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Celebrity Culture, Media and Presidential Politics

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RICK PERRY
AP

As the 2012 presidential campaign begins to unfold, the characters on the Republican side are behaving more like actors in a reality television show than serious candidates. The script, which seems to conform to extreme right-wing Tea Party ideology, has by now become commonplace: limited government, no new taxes, scale back, if not eliminate, government regulation, abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education. Since almost all the Republican Presidential candidates adhere to some version of this ironclad ideology, how do they distinguish themselves?

Simple answer: they compete to see who can make the most outrageous statements. If you are outrageous enough, you might trigger extensive and sustained media response. There are many examples of these political tactics. Consider this quote from Michele Bachmann: "And what a bizarre time we're in, when a judge will say to little children that you can't say the pledge of allegiance, but you must learn that homosexuality is normal and you should try it."

Or what about Herman Cain's comments about Islam? He claims that Muslims are attempting to transform the American judicial system into Shariah law. Because of this judicial threat to our way of life, he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet or nominate one to become a federal judge.

Or what about Rick Santorum using napkins and paper towels to discuss same sex marriage:

Marriage existed before government. This is a napkin. I can call this napkin a paper towel. But it's a napkin. Why? Because it is what it is. Right? You can call it whatever you want, but it doesn't change the character of what it is. From the metaphysical. So people come out and say marriage is something else. A marriage is the marriage of five people. Five, ten, twenty. Marriage can be between fathers and daughters...

Perhaps the most outrageous character in this political mix is the new kid on the block, Rick Perry of Paint Creek, Texas. Governor Perry has coyly advocated the secession of Texas from the United States. He has also strongly suggested that the BP oil spill was an act of God and not the result of corporate malfeasance, has claimed that global warming doesn't exist, and has said that if Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke printed more money, it would be considered a treasonous act. He also said that if the "treasonous" Fed then had the gall to visit Texas, the folks there would treat him "pretty ugly."

These presidential candidates seem like actors from Central Casting. Indeed, I would be thrilled if some obscure Hollywood screenwriter had created them, but sadly they are too real. What's more, the media seems to love all the outrageousness, covering the latest nonsensical gyrations of Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry. Even public on-air discussion of politics seems like gossipy entertainment. In this media environment, many pundits are compelled to reflect upon the nonsensical, which, in the end, gives the nonsensical a degree of public credibility.

Discussion of the politically outrageous, which is become more and more common, is often over the top: competing pundits trying to out-bully one another in on-air games in which the winner of the point is the person who continuously interrupts or speaks with the loudest voice. Sometimes inexperienced guests get sandbagged as their more experienced adversaries out-maneuver them on the media minefields. All of this political and media staging, of course, generates political contributions and increases the all-important ratings.

The influence of the outrageous on our public discourse may well stem from the increasing importance of celebrity in our culture. These days, if you're famous -- for whatever reason -- you become important and marketable. When a celebrity says something, even if it is ill informed, misleading, or without merit, we pay attention to it. When A Shore Thing, a novel, was published in 2010, its author, Snooki, a star of the reality show, Jersey Shore, was interviewed on The Today Show. It didn't matter that Snooky had admitted to having read only two books in her life. It didn't matter that the book's literary merit might not have qualified it for a book prize. What mattered was Snooki's status as a "celebrity," which bought her precious time on a program that millions of people watch.

What does that say about publishing fiction in contemporary America? The same question, of course, can be asked about contemporary politics. Many of our presidential politicians are playing cynical games, employing over-simplified and misleading talking points to reinforce a "celebrity" image. Perhaps it has become more important to look good than to think good.

Our celebrity-seeking presidential politicians may well be having fun playing their political games as they fill their coffers with contributions. Our on-air pundits may well be having fun commenting on the politically outrageous as they watch their ratings climb.

In the superficial mix we lose substance, thoughtfulness and creativity. Caught in the verbal wake of the nonsensical, "we, the people" are destined to suffer the social and economic consequences of ignorance and superficiality.

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