The recent Sheen-stravaganza brings these thoughts to mind. Bernstein:
Remember: if you’re reading this blog, odds are good that you’re at least in the top 10% of all Americans in political knowledge, and more likely you’re in the top 1%. And for those of us in that group, it’s hard to imagine just how little the median American knows about the day-to-day events that we pay so much attention to. Even when in some sort of abstract way it makes sense for people to know about politics or public affairs — for example, it makes sense for Medicare recipients to know how ACA affects them — they just don’t. Sometimes that’s because people aren’t well-educated enough to feel comfortable reading or even watching the news (and the linked polling shows that college grads do much better on this question, although “some college” respondents actually are more likely to believe inaccurately that ACA has been repealed than are those with no college). But often it’s because people have other, more immediate things in their lives to attend to, or they pay attention only occasionally, or they have low tolerance for conflict, or they just don’t see any connection between things happening in Washington and their lives.
I’ve said this before…to get a sense of what politics is like for many Americans, I suggest thinking of something that you do encounter in some way all the time, but that you just have zero interest in. Perhaps sports in general — or, for sports fans, a major sport that you don’t pay any attention to. Perhaps it’s current pop music, or HBO shows, or celebrities. Me? NASCAR, the NBA, and any games made since Missile Command and Stargate Defender. The idea is that I actually do encounter and, in a way, retain a fair amount of information about those things in the nature of headlines that I see but skip the stories, or references made in other things I do read or watch, or conversations I’ve had that veer off in that direction. It’s not as if I know absolutely nothing. It’s just that the stuff I’ve heard is not organized at all, and I’m sure I’ve picked up misinformation along the way, since I don’t scrutinize any of it.
Anyway, when you’re involved in what’s happening in Wisconsin, or Libya, or the budget negotiations in Washington, just keep in mind that most people aren’t paying any attention at all.
There’s a good argument to be made that responsible citizenship in a democracy demands a certain degree of education in politics and current events. In this sense, we can suggest that those who haven’t the faintest what’s going on in Libya et al are doing it wrong; they’re being irresponsible, and their irresponsibility has a negative impact on the health of the body politic. We can also say, with some comfort, that there are interests in every body politic that profit from the ignorance of the citizenry. I don’t buy “bread and circuses” theories of politics, the most modern form of which suggest that professional sports/Jersey Shore effectively represent corporate efforts to keep the citizenry docile, but it’s obvious that Fox News, for example, serves interests for whom an ignorant citizenry is a key value.
And so I’m comfortable to a point with condemnations both of ill-informed citizens and of the larger forces that keep citizens ill-informed. At the same time, I tend to be deeply uncomfortable with the wave of media criticism that emerges every time news networks devote too much time to, for example, the death of a B-list celebrity. I don’t really care what Charlie Sheen has to say about anything, but as lots of people seem very interested I can’t really condemn CNN for putting him on TV (the quality of the interview is, of course, a different matter). Preference for news about Charlie Sheen over news of the Libyan civil war seems to me to be largely a question of taste. I follow politics not just because I think it’s my duty as a citizen, but also because I find the political entertaining. It has always been thus; I became a political scientist because I found politics fun and interesting. I have a taste for politics. Like Bernstein, I find some forms of mass entertainment mind numbingly boring and stupid. I think that it’s arrogant, however to suggest that my preference for baseball and politics over NASCAR and Jersey Shore represents an elevated level of consciousness, rather than just a particular set of tastes that don’t have any particular moral or ethical content.