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Belmont Club

The Soap Opera World

June 3rd, 2011 - 11:44 am

Ellen Ratner at Fox News says that America has become a nation obsessed with soap opera trivia. The indictment of John Edwards, the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the fascination with Anthony Weiner’s wiener are apparent proof of that.  The notion that America is a nation obsessed with trivia while indifferent to substance is an interesting proposition, but is it true? Ratner writes:

My concern is on two fronts: How is it that John Edwards can’t conceal cash to his campaign and yet the Supreme Court found in the Citizen’s United case last year that it was perfectly legal to have interest groups/corporations provide campaign cash and not having to disclose where the cash is coming from. …

My other concern is we have become a nation that doesn’t watch soap operas, we live them. From Anthony Weiner and “Weinergate” this week, to the impeachment trail of President Clinton in 1999, we have moved from one political sex scandal to another. It has done nothing to edify us as a country, and like a soap opera it has simply allowed Americans a temporary reprieve from the daily bad news of employment and debt.

Part of the problem with politics is the problem of datasets. Soap opera issues — like sex and petty abuse of power — are popular with the viewers and newspaper readers because they are the only issues that everybody down to the least educated can understand. They are discussions at the lowest common denominator of human nature. Death and sex are what the King and the King’s chambermaid have in common. Editors know that if “it bleeds, it leads” because everybody bleeds.

Readers who are unable to grasp complexities of the deficit, the War Powers act, or the intricacies of quantitative easing are still able to comprehend that it isn’t kosher for a California governor to cuckold the maid’s husband, for a powerful banker to chase a chambermaid around a hotel room, for a President to hit on an intern or for a Presidential candidate to maintain a mistress with campaign funds while his wife is dying of cancer. They understand that because they can understand that. It is an available dataset to them. Creepy behavior is something they can grasp without a college degree. The same thing is true for gut issues like gas prices and inflation at the supermarket. People who don’t know how the fiscal system or the financial markets work still sense when their wallet is empty. Having an empty wallet not be the most theoretically important economic issue around but it is the dataset available to the average Joe.

And while some soap opera issues may not even be crimes, in the legal sense of the word, their public characterization as unsavory acts and the consequent interest in them is probably a healthy thing for society as  whole. It shows they are still sensitive to some things. The abuses of public officials that spill into the personal sphere may not be the most important kind of abuse, simply that part of their pattern of behavior the public can understand. But that does not mean it is insignificant.

Sometimes “bigotry” is just a sensibility, that having vanished in the press, still survives in the public. And while there sometimes is real, unreasoning and unhealthy prejudice in society, it dangerous to identify bigotry with the last vestiges of public decency.

The distinction between soap opera issues and the ‘really important questions’ is, to use the favorite phrase of the President, “a false choice”. For there is nothing to prevent a politician who is the focus of a soap opera offense to become the locus of a more substantial one, if the gatekeepers would bring one against him. What is really embarrassing to the gatekeepers is to see someone who has passed all their checks in substantial matters — lionized in print — suddenly revealed as petty little schemer that everyone can laugh at.

If the public were polled they would probably not jail John Edwards for what he did. It is the lawyers who may do that, as they did to Scooter Libby — who was guilty of exactly what again?  The “system” may jail him in the last analysis, jail him for the pettiest of reasons too, because it cares about form even when it has ceased to care about substance. But a public which wouldn’t incarcerate Edwards, even were he guilty, also seems to think that a candidate who can do what he is accused of doing should never be given authority over the nuclear button, something the more sophisticated were OK with — look at John Kennedy.  The gatekeepers may be right to trust a man with an H-bomb when they would not trust him with their wife; and may be correct to say that when something is “all about sex” it is not necessarily about character. But that is a matter of judgment, not self-evident fact. The public fascination with personal vileness in high places is not necessarily bigotry, or if it is, then just one of a different kind.


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