On the morning after Sunday night's Emmy Awards, everyone's got a hot take on the "surprise" appearance of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer and what his success as a one-joke self-deprecating "comedian" means for the sinking state of American democracy. Take a step back and you'll see the Spicer moment for what it is: The culmination of 40-plus years of making U.S. politics about show biz … and a show about nothing.
The sight of A-list celebrities cheering Spicer's cameo at the end of host Stephen Colbert's monologue, then racing to swig beer or take pictures with the former Trump propagandist proves Hollywood holds no value greater than getting a laugh, or taking those laughs to the bank in their armored trucks.
To echo other critics, Spicer was the point man paid to tell lies for the Oval Office autocrat who declared a free press "the enemy of the American people." As summer 2017 winds down, the people serving Trump's assault on democracy should be huddling with their lawyers, not feted on national prime-time TV or winning cushy fellowships at Harvard.
What went wrong? That story begins at the end of the 1960s, when ideas mattered and youth culture was earnest, perhaps naïve, in wanting a better world. (Listen to this song if you don't believe me, and imagine how it might received by today's jaded youth.)
This was a revolution that won some battles but that was largely crushed on the playing fields of Kent State and Jackson State and by illegal government operations like COINTELPRO, fueling cynicism and despair. Replacing a change-driven left, especially for my late baby boomer generation, was an Age of Irony.
You can't beat the System, so laugh at it.
Saturday Night Live, coming hard on the heels of Watergate, was both the launch and apotheosis of this – laughing at the White House instead of marching on it. Ten years later, a genius named Neil Postman published "Amusing Ourselves to Death," warning the world that entertainment was about to crush political discourse. At that time, an actor — Ronald Reagan — played the role of a spokesman for regressive values – an intermediate step in our deevolution.
By 2010, what were young liberals doing? They were "rallying" — ironically, of course, with Jon Stewart and Colbert on the National Mall while right-wing jihadis from the Tea Party were busy taking over Congress. The increasingly blurred lines between entertainment and politics paved the way for a reality-show star with no ideas — or morals — to become the 45th president of the United States.
Today, Hollywood is great at voicing umbrage over Trump's immorality, but last night's (bleep)show proved there's no business like show business. SNL — Your Home for Irony and Anti-Politics — won six Emmys. That means much more to them than Trump's impeachment. Believe me. And Colbert, whose late-night cynicism is a relief valve for pressure that ought not to be relieved, was a smiling ringmaster for it all.
America seems massively unequipped for this tsunami of pop culture, tech, and politics-as-showbiz. But it's swamping any hope of real democracy. Look, we all need laughter (and, yes, I'm a viewer and fan of the shows I just ripped). But it can't be just laughter.
Here's a tip. Take a few minutes every morning to watch the "jokes" on the web, then urge your member of Congress to save Obamacare this week, or hit the streets to protest social injustice, in St. Louis or in your hometown. And remember this: Hollywood won't save you. Instead, it will sell out your health care or a free press in a New York minute for ratings or a shiny little statue.