Four years ago, I didn’t know anything about American politics. And then I watched Saturday Night Live.
I was completing a semester abroad in London in the fall of 2008 when I first watched the SNL skits featuring Tina Fey in her hilarious parody of then-Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin. Back then, I knew more about British Parliament than I did about the American election trails. My amusement at the skits quickly turned into astonishment and, admittedly, liberal rage when I realized that the joke was on everyone: Governor Palin was actually running as John McCain’s vice presidential pick.
Up until then, I had a vague idea about who I thought should be president of the US. Not being a US citizen myself, and thus being unable to vote, what did it matter to me who should be elected? I remember thinking Hillary Clinton would probably be a better choice then Barack Obama considering her greater level of political experience, but I couldn’t have told you what said experience consisted of. But at the same token, that John McCain did seem moderate enough to be palatable (Note: Thank goodiness he was clear out of the presidential picture when Arizona’s controversial immigration law was announced in 2010, with his proud endorsement). Essentially, all I knew was that the current Republican president was an ignorant fool, and I hoped whoever replaced him was a person of relative intelligence, and considerably more international-savvy.
And then she came onstage.
At first I was quite content to quote the SNL skits ad nauseum. But after a while, I realized, as Matt Damon did, the consequences which would follow a McCain/Palin presidency. And then things stopped being so funny.
I watched carefully as Palin went from national sensation to international joke. I remember reading an article in The Economist (which I have failed to locate as of yet, my apologies) on how McCain had proven himself an irresponsible future leader in selecting a running mate he had met only twice, in contrast to Obama who had spent several months in long discussions with Joe Biden before Biden accepted his potential VP slot. I waited with bated breath, and heaved a sigh of relief when Obama won the election.
I hadn’t truly remembered the excitement I felt in watching this real-time political drama unfold, until I watched one of the Republican debates back around Thanksgiving of 2011 (which I wrote about here). The experience of watching one conservative embarrassment after another fight for the position of biggest political loudmouth (among them gems such as Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain) frightened me out of my liberal, elitist, “gotcha” wits. I felt impelled and propelled into the world of current events. I subscribed to The Week magazine and The New York Times. I read articles from The Daily Beast and occasionally The Wall Street Journal. I watched the BBC and read The Guardian. While my news sources certainly do lean left (with the exception of The Week, which accumulates views from diverse sources), my aims remain simple and mostly nonpartisan: keep abreast of politics, particularly as they relate to the US. It wasn’t enough to laugh at those politicians I saw on TV; I needed to know what the issues were, and what were the less inflammatory and more rational views on these issues.
In short, what started as entertainment lead to genuine curiosity about current events and American policies.
But entertainment and news need not be mutually exclusive.
I was incredibly excited to see that HBO Films created a screen adaptation of the bestselling book of the same name. Game Change (2012), starring Ed Harris and Julianne Moore, presents an absorbing and sobering perspective on the Republican campaign whose mission was to take on Obama’s Democratic bid by any means possible, and at any possible cost.
The acting is convincing (extra kudos to Moore, who proves that Tina Fey isn’t the only person who can tackle Palin onscreen), and the film is fast-paced, politically well balanced, and quite enjoyable. I can’t account for just how much of the movie is fictionalized and how much is based on truth, but if even half of the tense scenes and self-serving choices made are real, I’ve never been more thrilled to be considered, objectively, part of the liberal, elitist, “gotcha” media-supported populace. The one which prides itself on being informed and unsentimental, equally critical of its own views as well as the views of those who are accepting only of traditional, Caucasian, Christian-based values. I’ve also never felt worse for genuine, non-crazy conservative voters; trust me, the political carnage that constituted the downfall of the “Palin Fever” is much more painful to watch from the Republican perspective than from any other.
But what I found most intriguing was the film’s emphasis on the commercialization of politics. I can laugh at SNL skits all I want, until I think of what McCain strategist Steve Schmidt (played in a delightfully frustrated fashion by Woody Harrelson) tells Palin during the first wave of media backlash in the film: “No news story lasts more than 48 hours anymore. News is no longer meant to be remembered, it’s just entertainment.”
I was surprised to recognize the truth in this statement. What drew me to the Palin shit-show originally (and subsequently to the previous Republican candidates) was the potential for laughs. That same delicious environment of sound bites and ruthlessly cut and doctored political footage was the very same weapon that allowed people like Palin and Bachmann to grace the media stage in the first place.
What to do? Stay informed, and stick to facts. The original Palin furor thankfully died down til only nonsense, inexperience, and ignorance remained on display. As funny as politics can seem in “the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle”, it’s not enough to laugh; else we’ll find that the clowns that originally entertained us will soon be allowed to exercise executive power over us as well.