Amusing Ourselves to Death


Sara Palin’s Alaska scares the shit out of me.

Not because I’m afraid of bears, or wilderness, or teen pregnancy—these I can handle. What I can’t handle, however, is our cultural confusion of celebrities and politicians.

What does it mean when a politician stars in a reality t.v. show? And not just any D-list politician, but former governor of Alaska and republican presidential running mate Sarah Palin?

Sarah Palin’s Alaska, a TLC reality show premiering this fall, features an out-of-office Palin adventuring through Alaska’s natural wilderness with her family of five. “I’d rather be out here than be in some stuffy old political office”  Palin says in the trailer for the pilot episode, which airs November 14th.

The T.V. show is a perfect example of how we’re now immersed in what Neil Postman named “the Age of Show Business.” In his 1985 text, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman points to the breakdown of public discourse as symptomatic of living in an  amusement society.  In the Age of Show Business, everything is presented as entertainment, and consequentially, everything becomes entertainment.

Along the lines of Marshall McLuhan’s claim that the media is the message/massage, Postman offers that “the media is the metaphor.” Postman believes that the media, or mode of communication, doesn’t simply frame the way we tell stories, but actually shapes the kinds of stories we’re able to tell. Ultimately, these stories shape our reality.

In an Amusement society, television has become epistemology:

“Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails” (Postman, 92).

Postman worried that we’d confuse entertainers and politicians, and as a result, political concerns would be undermined by concerns of an amusement society: what Michelle OBama wore, or her scandalous handshake with the Indonesian minister suddenly becomes newsworthy in an amusement society.

So when I saw the preview for Sarah Palin’s Alaska, I couldn’t help but think of Postman turning in his grave.

In Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Palin stands in for the celebrity, the principal actor, the star. The show is evidence that we’re  beyond the confusion that Postman prophesied: we’ve outright amalgamated our celebrities and politicians. In an Amusement Society, Postman explains,  politicians are “assimilated into the general television culture as celebrities.”

Now don’t get me wrong: if Palin had no intention of running for president in 2012, I’d have no tiff with her reality t.v. show. I’d likely commend her for changing careers after her last one so obviously and publicly failed. But since she intends to run in 2012, I can’t help but wonder what her reality t.v. show is doing.

If Palin isn’t a good politician, perhaps she can be a good celebrity first; perhaps she can gain likability from audiences via reality t.v. and then— once she’s as famous as Snookie—then she can run for president in 2012. By this time, the world will know her and like her; the public will warm to Palin and her all-American family values. They’ll welcome her into their homes each Sunday night until she’s familiar and trustworthy like a neighbor. A neighbor you’d vote for.

Palin will become an icon—a representation of all America’s lost and longed for. Against the backdrop of the Alaskan landscape—that all-American wilderness—Palin will pioneer her family, steering them through uncharted territory, leading them to — must I go on? Does the story sound familiar? Sarah Palin’s Alaska retells the Christopher Columbus myth, that great American fable of discovery. At a time when the world needs leadership more than ever, Palin will navigate us to the new world: It’s a script I couldn’t have written it better myself.

Brava to the Palin campaign for their creative use of myth and the media to influence the voting public. Boo to the public who supports them by watching Sarah Palin’s Alaska.


One thought on “Amusing Ourselves to Death

  1. Pingback: Stars or Stripes? « Lady Medusa's Blog

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