by Robert Bellafiore

In the last few weeks, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem has received significant attention, starting worthwhile conversations about free speech and the First Amendment. More recently, attention has shifted towards the umpteenth debate over gun control in America, in which Jimmy Kimmel of all people took center stage, making an impassioned and popular plea for stricter regulations. These topics are unquestionably important–and it is certainly valuable for us to be discussing them–but in the midst of these conversations, we need to ask another question: why are celebrities and cultural icons the figures guiding our discussions on such difficult issues? There is no inherent connection between athletic ability and wisdom, or between sense of humor and intelligence. And yet we act as though there is, granting celebrities the power to decide both what issues we should be discussing, as in Kaepernick’s case, and what the terms of the discussion should be, as in Kimmel’s case.

These incidents point to a more pernicious problem in American society: an obsession with entertainment. It is certainly not a bad thing for us to want our celebrities to be thoughtful, or for us to hope that our politicians have a sense of humor. But when the courthouse and the funhouse begin to be occupied by the same characters; when health care is promoted through videos mocking their own fabricated self-awareness; and when people can semi-seriously consider the possibility of Oprah, The Rock, or Chance the Rapper running for office–we ought to realize that entertainment and politics are quickly becoming indistinguishable.

Nothing more obviously reveals the symbiosis of the two realms than Donald Trump’s election. A common gripe, both before and during his presidency, has been that Trump was a celebrity before he was a politician, and that his status as the former ipso facto makes him unfit to be the latter. Regardless of whether or not such complaints are justified, it would be a great mistake to think that the blurring of the line between politics and entertainment started with Trump. More to the point–and as the power of Kaepernick and Kimmel to command our attention has shown–it would be a great mistake to think that each of us has not contributed to such blurring.

The mixing of politics and entertainment isn’t new. Neil Postman illustrated television’s ability to flatter us into complacency in 1985 with his classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. Aldous Huxley foresaw a similar problem in 1931 when he wrote Brave New World, which described a government that controls its citizens, not through 1984-style terror, but through nonstop access to sex and drugs–keeping everyone too satisfied to bother revolting. Nor is the problem partisan. In the 1940s, Marxist philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer described the bourgeoisie’s ability to control the proletariat through the manufactured mass media, what they called the “culture industry,” while traditionalist conservative Richard Weaver was revealing the ability of “the Great Stereopticon”—the network of film, newspaper, radio, and television—to discourage independent thought.

Regardless of one’s temporal or political disposition, our reliance on entertainment masks the same core plight: behind the endless waves of entertainment in politics is a subtle but certain despair. Joking about difficult issues is invaluable if it enables us to speak with each other more intimately, if it allows us to open up to one another. But it can also inhibit closeness, creating an ironic gap between individuals that prevents us from making progress on the issues we all know matter. Entertainment and satire can illustrate problems, but they can rarely suggest solutions; they can tear down edifices, but they cannot erect new ones in their place. As essayist Lewis Hyde put it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”[1] Saturday Night Live might be hilarious, but it can’t be the solution to the problems it lampoons, and it can’t keep us laughing forever. Eventually the show will end, and we will have heard no better response to those problems than the advice to tune in again next week.

This is precisely why the infusion of entertainment into everything is so difficult to address: the people and institutions that claim to expose the problems in society are in fact exacerbating them. Journalism can play an invaluable role in any free society, but the nobility of the reporter’s vocation does not change the fact that newspapers want more customers, just like any other business. If journalists and pundits can convince people to buy more of what they’re selling, they’re certainly going to do so. The media has every incentive in the world to blare apocalyptic proclamations and anxiety-inducing laments about the imminent disaster upon us, and then say that all we can do is laugh about it. The constant stream of news proclaims that there are flaws with the world and that devoting our every ounce of energy to learning about them will make us virtuous and informed citizens … but it then pulls the rug out from under us, whispering that the best we can do is to continue reading, watching, and laughing. By flattering people into believing that constantly scrolling through news feeds and posting headlines on social media will solve the world’s challenges, the media subtly presents any more meaningful form of action as unncessary or useless. It inculcates nihilism at the same time that it presents itself as the only solution to such nihilism.

Now, to point out a problem and recommend only panic or despair would mean becoming the unwitting ally of the problem’s perpetrators. There is a solution–one that does not require legislation, a podium, an established voting bloc, or an advanced degree. It only requires the willpower to withstand the onslaught of entertainment and titillation that will inundate us if we let them. No one is compelling us to check Twitter one more time today. No one is making us watch the latest episode of The Daily Show. To think that the situation is too great for any individual to address in his or her own life, and to settle for hysterically following the next disaster that the media has told us to follow, is to deny our ability to choose what we do at every moment. We each make the choice to obsess over politics, to demand that the news be informative and funny, to cover our dread with laughter, and to choose the witty remark over the sincere one. Respite will only come from ignoring, rather than absorbing, the news; from thinking, rather than from joking or crying; and from following the example of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.”[2]

Robert Bellafiore is a senior at the University of Oklahoma studying economics and philosophy and minoring in international studies.


[1] Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking.

[2] Tractatus Politicus, Ch. 1, Introduction, section 4.