By WALLACE BAINE
Everywhere I go nowadays, people are depressed and disgusted about the upcoming elections. And I just can’t figure out why.
Aren’t you guys even paying attention? C’mon, the entertainment value of this election season is off the charts. It’s the juiciest, craziest, zaniest, most hilarious election year of my lifetime. I mean, what do you people want?
Do you realize that in China, children go to bed dangerously un-entertained every night, desperately trying to draw some sustenance from state-run news? Don’t we owe it to them to at least be grateful for the bounty we receive every hour of every day?
Where do you even start with this insanely melodramatic year? The Beck rally, followed by the upcoming Stewart/Colbert rallies. The misspelled signs at the Tea Party gatherings. “Mama Grizzlies.” O’Donnell and Angle. Rand Paul and Joe Miller. Carl Paladino. Obama twisting in the wind. Harry Reid getting clobbered. Birther lawsuits, mosque madness, Fiorina’s “Demon sheep” ad, Newt Gingrich tossing rhetorical grenades, the WWE woman running for Senate.
I mean, c’mon, Alvin Greene? Have you heard of this guy? Google him, and prepared to be amazed that our political system can produce this kind of original and edgy performance art.
How bizarre is this whackadoodle year? In California, we have a ballot measure to legalize marijuana, the moment millions of Bob Marley fans have been waiting their entire lives for, and you barely hear a peep about it. That’s the measure of a top-quality three-ring circus right there.
This year is so dazzling in entertainment value that Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of our most popular entertainers and governor of the largest state in the country, has taken a seat with the audience to watch the show.
All this madness is taking place against a backdrop of talk about American decline, but tell me another nation on this fine planet producing this kind of page-turning, edge-of-the-seat absurdist political theater.
This is important because, frankly, we don’t produce much of anything in America anymore, so entertainment has become our biggest export. And since Hollywood has scraped every crumb from the bottom of that barrell – “Jackass 3-D”? Seriously? – something had to make up the creativity deficit. Thank you, Tea Party.
What’s that? Politics shouldn’t be a lurid freak-show spectacle that awards amoral publicity-seekers and empty suits?
Oh, I suppose you want to go back to the days before cable news, before we elected our first actor as president, before Huff Po/Drudge Report finger-pointing, back when we had to – gulp – depend on network sitcoms and baseball games for our mass entertainment, back to the days of –revolted shiver – Jimmy Carter.
Don’t you remember what the news was like in those days? Just a half hour after dinner, and full of long-winded reports on dense subjects by boring white guys. There was no Jesse Ventura or Ann Coulter brought into the studio to say vulgar things about prominent politicians. The president didn’t sit between Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar on daytime TV. Sarcastic TV comics didn’t testify before Congress in character. Is that the kind of world you want to return to?
Look, to be a sane American these days, you have to be savvy enough to tell the difference between the real journalists and the entertainers. All of us “content providers” go to the same parties these days and I can tell you firsthand a lot of these guys aren’t what they seem to be. Olbermann? If you’re not talking about the Boston Red Sox, the guy has no opinions whatsoever. He’s just good at reading the TelePrompter. Glenn Beck? Total put-on. He’s a character, like Pee Wee Herman, only more creepy. His real name is Myron Lutz, nice guy, likes model trains. Sean Hannity is a very sophisticated computer program, like those blue people on “Avatar.” Doesn’t even exist.
Trust me, once you start looking at CNN as the Cartoon Network and Rupert Murdoch as our generation’s Walt Disney, everything falls into place.
Yeah, I know. We have a lot of problems that we need to take seriously, and the freak show isn’t helping. But, it’s called a trade-off – a dysfunctional system for boffo 24/7 entertainment. It would be great if we weren’t hurtling to hell in a huge handbasket, but this is a democracy and apparently the people have spoken – and bellowed and growled and screamed.
In times of self-doubt, we always seem to turn to 19th-century icons to figure out our national character – Thomas Jefferson, the democratic idealist; or Abe Lincoln and his “better angels of our nature” or Thomas Edison, the brilliant innovator who created wealth from his can-do faith.
But maybe it’s time that holy trinity make room for a fourth: the great carnival barker and hype meister P.T. Barnum. Jefferson, Lincoln and Edison would probably be bewildered dropped into 2010’s America. I’m guessing they’d all feel, in their own way, that the country has strayed from their idea of it.
But Barnum, that guy would feel quite at home today. He would get that we’re less comfortable in the roles of citizens and leaders than in the roles of audiences and performers. He would understand that democracy is just a fancy-pants word for “showtime!”