This Isn't a Game, This Isn't Entertainment
Americans are suffering and desperately need help. Our media and political system treat this as fodder for ratings and television drama
I’m exhausted, and I know you are too.
This entire debacle over the passage of President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure and Social Safety Net bills has put more gray hair in hair and beard than almost any isolated political drama in years. Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, two of the best senators money can buy, have realized an almost complete stranglehold on the legislative process and, by extension, the material conditions of almost every single American. And…it…just…won’t…stop.
Manchin represents, as always, a corporate-sponsored representative with an entire fortune built on coal and fossil fuel. Sinema is absolutely reveling in the resulting spotlight of the impasse, moving from one moment to another from a “budget hawk/deficit fighter” to “frustrating enigma” to this new ludicrous character of put-upon public servant in radicalized times. And yet, with this focus, we are once more distracting from the actual issue.
But, alas, our media apparatus is not all that concerned with issues. Or specifics. Or anything, really, besides character-based drama that feeds off controversy and naturally advantages chaos, dysfunction, and crisis. This feeds a system of clicks, advertisements, impressions, ratings, and contributes, in ways both obvious and obscure, to a destructive culture. There are segments on the TV, radio, videos and columns on the Internet, viral posts, memes, skits on shows like Saturday Night Live, endless podcasts, and a general mass obsession with the personal feuds and deliberations of the wealthy and powerful.
And what gets lost? Towns and cities decaying by the minute. Multiple systems in disrepair. Roads and bridges and power grids failing and crumbling. Families drowning in poverty, worrying over their next meal or rationing prescription drugs. A country that is, by every expert’s testimony, falling apart.
Again. This isn’t a game. This isn’t entertainment.
The modern political environment has its roots in our founding and has taken off in the era of television. As the Founding Fathers desired a transfer of power from a hierarchical monarchy to an aristocratic system tuned to the advantage of white, wealthy men, the desire for a one-party consensus among the wealthy class gave way to a contest between personalities. George Washington was the subject of incredible myth-making that painted him as a moral and ethical giant capable of incredible feats of strength and courage, even while he enslaved human beings and faltered constantly. Thomas Jefferson cultivated his own public figure, that of the learned intellectual obsessed and driven by science, even while he dabbled in outrageous white supremacy fostered by pseudoscience.
Because this is a top-down system, as almost modern politics are, we are left looking up, almost in helpless wonder and awe, as the mythological giants do battle. Our very fates are determined by these contests in the same way ancient Greeks left much of their fates to invisible and unknowable wars beyond their senses. The only hope lowly humans had was that a champion or a messiah might take up their cause and fight on their behalf.
This continues. We are fed a preposterously oversimplified politics that tells us there’s nothing we could possibly do beyond vote every two to four years and then sit back and hope our chosen champions are able to best their rivals and deliver us some semblance of victory or spoils of war. Because of this, we approach politics as black-and-white, cut-and-dry, our heroes as flawless, our rivals as hopelessly corrupt. Like altered, weaponized history, it functions as propaganda that keeps us hopelessly lost and ignorant of the actual workings of power, thus ensuring the workings will continue.
It has only gotten worse in the era of television and now the internet. These mythological battles between so-called giants are broadcast constantly and function as ratings-drivers. No longer do the gods battle beyond our vision. We can tune in every day of the week, 24-hours a day, and gauge the progress. Hell, if we want, we can even open up our phones or computers, establish a second-screen, check in and see how our fellow travelers are feeling about the battle, comment and retweet and like and share their ideas, their sense, and participate in yet another completely inconsequential way.
And, every step in the process, these heroes and villains twist and turn and morph into archetypes from our mythological past. The man of conscience poring over the figures. The agent of chaos, sowing uncertainty and confusion as the crowd gnashes their teeth and awaits the fateful moment.
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Donald Trump wasn’t lying when he said the media loved him. Trump provided for America’s newspapers, cable news shows, websites, and social media platforms an incredible opportunity to profit off of his chaos. Even media leaders and figures admitted as much, saying he was good for business even as he was bad for the country. And that destructive reality TV huckster has unleashed a new generation of grifters like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who understand all too well the power of bluster and controversy over substantive ideas and workable solutions.
The truth is, our entire economy is structured to reward people, ideas, and situations that are inherently destructive. When something goes wrong or when something causes suffering, it creates tension, and tension means attention. The mythical battle of heroes and villains that plays out on our screens and in our imaginations is fodder for endless coverage, wild speculation, and the type of focus that is usually reserved for prestige TV or soap operas.
This is the natural side-effect of this system and its inherent ridiculousness. What gets lost are issues and the lives of people. Media understand these stories are not as compelling and don’t drive ratings or advertising dollars. They cause people to tune-out, to look elsewhere for their entertainment fix. Meanwhile, investment in human projects falls by the wayside. The government transforms into a wealth-redistribution machine for the wealthy and powerful. Politics turns into yet another product as its power is transferred to brands and consumption as an expression of ideals and values.
Manchin and Sinema and the Republican Party, which is now playing a game of chicken with the debt ceiling vote, revel in this environment and steal absolutely all of the oxygen needed to focus on what matters: the lives and well-being of the people. The “debate” currently being held should be about whether Americans begin to realize better lives. Whether they live longer. Whether they can exist or live in a world where schools are funded, infrastructure maintains its integrity, and if a looming climate catastrophe can be mercifully avoided.
Instead, we’re left obsessing over spectacle. Who’s “winning.” Who’s “losing.” Whether this strategy or that strategy, all of it parsed over like the plays in Monday Night Football, will win out. If this hero will persist. If this villain will fail. All of it meaningless while the truly important subjects and fates are horrifyingly ignored.
We deserve better.
And if life is to ever improve, we have to demand better.