For quite some time now I have been intimating in this blog that entertainment may not be the most effective way of achieving political goals, due to the way that it can distract its audience from the task of actual political engagement. Thus, I was inevitably struck by Steve Almond's forthright argument to this effect in a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. But while reading Almond's essay I found myself beginning to question my own position, and while I'm not quite ready to abandon it entirely, I do believe that it may need some modification in the light of recent developments in American political culture.
To see why, let's start with Almond's thesis. Arguing that the superb political comedy that has erupted in the wake of the Trump presidency has only played into the hands of a man "who relishes and exploits his beefs with comedians . . . [and who] doesn’t see them as degrading the office of the presidency so much as transforming that office into an adjunct of the entertainment industry, where what matters most is your ratings," Almond suggests that the "towering irony here is that the essential mission of comedians in the Age of Trump is identical to that of the man they mock." Thus, both Trump and his opponents "preach that our political and media classes are essentially corrupt. Both use shtick to convert our distress at this dysfunction into disposable laughs. In other words, both turn politics into show business." The upshot of all this, Almond concludes, is that "Halfway through his reign, Trump has reaffirmed a truth that extends from King Lear to Norman Lear: A kingdom that relies on court jesters to confront mad rulers is doomed. The Fool is not a redeemer. His role is to defuse, by means of laughter, the moral distress that presages redemption."
In short, comedians like the cast of SNL and Steve Colbert are making their audiences feel too good to actually go out and do anything (like vote). But there's a certain paradox here, for if Trump used comedy to capture the White House, so too can his opposition. In other words, if Almond's argument is right, it's also wrong. What worked for one side can work for the other. Maybe SNL and Steve Colbert (et. al) can help lead the revolution.
Only the future will reveal whether this will prove to be true, but for now we can take away one surety from Almond's essay: America's entertainment culture has engulfed our entire society so thoroughly that none of the old barriers between "high" culture and "low" truly exist anymore. Popular culture, with its mandate to entertain, is our dominant culture, for better or for worse.