Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sign of the Apocalypse #47: Olfactory politics

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Okay, okay, I realize this isn't a big deal. And it may say more about one particular news personality, Alina Cho, than about the corrupted culture of media and politics more generally. Still. What is the point of pointing out, regardless of whether or not it is true, that Mitt Romney "looks great, sounds great, smells great"? -- especially the last of those (how does she know?). It's akin to Chris Matthews's man-crush on Fred Thompson, just not quite as explicit (or as disturbing).

Of course, it's now all-too-common to point out that the news, and particularly cable news, is more entertainment than anything else. Entertainment, infotainment -- call it what you want. There has been a broad debasement of public discourse in the United States, as elsewhere (the U.S. is not as exceptional as some imagine in this regard), and it is this debasement that allows for the cult of celebrity that turns Paris Hilton into a megastar whose pathetic incarceration dominates the news over a period of days, if not longer, and provides the fertile ground upon which someone like Alina Cho -- and I don't mean to pick on her; there are far worse than her out there (see Fox News or MSNBC at any time of the day) -- can spew this sort of pointless banter instead of acting (and speaking) like a serious news personality.

Kennedy looked better than Nixon in 1960, and -- yadda yadda yadda -- you all know what happened after that. Does it matter in 2007 that Romney apparently "looks great, sounds great, smells great"? Yes, probably. Superficial qualities matter, perhaps more so than ever before. Voters may take such qualities into account -- they always have, to varying degrees (even with a great leader like Lincoln -- he may not have been attractive in a telegenic sort of way, but he sure gave good speeches) -- but what is of greater concern is that the media are proving increasingly incapable of providing the citizenry with what it needs to make reasoned choices, that is, of providing a forum for public discourse (and even for the presentation of serious news) at a level that democracy requires in order not to descend into the quagmire of demagoguery. For what is politics now but a game of demagoguery? It's all about who looks better, who sounds better, and, apparently, who smells better. And the media are to blame for much of what it has become -- they and their "consumers," the "people," who co-exist with their political leaders in a mutualistic relationship of self-narcotization.

No, Alina Cho's not the problem. She's just part of it -- a small part. But her pointless remarks point to a much deeper disease at the core of American public life. And one wonders if a cure will ever be found.

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