can afford to be ignorant of politics, that regardless of who is wielding the ceremonial power, every decision is in part our decision. I was delighted to find The Obameter, a website which tracks action on President Obama's campaign promises. This is popular media in politics at its best-- holding politicians accountable to the people in a way that the people can access and understand. Even the publicity appearances can do some good-- there's something to be said for putting a human face on policy, for showing the similarities between those at the top and the rest of us. Hell, even Michelle Obama's Iron Chef episode could convince people to try kohlrabi or greens or gardening.

The other edge, though, is that politicians have an unprecedented ability to market and trade on their image-- and the media has an unprecedented ability to cash in on politicians. I'm not claiming that reality TV is ruining American politics, exactly. It does, however, take the focus off the serious business of leading a country, or of legislating, or even of bothering to research voting records before you vote for the candidate with the best campaign ads and the nicest hair. Take the Obama campaign. Metaphorically speaking, Obama stage-dived into the presidency, borne aloft by pogoing supporters shouting "YES WE CAN! OI OI OI!" The problem with image politics is that images are mutable and can easily become divorced from actual action. I know people who are quickly becoming frustrated that Obama has not fixed healthcare, solved the climate crisis, and averted the recession, all while convincing everyone from Patty Murray to John Kyl to hold hands and sing Kumbayah-- and he still hasn't been President a year. Judging by his falling approval ratings,  people who were willing to back Obama's image now don't seem willing to give him the time and trust it takes to make towering dreams real and practical-- which is certainly longer than one-quarter of his term.

I applaud the new visibility and openness of political leadership, but it does seem like we're getting closer and closer to a future where we airlift all our presidential candidates to a remote island and let the American public vote by phone to see who gets elected and who gets a hole poked in his canteen by Ron Paul. Even if our politicians don't always deserve respect, I think the process of government does. And while honest criticism and well-directed satire could actually help refine that process, all the Reality TV treatment will do is turn it into a sideshow.

P.S. Scott Adams, I haven't forgotten you, you know. Call me!

Posted by Silent Five @ 8:53 PM

Read or Post a Comment

I dunno, I think you're overreacting. It seems to me that these are just the modern take on traditional use of the media. Sure, maybe our intense distrust of politicians leads them to try to get their messages out through media we actually pay attention to, but is a well choreographed appearance on The Daily Show really that different from a letter to the editor or something?

As for Iron Chef, well, so long as it gets people planting gardens, right? First Ladies demonstrating (through the media, natch) how the First Family is living their ethics is hardly something new. It's not quite (to use the cliche comparison) Jackie Kennedy releasing photos of the White House's interracial kindergarten, but it's along the same lines.

Posted by Blogger Jacob @ 6:05 AM #

Eh, I think maybe Jacob's right. Ike Eisenhower, for one, demonstrated that politicians are all bound to get into new media eventually. And now that TV is older media, its creep is bound to extend that much further into anything that has public standing. What you may be reacting to, understandably, is the effect across the board of new media right now, in terms of public standing for random lame-o's everywhere. And that's regardless of whether the lame-o happens to be the felonious ex-governor of Illonois, or a loose heiress with a lot of personal electronics, or, I don't know... a cabbage or something. Since this is the only reason I know who Paris Hilton or Tila Tequila are, it's just the next stage in the fulfillment of Andy Warhol's prophecy (which, although the "15 minutes" part is metaphoric, may be literally accurate about "everyone").

For all that, I don't think there's much confusion over whether Joe Biden and Michelle Obama are political or entertainment figures. In the case of Rod Blagojevich I don't think it matters, because the man is just a vertical strip of fail between two feet and a dead, furry animal.

Some people (like my bizarre Fox News automaton, self-hating gay former landlord who used to accost me in the hallway with his conservative talking points du jour) feel that entertainment figures should be disqualified from politics because of the influence they bring to the table form their former careers. I don't buy it. I think that being in entertainment is a job, like any other, and that our politicians are citizen-officers who can come form any sort of personal life and profession. The alternative would be Sparta. As in, Leonidas points to a congressman: "What's your job?" "Back home, I am a building contractor." He points to another, "And what do you do, back home?" "I run a graphic design firm." And so on, then he turns back to his 300 lobbyists: "Men, what do you do?" All raise briefcases in unison. "Well, it seems I have brought more politicians than you." You get the picture. Oh, and the punchline is, the Spartans were communists. (They totally were.)

If it makes you feel any better, Al Franken got his degree in poli-sci at Harvard, before he "fell into" doing SNL (since he likes money as much as most people). So he's a politician, no matter what James Inhofe calls him.

Posted by Blogger nachoproblem @ 10:31 PM #
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Word of the Week

gymnosophy [jim-NAH-so-fee]

n. Philosophical, amusing, or nonsensical insights realized when naked, as in the shower or in bed. (recent coinage: att. S. Galasso, 2010)

Victoria and Albert enjoyed a spot of postprandial concupiscence culminating in a night of gymnosophy and coffee and crumpets at dawn.

The Silent Top Five: Bacon-Flavored Desserts

1) Bacon cheesecake.
2) Bacon gumballs.
3) Bacon ice cream.
4) Bacon-orange bars.
5) Bacon apple pie.

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