Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sarah Palin, MaxHeadroom, and celebrity culture

I think I just figured something out.

I noticed that Sarah Palin has a new reality type show on TV called Sarah Palin's Alaska. I haven't watched it, but the commercials I've seen for it show her and her family doing stuff in a semi-wilderness setting. Obviously it is a way to keep the candidate in the public consciousness. If a candidate simply bought TV time for the same purpose, they would be seen in the same poor light that Ross Perot was back in the 90s. Not to mention that it would cost a fortune.

I suppose Palin's ability to host such a show is underwritten by the public's desire to watch her. She is no different from any other celebrity in this way... famous for being famous. And that fame has a political heft that far outweighs the ineptitude that was in evidence in the last election.

Here's another observation... I was in a book store tonight and I think I saw Sarah Palin's face staring out from any number of shiny hardback covers, or other visual products, available for holiday shoppers. How it is that she is such a (literally) visible character is strange, considering that she isn't an elected official anymore, and that she was held up to public ridicule in the last election.

Another observation: While surfing the web, one is inevitably subject to being hit with advertising, or news stories, or entertainment-news stories, and various other types of promotional stuff. As a high speed surfer of the internet, one is tempted to just assume that the virtual billboards you zoom by are simply random images with no pattern in them. But over the course of a week or so, you will experience a gradual crescendo of focus on many of those “random” sightings.

For example... Sarah Palin's daughter (Bristol) participated in Dancing With The Stars, the reality show. I only knew that because it started showing up on the internet. At first, it shows up as an innocuous passing reference on something like (for example) the AOL login screen. A few days later it might show up as a slightly longer story on some other web page.. and then you'll see reference to a video on youtube... and then you’ll see a TMZ reference to it a few days later.. and finally you'll see that she will be dancing for her life tonight at 8pm. By the time the full focus of an internet “exposure cycle” has hit your consciousness, your curiosity is so piqued that you have the sense that it is a “must see TV”. Not only has your interest been piqued to the pointless life of Bristol Palin, but you're kept always in mind of Sarah Palin.

And so it goes, day after day, week after week. I keep noticing the same crescendo of engineered interest in thing after thing. No doubt there are forces at work behind the scenes orchestrating this phenomenon. They aren’t devious forces.. it is simply the advertising and promotional industry doing what they do behind the scenes. In fact, they are just doing what they’ve been doing since the beginning of mass media... which is creating public interest.. because public interest has economic value.

Public interest in a person raises that person to celebrity status, which makes them valuable. And like any asset, you must first invest capital to develop it. You have to spend money to make money, and in the mass media celebrity industry, the investment is in exposure. Which brings me back to what I think I discovered about Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin is a right wing celebrity. She is a huge asset on the political balance sheet. She might seem like a liability in terms of intelligence or fitness for national leadership... but she holds enormous potential. Why? Think of what Arthur Jensen told Howard Beale in the movie Network. Beale (the TV anchor man) asks Jensen (the money behind the network) why he chose him to preach his corrupt corporate message... Jensen replies... “Because you’re on TV, dummy... Sixty million people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.”

So if you wonder why the right looks to Palin as a potential party leader in the years ahead, no doubt the reason is... “Because she’s on TV, dummy”.

When Sarah Palin can materialize in mass media at will... when she masters television, “the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in this whole godless world” (to quote Howard Beale again).... then “who knows what shit will be peddled for truth” (Beale again). And so on and so on.

Of course, we know the shit that is peddled for truth. The shit is Sarah Palin.

But in the virtual world of mass media, there is no Sarah Palin. She is just a face. She’s no different than MaxHeadroom, other than the fact that we know MaxHeadroom is artificial, whereas we assume Sarah Palin is real. The real force isn’t the celebrity... the real force is the power of the media to make celebrity, and that power is financed by interested parties that we never see.

Sarah Palin is on TV... and except for genuine news stories... nobody gets on TV without someone behind the scenes investing money in it... and that money is goal directed. The very fact that Sarah Palin is so exposed right now means that she is being invested in, and the scale of that investment suggests that she is being targeted as a presidential candidate.

The disturbing and sobering thought in all of this is not that a dummy like Palin could be president, but that the machinery of mass media makes this... and things like this... a reality, every day of the week, in every possible aspect of culture.

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