Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Where Have You Gone, Paris Hilton?

Back in July, I clipped a brief news item from The Week, my new favorite world-at-a-glance periodical (I recommend it).  The piece detailed the stunning campaign victory of The Best Party in the city council elections of Reykjavik, Iceland.  The Best Party, whose political platform "calls for free towels at all swimming pools and erecting a roller coaster at the airport", is led by comedian Jon Gnarr, and the campaign was popularized by a video of Best Party candidates singing Tina Turner's Simply the Best (kids, ask your parents to hum it for you).  Global warming is apparently melting away any common sense among the Icelandic people.

There are a number of reasons for an outcome like Reykjavik has experienced.
  • It could be disgust with the entrenched political structure.  According to The Week, "analysts say the results show voters' disgust with Iceland's traditional parties" - sound familiar? 
  • It could be part of a conspiracy to seed government offices with utterly unqualified and incompetent people in order to destroy the institution from the inside out (insert your own joke here).
  • It could be that voter apathy led to low turnout at the polls, and comedy groupies obsessed with truthiness cast their ballots for names they knew.  
  • It could have been the natural inclination to select any choice in a list labeled "The Best".  The only party, in that case, that could defeat The Best would have to be named The New and Improved Party, or The Extra Strength Formula Party, although Mitt Romney has already submitted that name for copyright protection.
The scariest reason, and the one that I believe is mostly likely at work here, is the blurring lines between entertainment and reality.

Celebrities, entertainers, or faux celebrities/entertainers winning elections is nothing new.  Minnesota is represented in the Senate today by former SNL writer and satirist, Al Franken.  Space traveler John Glenn represented Ohio for years.  Steve Largent cashed in his football fame for 6 years in the House.  California's Governator is better known as a violent cybernetic organism from the future than as a policy wonk.  And, lest we forget, one of our most recent Presidents took second billing to a chimpanzee in a movie.  So it is not a recent You Tube driven phenomenon that the famous (or infamous) convert that loyal following into political power, and many have earned the right.  I won't say which ones.  The blending of entertainment and the establishment, however, seems to me to be accelerating, and I fear that it doesn't bother enough of my fellow citizens.

No surprise there.  A recent Marist poll found that when asked the question, "What is your dream job?", 75% of respondents opted for movie star, pro athlete, and rock star (in that order).  We value notoriety as a desirable character trait to develop, and we reward those in our culture who exhibit notoriety with our trust and the keys to our government institutions.  Brilliant.

Flash, sizzle, and buzz rule the day in our world where Wall St. is overshadowed by Madison Ave., and Main St. seems quaint and anachronistic when compared to the Digital Superhighway.  In a world where challenges are more complex, our popular solutions are bumper sticker slogans.  In a world that is increasingly connected, we are driven further apart from one another.  In a world that provides instant access to factual information and knowledge unparalleled in the history of civilization, we are easily distracted by pop-up ads and teasers that lead us down the rabbit hole into a disinformation fantasy land.  "Popularity" and "Best" have become synonymous, and I don't think these concepts should be interchangeable.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want better government, or just a better show?  And maybe more to the point, and scarier still, would we know the difference?

Election day is coming.  I hope the returns won't preempt an American Idol results episode.

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