special to the Clarion Content
courtesy of Storey Clayton and the Blue Pyramid
When I was in high school, I had a discussion with my father about a long-prior discussion he’d had about the state of the world in the mid-1970s. He mentioned, in passing, that his conversational partner of the time had said what people really needed in the world was to laugh more. He then echoed this sentiment, circa 1997, as an obvious truth of the universe. My mind immediately went to the somewhat moderate bullies of my high school, the jocks and the idiots, and everyone I knew who seemed to make laughing a key priority of their existence. I thought laughter was, if anything, overrated in a very serious world. Being a bit stubborn and prone to engaging wherever possible in a keen argument, I intimated that the great problem with the world is that everyone needed to laugh less.
I raise this issue now not to pick or resurrect a generational fight two decades in the making, nor to pick on my Dad, with whom I agree about more things than I’d argue most of my (or any?) age agree with their fathers. But I think this moment of discord speaks to a larger perspective on the world that has changed, perhaps since the 60s or 70s, perhaps even more recently, about the nature of entertainment and its influence on our world, or the world of contemporary America as it now stands, embarrelled in choppy waters and facing what almost everyone can universally regard as a rather steep cliff, with barely any water in the fall to soften the rocky crags below. Far more recently than 1997, my father predicted that this summer would look a lot like the summer of 1968, the least stable of his lifetime to date. Halfway through the summer, that seems like a pretty safe prediction, as news of attacks, shootings, coups, and executions compete for headlines daily as we rush headlong into an election where the major party candidates make Nixon and Humphrey look like popular young gentlemen you’d want to bring home to the parents.
So what’s trending? Pokemon Go!
It is a sign of age, diving into my late 30s, that many of my friends have taken to the waves of the Internet to literally decry the children gathering on their lawns to play this latest video game to capture the American imagination. And also a sign of my generation that a nearly equal quantity are regaling us with stories of their own particular lawn catches. I am not here to moralize about the perils of Pokemon Go. While I am not playing (I just missed Pokemon as a phenomenon the first time around, entering college when it hit the streets. And the last thing I need is another excuse to haul out the smartphone [begrudgingly purchased for Uber] in public.), I definitely understand the appeal. And more importantly, it’s the first video game since Dance Dance Revolution that is getting its players off the couch and into something resembling physical shape. And the first ever (unless you count its natural predecessor Ingress, and nobody but Brandzy does count Ingress) that gets people out of the living room and into the real, living, breathing world where they might interact with other real people.
So, is Pokemon Go a giant scheme designed to replace our outrage with police killings, mass shootings, and an endless upward cycle of violence against seemingly everyone with, well, the digital equivalent of dogfighting? Or, perhaps more accurately, a dogfighting-themed scavenger hunt? Is the timing of its release sufficient to mollify a public fomenting with the desire to rebel, replacing the revolution with the placid need to “catch ’em all”? After all, the game is insidiously embedded in a very real and very corporate world, wherein savvy companies have already latched onto their geographic placement in the game to win friends and influence people.
I am inclined to believe that the release of illusory pocket monsters into the world is largely coincidental with the second coming of 1968 as it arrives on American shores nearly a half-century later. But I’m also inclined to believe that there are no coincidences.
Pokemon Go is just another aspect of our cultural obsession with entertainment. There was a time, I believe, when art was separable from entertainment in a real way, when politics also enjoyed a distance from the desire for laughter. It is hard to imagine what such a separation would truly look like at this moment, when the entire orientation of Internet culture around social media has turned us like plants toward the sun, seeking fulfillment and sustenance purely from the notion of being amused. Our educational system is rapidly trying to catch up, bringing games and electronics into the classroom by the armload in an effort to compete on the giant entertainment battlefield. Maybe everyone in the 70s really did decide that we all just needed to laugh more and they spent the next four decades making it so, ensuring that the concept of entertainment seeped into every element of our waking life, so we would judge each decision by how much comic relief it brought to our brain.
No wonder, then, that the major popular outlets of news in the last 15 years have all become comedy shows. That the nightly anchors of my childhood: Rather, Jenkins, and Brokaw (admittedly problematic in their universal conservative white maleness) were replaced with the guffaws and antics of Stewart and his many descendants. That Obama himself gets the most attention for the White House Correspondents Dinner, far more widely beheld than another boring dramatic turn at memorializing victims of a mass shooting. Indeed, I think the main reason so many of my friends are missing the fact that Trump should be considered the runaway favorite in the 2016 general election is that he is so much more entertaining than his counterpart Clinton. Since televisions became widely held items in American households, this is the metric that explains most every choice the general election populous has made at the quadrennial ballot box. I guess one could argue that Dukakis was more entertaining than Bush the elder in 1988, but in retrospect that was mostly at his own expense, so perhaps doesn’t count. And I don’t know exactly what to do with either of Nixon’s victories – his runs against Humphrey and McGovern were surely races to the bottom in terms of entertainment. But there are no other imaginable exceptions since the Nixon-Kennedy debates opened the television era: the more entertaining candidate always wins, which I think does more to explain the success of all the two-term Presidents since Nixon than any other single theory. Say what you will about Reagan, Bill Clinton, Bush the younger, and Obama, but they are all highly successful entertainers.
