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"Politainment and an Extended Renaissance Weekend,"

by Marcus Raskin January/February 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

A year and a half ago our National Seminar Leader, President Clinton, wanted to arrange what we might describe as an extended Renaissance Weekend for all of us. It would be about race and civil rights. It would also have the character of an encounter group where all complaints of the national dysfunctional family are supposedly aired. All members would then feel better, “process their issues,” take part in a collective “I hear you” and then go on with their lives. The Extended Weekend would have created a new language of politesse, damned certain words as not appropriate in polite company and end with hugs all the way around by the closing of the event.

The National Seminar Leader would be praised for his openness and his willingness to “hear” all sides while he would be preparing his next “national dialogue” about, say, gutting the Social Security system. On matters of race, the governing process would be reduced to an arm around complainants in which we would hear each other’s pain. If we could listen carefully through the static, we might think of government as our personal facilitator, but this conclusion would be mistaken. Government would not be big brother so much as distant cousin talking to us through a bad connection on a long distance telephone wire. We would find, in fact, that there was no cousin on the other end but the syrupy, mechanical sound of a voice telling us to “hold” because our vote was important to the National Leader.

Nevertheless, as a result of the process, if it would work the way it was intended in the mind of the National Seminar Leader, the public would have internalized the idea that democracy is nothing more than poll data and focus groups punctuated by claims that democracy is chatter which goes nowhere and is meant to go nowhere.

But the seminar was interrupted by another, more powerful mode of social communication. It was the coming of age of politainment. The media were not going to take their cue from the style of national encounter groups, which could only give us pictures of talking heads, screaming anguish and dull words. They were going to take their cues from entertainment. What could be better than turning on the National Seminar Leader? He was morphed into the traveling preacher who was caught with his pants down. The Seminar Leader who had attended many Renaissance Weekends explained himself in linguistic ways which would have filled the hearts of medieval casuists with great pride. For the populace, politainment had a price. It meant that all other concerns had to end as the national dysfunctional family yielded to the debate of when, where and who could give or get what kind of sex. What should be said about them to nonparticipants became the new chatter coin of the realm traded in the media, Congress and academe.

The errant National Seminar Leader needed all the friends he could get in the politainment play. So he turned to the very part of the community which he did little for: the African American community. Left behind was our extended Renaissance Weekend on race. It was a vague memory, mush in our minds leading nowhere.

But there is one question left for the rest of us. Do we think we could do better? Let us imagine the following: Suppose all those who claim more wisdom than those who wrote the Franklin report began from the premise that while democracy is a dialogue, it is more than a dialogue. Could we write – and then act on – a national report that would be different, better, more lively and result in practical projects that would indeed lead to a different covenant among the people? I like to think so. But let’s see whether anyone among us will respond. And let’s see how the President responds to the Franklin report. Will the combination preacherman and seminar leader remember who in the family stood by him?

Marcus Raskin is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and on the Public Policy Department Faculty at George Washington University.

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