Who’s Laughing Now?

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There was symmetry in the news that barraged us one day last week—Michael Jackson, not to mention Farrah Fawcett, had died, and the governor of South Carolina had made a nitwit and a creep out of himself over a woman in Argentina.

Politics, entertainment—you can’t tell where one leaves off and the other takes up.

The weirder, the better, as with the late Mr. Jackson and the politically late Mark Sanford. We eat it all up with big spoons: on TV, on the Internet, in the papers. Have you heard …? If one hasn’t, one soon will. Life as Freak Show is the life we lead, due to the expertise of the mass media in satisfying our lust for the worst. It was probably ever thus, but we’re just better at it now, and more comprehensive.

Politics, the science of government, didn’t used to be so intimately connected to the vast industry that exists to make us laugh and drool. What would the late-night comedians joke about if political jokes fell flat? Would Jon Stewart even have a career? The Michael Jackson of Neverland fame didn’t used to have his equivalents in state and national capitals. He does now. Mark Sanford is one such—joining in that unblessed estate the likes of John Edwards, John Ensign, Eliot Spitzer and William J. Clinton.

The bigger politics bulks in our daily obsessions, the more attention we have to pay to it; the more attention we have to pay, the higher our expectations for it soar. Pretty soon an average lawyer becomes the Hope of Humanity.

Even buffoons of a highly conventional sort—Mark Sanford would be a good example—become would-be saviors. Theoretically, lucid “observers” of politics once touted Sanford for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Such talk may have done him in, as often happens with buffoons. Once they start seeing themselves as saviors, needing only another election victory, a few score millions more in the bank, larger staffs, more time on Meet the Press—it’s then they become dangerous.

A powerful buffoon is always someone to be watched with trepidation. He knows no limits. Ohhhh, but he’s the center of interest and attention. After a while, he’s the Greatest—in his own eyes.

And it’s off to Argentina.

It all makes great theater, of course—top entertainment. Sanford, Edwards, Jackson—what fun to ogle, to point, to carp, to harp. They’re all so—you know—much more than we are.

How odd. The science of government is the science of ordering our public lives according to tested assumptions about justice and prudence. We’re not talking about that now, are we?

It’s possible always for public men and women to engage in politics, so conceived. It’s also rarer and rarer, as political obsessions take over the whole of life. The power to give us joy—as entertainment does—is supposedly the power that politics exercises. Yet look at what the general run of politicians nowadays offers: cheap and unlimited health care, financial security, a chicken in every pot, joy and satisfaction of just about every sort. By law!

The founders were a bit more modest in their intentions. The security of the nation, the freedom to excel—or not excel, the security of contracts—not much more than that was on offer at the start. It sufficed for a while under Mr. Washington, Mr. Adams, Mr. Jefferson. The end to politics of that limited nature came gradually, then fast, faster, fastest, like a locomotive engine gathering power.

The key word is “power.” You get it, in our modern human arrangement, by promising higher and higher levels of joy and satisfaction, rather than pledging to create conditions under which human beings, generally, can shape for themselves the small and large satisfactions that make one glad to live in a place of freedom.

“Entertaining” our politicians certainly are, in the Michael Jackson-Mark Sanford sense. Laugh while you can. The joke seems to get less funny every minute.


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