As Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified last week in the U.S. Senate, I was struck by the overwrought drama of the process.
It was certainly not surprising that the event, scheduled following Dr. Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her years earlier, would be dramatic. Such impactful events are emotionally wrenching by their very nature. But the entire production played out like a Hollywood movie as millions viewed it live on cable TV or repeatedly checked their personalized Twitter feeds.
To be honest, all of the proceedings surrounding Kavanaugh’s nomination have reminded me how politics has steadily morphed into a “show business” of celebrities, performances, and image-driven campaigns. It started with television in the 1960s, but the advent of the internet and social media has only accelerated the degradation.
This phenomenon was outlined presciently by the late Neil Postman, a pioneer in the study of media and society, in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: “If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity, or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.”
As such, “the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial,” Postman explained, a platform where “short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; drama is to be preferred over exposition; being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems.”
Fast forward to the 21st century and substitute “internet” for “TV commercial”; the result has been an “acid trip” in the words of Douglas Rushkoff, a latter-day media theorist in the mold of Postman.
“Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor once known as the high priest of LSD, often told me that digital technologies were essentially psychedelics,” writes Rushkoff. “America is unconsciously living in a psychedelic landscape and having a bad trip. We don’t realize that we are living in a media environment that offers us an unprecedented capacity over reality.”
Ironically, Americans could use digital tools to find facts and truth, but they increasingly choose the “acid trip” version of the internet because it’s easier, it’s more comfortable, and — let’s face it — it’s simply more entertaining.
The internet, first of all, is so convenient that it makes us lazy. We take the internet with us everywhere we go now. Who hasn’t witnessed people standing in public, faces gazing into their palms, fingers rhythmically scrolling down glowing screens? No longer must we kill time by talking with other human beings or, heaven forbid, reading a book. Just grab your smartphone and check your Facebook page or play a quick game of Fortnite.
The internet is exceedingly comfortable, too. With so many choices at our fingertips, we might challenge ourselves by fact-checking a news item or by reading an opinion piece with which we disagree — you know, expand our horizons. But we don’t. Instead, we retreat further into our cozy filter bubbles with familiar ideas that reassure us that we’re right.
And, of course, the internet is entertaining. Social media sites are especially rife with riveting content. Facebook, for instance, has seen a dramatic “rise in rage” since the 2016 election, according to a recent Pew Research Center study: “Posts opposing Presidents Trump and Obama and former Secretary Clinton drew more likes from Facebook audiences compared with posts that didn’t express political support or opposition.”
Twitter, similarly, is used by politicians to provoke resentment rather than facilitate discussion: “To get free media, [Trump] has to say stuff that’s reportable, and the level of extreme language is directly linked back to that,” explains one political strategist.
Consequently, politics plummets even further into the abyss of show business, benefiting nobody but the politicians who exploit that opportunity.
“What we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical, and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment,” Neil Postman wrote three decades ago. “In America, we are never denied the opportunity to amuse ourselves.”
So millions watched the Senate confirmation hearings not as citizens, but as spectators of a Hollywood drama in which Brett Kavanaugh delivered an Oscar-worthy performance filled with rage, despair, and tears. In the process, many Americans failed to truly hear the partisan, conspiracy-laden testimony that should have disqualified him immediately from a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.
Such is the sorry state of show business, er, politics today.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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