“The medium is the message”, said Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, 1964. Fifty-one years later, I’m still not certain we understand media, but a light bulb went on for me Thursday night regarding McLuhan’s iconic phrase. While watching the Republican presidential debate, I had a minor epiphany; that television cannot help transforming politics into entertainment.
I am not suggesting that either party has a monopoly on show business. Yes, the Republicans are likely to be funnier this year, with their Jerry Springer moments, and The Donald, who’s public persona is a weird combination of Rodney Dangerfield and Don Rickles. I expect the Democrats to be far less interesting, more like infomercials on the home shopping channel.
There’s nothing new about politics as entertainment. If we believe television and movie depictions of pre-television and movie campaigns, there was plenty of bunting, and bluster, and brass bands in “the good old days.” But every now and then, wouldn’t it be refreshing to see something real happen on political TV?
The last time I saw reality break through was during the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. The Democrats had barred one of my heroes, the late Senator Robert Byrd, from the podium. Byrd could not be trusted to stay on script. Massachusetts Senator Kennedy invited Byrd to speak at the Old North Church, where Paul Revere worshipped, and his address was broadcast on Democracy Now. Byrd held up his well-worn pocket copy of the US Constitution and warned us that it was under attack…
Politics, of course, is not the only thing that TV flattens out. I recall several surreal moments with TV news. One early evening in college days, when I was living in an off-campus house, my roomies and I were watching a shoot out on Mod Squad on an old black and white TV. I went to the kitchen to fix a sandwich, and when I returned, the shootout had grown more intense; the house where the bad guys were hiding was on fire. But it looked different. “Did somebody change the channel?” I asked.
“Nah, man,” said a house mate. “The news cut in. The cops are having a shootout with those guys who kidnapped Patty Hearst.” The visceral difference between watching a fictional versus a non-fiction firefight on TV was nonexistent without the dialog or voice over!
In a very real sense, that’s simply the nature of things according to both western depth psychology and Buddhist psychology. Every experience we have, noted James Hillman, begins as an event in the psyche. And Buddhist thinkers will tell you that our so-called realities are far more like the dreams we have at night than most of us dare to believe. Yet, as a practical matter, in order to make the right decisions, we have to be able to tell them apart, and that means turning a critical eye on the stuff we see on television.
I have recommended it before, but as we begin another presidential election mini-series, I can think of no better guidebook than Neal Gabler’s Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, 2000. In it, he says:
“the deliberate application of the techniques of theater to politics, religion, education, literature, commerce, warfare, crime, everything, has converted them into branches of show business, where the overriding objective is getting and satisfying an audience.”
Unless we choose to live with the wolves, we’re going to be part of that audience, but at least we can remember that wonderful Buddhist bumper sticker: “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”