Popular television treats politics so that conflict is inevitable–and is slowly making us comfortable with it

Last week, I spent some free time watching the political drama, Madame Secretary with Tea Leoni. Well, actually, I didn’t watch it WITH her, but it does star her. And for those of you who don’t know, the story is about an ex-CIA section chief who gets the call to become Secretary of State after the previous one dies in a plane crash. There’s lots of intrigue and “West Wing”-like drama, so it’s one of those kinds of shows. But after I finished watching the first season, something started to stick with me, and it’s been bothering me ever since.

The whole show seemed to be about an intelligent woman who basically makes decisions to keep the US from falling off the brink of disaster. Weekly. Which means that there’s usually some huge incident that threatens all sorts of horrible ramifications, and through some quick-thinking ideas, she fixes it. And then it started to get me to think about other shows that are similar to this. There was the previously mentioned The West Wing, which pretty much had the same kind of crisis of the week as its main element. There’s Scandal, which is basically the same thing. There was, for a very short time, Commander in Chief, which yes, did the same thing. There are comedies, like Veep, that do this sort of thing. Then there are action shows like 24, The Unit, Contagion, Flashpoint, and so many others that usually involve some kind of national emergency that requires people to fix those situations almost overnight.

Which got me to thinking that this is how government is being introduced to a lot of people who probably don’t know a lot about what people in government actually do. I remember years back when I told someone my title was “counterintelligence agent” and that person immediately assumed I was an American James Bond, going undercover and killing bad guys. Okay, it was exactly like that, but I digress. No, it wasn’t, but let’s just leave it at that.

The point is: If popular media presents the idea that government is nothing but a group of people who work from one crisis to the next, how hard is it to assume that people are going to start thinking that crisis situations are natural and to be expected? I remember someone once asking me what it was like being a CI agent, and I said it was usually boring and lots of paperwork. The person thought I was lying to protect her.

I’m worried that this sort of exposure the population has to “government” is exactly what makes it possible for people in government to argue that we need things like the PATRIOT Act or waterboarding of prisoners for information that they rarely give up during torture. When people discovered that the NSA was wiretapping Americans, the response was along the lines of “duh, of course they are.” That really scares me for the future of this country because I think we’re moving down a path that is taking us quite far away from the original path this country was set on when we first embraced the ideas of liberty and democracy.

I’d say more, but my show is on, and I need to make sure Jack Bauer manages to save the day.

duanePopular television treats politics so that conflict is inevitable–and is slowly making us comfortable with it

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