Thursday, October 20, 2016

Political Media and the Art of Manliness

Weeks away from the 2016 election, I thought I’d make a couple observations—not on the presidential campaigns but upon what they say about our media and culture.

First, don’t expect real news from TV or Twitter.

There’s no question about it: television and social media are technologies that dominate how most people get their information about politics.
  • The good news: more people have access to political information.
  • The bad news: much of the information from television and social media is, to say the least, very shallow.
Shallowness shouldn't surprise us when it comes to media like TV and Twitter.  If you can’t express ideas in sound bites or 140 characters, then you don’t get attention.  But discussing complex issues—the climate crisis, bank regulation, fiscal and monetary policy, etc.—simply can’t be learned through talking points or tweets.

Talking points and tweets make great entertainment, but they often lack substance.  And when we sacrifice substance for entertainment, we’re in danger of “Amusing Ourselves to Death—to quote author Neil Postman.  The Trump campaign in particular may signify the breaking point where presidential races became virtually indistinguishable from reality TV.  I’ve written about this problem before, and I see no easy or clear solution.  My suggestion: replace TV and tweets with book clubs and Socratic-style discussions, at least for political information.

(Image from Amazon)

Second, the art of manliness needs a reboot.

If we believe the statisticians at FiveThirtyEight (a website that specializes in poll analysis), Trump will probably lose.  His ostentatious behavior paid off early in the presidential race, but, as a result, he has insulted too many groups, including women.  His sexist comments, combined with groping accusations by numerous women, will likely cost him the presidency (as it should).

Unfortunately, more women then men see a problem with Trumpism, which is clearly a form of machoism (or chauvinism).  However, I see it as a symptom, not a cause.  What’s the cause?  There’s no single answer, but perhaps a lack of male role models is part of the explanation.

Scholars and poets like Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly have written much about this pedagogical problem.  For instance, medieval societies had myths for boys, who were to model themselves upon heroes such as the Knights of the Round Table.

Knights of the Round Table, by William Dyce
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Now obviously medieval societies were far from equal, but here's the larger point: like gallant knights, boys were responsible for recognizing their own hero’s journey, their personal transformation from dependent children to dependable adults.

We need to modernize this hero's journey, because when we lack such a myth, boys may get their role models from shows like The Simpsons and The Family Guy.  They may be funny, but Homer and Peter are anything but healthy expressions of masculinity.


                    (Image from Wikipedia)

(Image from Wikipedia)

There is, however, a glimmer of light.  The revival of superheroes in movies such as Captain America and in TV series like The Flash are providing new male role models.  Many of the latest superhero myths are rebooting the art of manliness—being a heroic, responsible, courteous guy.  That’s a great thing for both our culture and post-Trump politics.

Captain America (Image from IMDb)

The Flash (Image from IMDb)