Updated: Sep 24, 2020
How TV has transformed governance and threatens to neutralize the governed.
Since the advent of television, especially reality TV, generations of people have grown accustomed to living a life of watching others live life. What started as one weekly leisure activity among many has developed into a never-ending cycle of “binge watching”. Can anyone think of other uses for the word “binge”?
Outrageous and unbelievable events, larger than life plots begun and wrapped up in twenty short minutes, and the flare of unattainable celebrity status are all common themes among the most popular TV shows. The viewer is engaged and emotionally connected, living vicariously through one character or another—or sometimes all. If life is made up of nothing but watching others live life better than you can, why live a boring life of your own at all, especially when the plot’s resolution seems to drag on and on?
After a day’s worth of episodes have been watched, the viewer is left with the impression that, save the not-so-infrequent doctored social media post, stars’ lives are put on pause. What else could possibly happen during the course of someone’s life that’s not depicted on a twenty-minute episode or the virtual fishing trips for likes on social media? Everybody knows these TV stars just plug themselves in to recharge when the camera turns off. It’s not like they ever struggle with the same frustrations, boredom, insecurities, or existential crises that you do.
Well, when romance, social gatherings, cooking, athletic competitions, the arts, working, and even drinking away sorrows at the local bar are all synthesized through radio waves and depicted on the big screen, why would a viewer not live vicariously through the TV? Not only is the activity still being accomplished but you get to sink deeper into your couch while doing so! And to be quite honest, you look amazing on TV!
To be fair, I’m certainly over-generalizing and quite possibly mis-characterizing many people, but the fact remains that TV has an effect on people that severely sidelines many from actually living life. This I know in some sense from firsthand experience, experience that I believe most in the 21st century share to some degree.
If someone is effectively sidelined from life by gorging their psyches on episode after episode of someone else’s life being lived, it seems likely that quickly the emotional entanglement will obscure whose struggles, whose happiness, whose milestones are whose. What’s more, the lines between fiction and non-fiction quickly blur and, as inconsequential as most TV actually is, the difference between fiction and non-fiction really doesn’t matter.
The difference between fiction and non-fiction doesn’t matter?
After getting hooked on the Kardashians, Real Housewives, or even virtual friends on Friends, it seems society has grown addicted to the best acid trip in the world—all you have to do is “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Let the TV stars do the living for you. Let the TV stars do the thinking for you. Don’t have goals? Pursue faux stardom from your couch. Don’t have friends? Enjoy watching dysfunctional yet somehow perfect relationships on your favorite sitcom. Don’t know what to think? Flip on the newest form of reality TV and get your preferred briefing of the day’s single event. Only now matters, so forget the vicious cycle your future will be.
Meanwhile, while life is passing you by, the stars are raking in the cash. I have no gripe with that because the consumer’s demand drives the market, and so more power to the stars! They (or their business managers) are actually doing something. The problem is that the consumer does indeed drive the market, and the demand for unhampered sedation is high.
That fact has certainly not gone unnoticed by politicians and their funders (and no, I don’t mean good taxpayers). In recent years the generations that are now hooked on vicarious living, whose ability to filter truth from garbage has been all but destroyed, have had their attentions turned from the mainstage of clueless pop stars whose “skill” is appearance, to the staged political show depicting just enough controversy to keep the viewers coming back, while distracting from the real goings-on of that inconsequential thing called governance. And the worst part is, the distraction has resulted in the populace thinking they’re far more up to date and involved than they really are. Again, it doesn’t matter whether they’re parroting fact or fiction.
Just like TV, the addicts become sidelined from actually involving themselves in self-governance as they watch the political celebrities self-govern for them.
Think of today’s politics. Personas and personal feuds have become the focus, if not purpose, of politics. Names, through reputation, have always held brand power and rightly so, if based on merit. But today’s politicians seem to forget their representative duty to their constituents as they build their brands on the dime of the American people (by the way, at least you-know-who built his brand on private capital). Just like celebrities, the outward appearance to the public makes or breaks the politician too. And for this reason, among others I’m sure, politicians seem to thrive best when defaming colleagues and escalating ideological differences to the level of a screaming match you might find on TMZ or E! News.
And so, if you want to pull one over on the people who carried your brand to the precipice of power, you have to distract them. And since Gen-Z-is-for-Zombie and our parents have grown accustomed to getting wrapped up and emotionally vested in scripted reality without a care for truth or the reality of their own lives, it’s become easier than ever.
All of a sudden, my generation that couldn’t care less about politics before, has become a political machine. I must imagine this can be attributed to the highly effective diet of TV that some years ago, with the flash-mob help of celebrities-turned-activists, transitioned from ever-changing popularity fads to non-stop screaming about life and death matters. What they don’t tell you is the “life and death matters” refer to the life or death of the politicians’ careers. And worse, what they also don’t tell you is that the real life and death matters, matters of freedom, equality, justice, and peace, are being determined for you without your knowledge in the actual halls of government. And, while both sides seem to blame every raindrop on the sitting federal Administration, the reality is that most changes of consequence occur in your Mayor’s office; and you’ve probably never heard of your Mayor.
American politics, which used to be about your life and mine peaceably coexisting, has turned into the most popular reality TV show of all time. Comedy used to be comedy; music used to be music; film used to be film; news used to be news. Today, all of those are what we call “politics.” It’s almost impossible to distinguish a cable news anchor from a late-night comedy host today. It's almost impossible to distinguish an elected representative from a movie star activist.
If you can keep people’s attention focused on and enraged at the wrong thing, they’ll never question the script. If you can keep people sedated, the sky is the limit for what can be done behind closed doors.
I think the Romans called this bread and circuses. Two millennia later, Vladimir Lenin, whose goal of collective equity killed some 60 million people, called the circus performers “useful idiots.”
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