How can we do the serious work of educating ourselves politically when there’s such great stuff to watch on Netflix and Hulu?

Today the news media often has to compete with the likes of HBO GO and YouTube for our attention, because if it fails to capture us within the first 15 seconds, then we switch tabs on our web browsers and watch or read something better, something that’s more entertaining.

No wonder the mainstream news media covers presidential campaigns as if they’re unfolding political dramas. No wonder they try to provoke the candidates to “attack,” “slam,” “go after” and (ahem) “schlong” one another, as if presidential debates were WWE wrestling matches,or episodes of the “Real World.” Or, as Trump would have it, misogynist pornos. No wonder the mainsteam media habitually presents the candidates less as leaders advocating policies and more as heroes on their own personal, lifelong journeys.

And how else can the news media compete with the entertainment media other than for the former to play the latter’s game (entertainment)? Today the news media isn’t just trying to inform us — I suspect that’s not even their chief goal — they are trying to entertain us. And that’s a big problem for democracy.

Perhaps this isn’t news to many of you, especially the Communication Studies majors, but it’s a point worth revisiting during each election season.

Today, many of us want to be politically active without the activity, the same way many of us want coffee without the caffeine, cream without the fat, beer without the alcohol, warfare without the warfare (e.g., drones) and, in short, as philosopher Zizek puts it, “ … a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property.”

How does the market respond to our demand for political activism without the activity, without the work? The mainstream media supplies us with political entertainment, including everything from comedy news shows like “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” and “Last Week Tonight” to political dramas like “The West Wing” and “House of Cards,” to Bill O’Reilly, to the Republican presidential debates, to an article about Trump’s alcoholic brother in the Times, etc. (Have you noticed how the sets for the Democratic and Republican debates look highly similar to the “American Idol” sets? Is that an accident?)

These commodities allow us to feel like we’re participating in politics and doing the work of educating ourselves politically without actually seriously participating or working. With this entertainment, we experience politics without actually doing politics.

Political entertainment requires little to no work on our part (the audience’s part) because, like most entertainment, it allows, and in fact requires, the audience to be mostly passive. The video or TV show does the intellectual work for us, much like canned laughter on old sitcoms laughs on our behalf, fooling us into finding jokes funny that really aren’t. That is, when we’re in the passive, receptive state of being entertained, we’re willing to accept certain information as news, as fact, as self-evident and so on, that we might not accept when we are in the active mental state of reading, analyzing, interpreting, etc.

These entertainments co-opt our desire to laugh or politically engage. Often, the jokes aren’t that funny and the news isn’t that newsworthy. And this, too, poses problems for democracy.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Who cares if the news is entertaining? I like to be entertained. Stop trying to yuck my yum!”

The danger in this news entertainment business is multilayered. When we trade doing political activity for being political entertained, we sacrifice some of our agency as critical thinkers and engaged citizens. When we decline to do the work of educating ourselves politically, and instead quell, pacify, placate or mollify our enduring drive for political involvement by having someone else do the work for us (via entertainment), we risk being misled. We are probably less apt to notice when and how we’re being misled with the information we’ve received because we’ve received the information in the passive state of being entertained instead of the active state of, say, reading and studying.

I’m of course mostly generalizing and speculating here. For example, I personally have learned important stuff from watching episodes of “Vice” and videos on YouTube, but I would say that shows like “Vice” are the exception rather than the rule, and they aren’t always that exceptional.

I’m not saying the mainstream media is entertainment all the time. TV media generally entertains more than, say, The New York Times, but the mainstream media participates in this entertainment news business sometimes; and when the Times does, it’s often more insidious because it is entertaining behind the highbrow mask of sophistication.

Look, I’m not suggesting we all do journalism or scholarship. I’m not even really trying to convince you of anything. (Maybe you think I’m being facetious, but I’m not.) I believe my observations are true and analyses plausible, and if they are true (and plausible), then I suspect they’ll ring true (and plausible) for you, too. Or, if the stuff I’m seeing and saying appears strange or unfamiliar, and hence rings neither true nor false, look at yourself. (I’m not everybody.)  Citizenship in democracy requires work — a truism, to be sure, but a useful one to remember — especially in a culture that so often promotes political apathy and cynicism over activism and participation. When many of us decline this important work of citizenship, we neglect a part of ourselves (a part of our souls?) that wants political activity — that wants to participate in the polis. When we allow this part of the soul to do the political work that it wants to do, and stop placating it with unwholesome entertainment substitutes, the work ultimately crowns us with eudaimonia

I look around campus and I see most of us working pretty hard in school, so how can I fault us for preferring to kick back and watch TV in our free time instead of doing the work of educating ourselves politically? I should mention that I definitely don’t abstain from the political entertainment that I’ve been criticizing (nor do I advocate total abstinence). Besides the human who shares a bedroom with me, I am my own primary object/subject of study. And yet, if we ignore how the maintream media tries to appeal to us as passive consumers of entertainment — that is, if we ignore how the mainstream media tries to entertain us in addition to informing us — we risk becoming passive citizens of a passive democracy, and a passive democracy is no democracy at all (which is not to say democracy is a system I’m ready to advocate for either — I’m just assuming you all are fans).

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.

 

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