Trust a Canadian television critic to untangle the bizarre knot of American politics. In an absolutely brilliant piece in today's Globe and Mail, the paper's tv columnist John Doyle explains the Palin phenomenon as reality-tv run amok. He describes the made-for-tv spectacle as "So You Think You Can be Vice-President":
"What's happening with the Palin story is what has happened over and over again on U.S. TV over the past 20 years. Ordinary, working-class people, sometimes startlingly inarticulate and with messy personal lives, are thrown into the TV spotlight and, by being ordinary - bartenders, truck drivers, hairdressers and janitors on Survivor or Big Brother - they are a good bet for being compelling on TV. The women have names such as Misty and the guys are called Ace, or similar."
Doyle sees the Republicans as being driven by the same marketing rationale as executives at network television stations seeking higher ratings for their shows:
"The torque that has driven so much of reality TV is the reasonable belief that ordinary people, with all their messy baggage and lack of sophistication, are more authentically American than the fictional doctors, lawyers and detectives being portrayed on network dramas. Either that, or the broadcaster bets on the audience being transfixed with horror by the trashy lumpen proles turning up on TV. In choosing Sarah Palin and pushing her family and life into prime time, the Republican Party is being driven by exactly the same marketing impulse."
So, if American politics really has become reality-tv run amok, then how can we ensure that "So You Think You Can Be Vice-President" gets dreadful ratings and is quickly pulled by the studio executives? The first thing we need to do is reread Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death in order to make sense of Palin in historical terms and not just as a bizarre one-off media spectacle. And then -- having understood that American television led us to this nadir of reality-tv politics by trivializing everything of any significance -- we should all switch off our television sets forever. Burn them, trash them, eat them. Do whatever is necessary to destroy the damn things so that we never have to watch messy women with names like Misty or Bristol make utter fools of themselves in public.
So what do we watch instead? I've been critical of the Internet in the past -- but not even I can blame the Internet for Palin. The truth is that television brought us Sarah Palin while the Internet delivered Barack Obama. I guess that we've got to give the Internet a chance. It might be the one thing that can save America.