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The Pop Culture Wars (or How I Learned to Tolerate the Right)

By       Message Maya Rupert     Permalink
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The debate is pretty evenly divided. One side thinks that it's pandering to the lowest common denominator and finds it insulting that popularity should count for more than quality. These people get called elitist and roll their eyes. The other side thinks that people like it because it doesn't condescend or over think everything it appeals to us because it is likeable. They get called simple and roll their eyes.

I've heard this debate before. I've had this debate before. But this time it's different because this time I'm not siding with the first group because I prefer Obama to McCain, this time I'm siding with them because I preferred the short-lived series Sports Night to the still-running Survivor.

This time we're not talking about politics. This time we're talking about something far more important this time we're talking about television. Considering how much I love television and how much I love politics, I find it truly astounding that it took me this long to make the connection. But as I sit with friends and our topic of conversation flows seamlessly from the decision of the Emmy's this year to include an award for reality show hosts to the election, it occurs to me just how much the debate over the merits of reality television eerily parallels the debate liberals and conservatives are having right now.

On the one hand, we have the reality shows. They scoff at the suggestion that they should avoid playing into stereotypes for the sake of political correctness the Angry Black Woman, for example, has become a staple of their popularity. After all, they're just showing you the entertainment that appeals to ordinary people people like you. Then they close their eyes and pray you don't realize they're comparing you to the one-dimensional caricatures they portray. And either we don't notice or we don't care because their ratings keep them on the air year after year, and encourage the creation of more and more shows just like them.

On the other hand, we have the "intellectual" shows that take umbrage at the notion that they're condescending and arrogant. After all, aren't they the ones assuming you're smart enough to understand their intelligent and complex storylines? They want to raise the level of debate. They want to change the world. Forty-two minutes at a time. And god help you if you get in their way.

But they get called boring, "too smart", and ultimately get cancelled because the viewers the people who, at the end of the day, decide what stays and what goes don't connect with them. So they wait for the Emmys in order to be vindicated and fade out into obscurity with their heads held high.

Their victories are all moral ones, which is something Democrats can understand. Democrats appreciate a good moral victory the way you do when you're accustomed to losing. All at once, I finally understand why Democrats allowed Barack Obama's celebrity status to be an embarrassment. The Democratic party has suffered such a crisis of self-confidence that we're convinced losing is our only way of winning. As far as Democrats are concerned, politics might as well be an 80s sitcom where the only way to be right is to be unpopular, but the only way to win is to be popular.

The entire philosophy of liberalism has become contingent upon being the moral victors and actual losers of every contest they enter into. As far as Democrats are concerned, electing someone who is actually popular is selling out. But what do I know? I voted for Bill Bradley, then Al Gore, then Howard Dean, and then John Kerry. I also watched Arrested Development.

But here's where Democrats have a problem: there is no Emmy in politics. If you don't get the votes, you don't win. There is no prize for a losing politician who is critically acclaimed. (Note to self: Maybe there should be a prize for a losing politician who is critically acclaimed. Talk to Al Gore).

Because like any good Democrat, I'm sensitive to being called an elitist, I agreed to watch a friend's DVR'd season premiere of Survivor. Judgment turned off, I sat and watched as, in a moment of what I wryly noted was supposed to be drama, an elephant yes, an elephant scares the newly chosen tribes and one of the members hits his head on one of the huts and is required to get stitches. As I turn to my friend in disbelief, I earnestly ask if she actually thinks this show is more interesting than Mad Men, naming a critically acclaimed show that has still struggled with ratings. She shrugs and responds simply. I think its more fun.

This point hits me with all the force and effect of a hut to the head. We're not disagreeing; we're just not actually talking about the same thing. We're not fighting over which show is better at providing its own entertainment. We're arguing about how we want to be entertained. And given that standard, reality shows have a certain appeal. They're cheap to make, they're fun to watch, and they're something to spend the next day talking about with co-workers. And if it's true of the pop culture wars, why shouldn't it be true of the culture wars?

This election isn't about who is better to fix us. It's about the more fundamental question of how we want to be fixed. And Republicans want to be fixed by an ordinary citizen, while Democrats want to be fixed by an extraordinary one. And given that standard, the Republican desire has some appeal. How exciting is it to think that an average American can be plucked out of obscurity and lead the nation? And really, what is Sarah Palin if not politics' answer to America's Next Top Model? A spectacle that guarantees some drama, some scandal, and almost certainly cannot fail considering its contending with impossibly low expectations.

Armed with this realization, I made a new one: People often try to convince us that the things that unite us are bigger than the things that divide us. These people are wrong.

The things that divide us are huge. Republicans and Democrats aren't groups who have a common goal and are going about achieving it in different ways. Each group has embarked on its own path to achieve its own happily ever after. And that's better because it means a peaceful resolution to the war. It's not that we agree on a solution and have to try to understand why the other side took an inexplicable path we never agreed on anything. We literally have nothing in common. Somehow that comforts me enough to tune out the rest of Survivor, having experienced my moral victory.

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Maya is a 27-year-old lawyer living in Los Angeles.

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The Pop Culture Wars (or How I Learned to Tolerate the Right)