There’s a reason I have total confidence that Trump will win this November, barring assassination or other unforeseeable but still seemingly almost predictable upheaval. He is, like Reagan before him, an entertainer by trade. More than anything else that Donald Trump is or isn’t, he is a showman. And whatever the truth value of her given statements may be on a given day, the most salient and consistent critique that can be leveled against Hillary Clinton the candidate is her inability to entertain. Her most ardent supporters have tried to turn this into a strength in recent months, with a cascade of thinkpieces on how her wonky, unaffectionate demeanor is exactly what we should want in the White House. Little good this will do her after debates against Trump when the latter could literally roar, a la Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, a fitting avatar of our contemporary culture, “Are you not entertained?!” You can practically see the thumbs turning down on Clinton in the crowd, condemning her to political death at the hands of the latest champion of a very amused mob.
It is perhaps some small solace to my readers that I go on to believe that Trump is not the second coming of Hitler so much as the second coming of Vaudeville. Or, at worst, I guess L. Ron Hubbard, who called his shot about making a fortune on an invented religion and then put it into practice. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf as his declaration of intention. Trump said he’d try to run as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal on a ticket with Oprah Winfrey. No, the meme about him saying Republicans were dumb and easy to persuade isn’t true. It seems believable because he knows everyone is easy to persuade with enough money and entertainment value, even the Clintons themselves, as he will bring up even more in future debates.
Please don’t confuse my adamance about the future Trump presidency with support. I have no interest in seeing a Trump presidency, though I also have no interest in seeing a Clinton presidency. As I told my spouse’s mother the night before last, I think either president would make the first six years of the Obama administration look glorious and I think those years were truly awful. I am not reveling in the future success of Trump, but I am trying to understand and explain its potency so others might harness that understanding to do some kind of counterbalancing good.
This struggle with entertainment as the dominant currency of our society and its potential battle with more serious, sober reflections on change is one that has impacted key aspects of my own life, and especially this website. While I never came up with the idea for Pokemon Go (like Uber, these ideas required a level of accuracy for GPS technology that doesn’t really predate the last five years and I think few people knew would be a certainty until then), I have concocted some virally entertaining quizzes over the years, the first couple of which were extremely well timed with the advent of Web 1.0 media like blogs, MySpace, and GeoCities. These quizzes first hit the scene when I was trying to promote my first novel and write my second, as well as make my way through life with day jobs in the so-called real world. Tired from my commute and the stresses of work, I would contemplate writing fiction that would be read by a few hundred or a quiz that would be seen by more than a million people within its first year. One would be laden with meaning that I found important to impart, the other would be infused with what little meaning I could stick between the layers of entertainment. My choice was usually clear: at least the entertainment would be absorbed by the masses. It wasn’t until quitting jobs entirely in 2009 that I could really get back to writing fiction seriously. And if my life hadn’t fallen apart at the end of that period, maybe I would have found some success then. At the same time, most of the folks who read American Dream On agreed on its biggest critique: too dark, not entertaining enough. My mother observed that I have a great talent for making people laugh in real life; why couldn’t I bring that over into my writing?
We’ll leave to the side, for now, that perhaps the primary theme of American Dream On is that our obsession with entertainment, along with the pursuit of money, is literally killing everyone.
I don’t think Trump or Pokemon Go will literally kill everyone, nor will terrorists nor the police. Though all four will probably take their cut of lives, with Pokemon Go being by far the most innocuous. And not even all the pokemon in the world will be enough to distract us from the blood taken by other forces in the world, at least not for more than a few hours at a time. And unfortunately, the structural differences between Trump’s eventual killings and the police’s ongoing murders and the terrorists’ showy acts of slaughter and Pokemon Go will continue to fade. It’s all packaged entertainment, destruction put out like a press release, neat little explanations and video and unfolding mystery to unravel like a video game. What is this latest killer’s motive? Where will Trump bomb next? Which terror group will claim responsibility for the latest attack? How did the police try to cover up their latest racist execution?
And the slew of reporters will trail after, with their graphics team and sound folks making it all as polished as the latest app to hit our phones. And we’ll take it all in, and I’ll try to write about it in a way that is just flippant and distant enough to be entertaining too. It’s not just our currency anymore, it’s our literal language, because every use of time, every decision to read or watch something is in competition with catching another Pokemon or playing a game on Facebook or downloading something more amusing. And increasingly the only way to change anything might be to win the entertainment wars first and use that to do good. Because holding the mirror up to society isn’t getting people to take things more seriously these days – it’s reminding us of selfies.
If you’ll excuse me, I should probably go work on another quiz. I wonder if “Which police shooting victim are you?” is still too macabre to be entertaining. Maybe it’s the best way we can get more people to say their names.