When Reality Shows Collide

Posted January 7, 2010

Categories: Articles

The big news in the reality TV world is the intersection of Sarah Palin and Kate Gosselin. The Alaska governor is preparing her own show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” while Kate Gosselin runs her own pimp-my-children show called “Kate Plus Eight.” Kate has reportedly brought her kids up to Alaska for a big scramble through the woods that will be filmed for all to see in the fall.

Reality TV is everywhere — among Washington housewives, Jersey Shore denizens, cupcake bakers, Donald Trump wannabes. These shows are fast, cheap, and out of control. And very, very popular. Their influence has permeated popular culture and, alas, politics as well. When President Obama recently appeared on “The View,” he was asked whether “Jersey Shore” star Snooki should run for mayor of Wasilla (Sarah Palin’s old position). Jeez, why ask the president of the United States about the military budget or U.S. policy toward Somalia when you can query him about using a reality TV star to torture the residents of a benighted Alaskan town?

Reality TV has reached the White House. So when will reality TV come to foreign policy?

Foreign policy is reality, you might point out. But a four-hour C-SPAN hearing on U.S.–Japan relations is not reality TV. Such a hearing unspools in real time, focuses on issues rather than personalities, features no unusual special effects, and has virtually no sex, violence, or ruthless competition. On TV, we want our reality varnished to a high gloss. Real reality is a bore.

To a certain extent, the Pentagon brought reality TV to foreign policy when it embedded journalists during the invasion of Iraq. The Pentagon saw embedding as a compromise between the free-range journalism of the Vietnam War and the banish-the-journalists approach of the first Gulf War. The Pentagon believed that the gritty reality of the Vietnam War, as captured by unrestricted reporters, caused a nosedive in popular support for U.S. involvement. In reality, as John MacArthur points out in his book Second Front, only a handful of reporters from the mainstream media broke ranks to challenge the official U.S. government version of the Vietnam War, and then only in its later stages. Nevertheless, the Pentagon went on to severely restrict media coverage of U.S. wars in Grenada and Panama in the 1980s and then essentially censor all coverage of the first Gulf War.

For the second Gulf War, embedding was a way of controlling without directly censoring. The Pentagon in essence created a reality TV show where it controlled the horizontal and the vertical. “This war was a TV show on a new scale with as many ‘events’ as a televised Olympics,” writes Danny Schechter in his book Embedded. “Media outlets were willing, even enthusiastic participants in presenting the made-for-television spectacle.” Americans react very negatively to the notion that they are being censored. But we are okay with infotainment.

If war has become a reality show, what’s next? Perhaps Hillary Clinton will soon have her own show, which features a heavily spliced diplomat’s tour of the world, with asides on her favorite restaurant in Tokyo and where she gets her hair done in Moscow. Some foreign leaders are way ahead of the United States. Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader, runs his own largely unscripted Sunday show “Aló Presidente,” which has inspired similar shows by the leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador.

Will Obama and Ahmadinejad soon follow suit? Then, instead of having a war between the United States and Iran, the two leaders can appear on each other’s reality TV shows, like Kate and Sarah, and have a dance-off or sing a song in front of Simon Cowell or compete to make the most delicious meal in 30 minutes out of lima beans, veal cheeks, and radicchio. The loser has to give up his country’s nuclear program.

Why stop with just two leaders? I envision a new “Survivor” series on climate change, in which the G20 leaders all meet on the rapidly disappearing island of Ghoramara in the Sundarbans between India and Bangladesh. They have six months to come up with a plan to cut global carbon emissions, and each week they can vote off the island a different pig-headed leader. If they don’t come up with a plan, they all have to stay put until the island disappears and them with it: “Survivor/No Survivor: the Global Warming Edition.

Although I would certainly prefer a televised cook-off between Ahmadinejad and Obama to a war between the two countries, television and foreign policy in fact shouldn’t mix. As Neil Postman write in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “Television…serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse — news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion — and turns them into entertainment packages.”

Best, then, if Obama remains blissfully unaware of Snooki and she of politics altogether. And let’s all hope that Sarah Palin stays in the world of reality TV, and doesn’t have to pretend in two years’ time to have a foreign policy when she steps out onto her porch to look at Russia.

A Fractured Middle East

Everywhere you look in the Middle East, things are falling apart. Israel’s attack on the Turkish flotilla has set into motion a certain domino effect, beginning with a rupture in Israeli relations with Turkey. “Rather than marking the end of the crisis, a break in Israeli-Turkish relations will further polarize the region and diminish peace prospects,” writes FPIF contributor Avni Dogru in A Break in Israeli-Turkish Relations. “This new trend will also inevitably increase the gap between East and West, and have a further destabilizing effect on the Middle East. Both Arabs and Israelis would be losing the single capable actor to mediate the conflicts between them.”

Calls for Israel to go whole hog and attack Iran have escalated. “Reuel Marc Gerecht’s screed justifying an Israeli bombing attack on Iran coincides with the opening of the new Israel lobby campaign marked by the introduction of House resolution 1553 expressing full support for such an Israeli attack,” writes Gareth Porter in the FPIF blog Focal Points. “What is important to understand about this campaign is that the aim of Gerecht and of the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is to support an attack by Israel so that the United States can be drawn into direct, full-scale war with Iran.”

This development has increased tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. “Recent developments, specifically the alleged Saudi-Israeli coordination on a planned ‘surgical strike’ against Iran’s nuclear facilities, plus Iran’s accusation of a ‘Saudi connection’ vis-à-vis the abduction of an Iranian nuclear scientist, are beginning to escalate the bilateral tensions to new heights,” writes Richard Javad Heydarian in Iran-Saudi Relations.

The fracturing is not confined to the Middle East. The United States has lost the war in Afghanistan, writes FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan, and now the only question is how to cover up that loss and withdraw. One proposal is to divide the country into two parts, a Pashtun-dominated south and a north ruled by Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. “It is not clear how much support the partition plan has, given the deep opposition of countries like Pakistan and China,” writes Hallinan in Dismembering Afghanistan, but the genie has been released and “getting it back into the lamp will not be easy.”

Not everyone loses out from this escalation in tension. Blackwater, now Xe, has recently won new contracts from the U.S. government, despite its history of corruption and mayhem. “Blackwater was the 12th largest contractor in Iraq, even though it was not tasked to build embassies and roads. They pulled in almost $500 million between 2004 and 2006,” writes FPIF contributor Fouad Pervez in Blackwater: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop . “Blackwater built a comparative advantage over its rivals during the Bush years. This advantage, which the company still enjoys today, enables Blackwater to bid lower amounts since their profit margins are not as tight as other companies.”

Rwandan Elections, Ecology Zapatista-style

Presidential elections took place in Rwanda yesterday, and Paul Kagame is the anticipated winner of a second seven-year term. But the election was far from free and fair, with at least opposition activist, André Kagwa Rwisereka, killed and others arrested and tortured. “The clean streets of the capital are decorated with flowers,” writes FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek in Postcard from…Kigali. “They are in stark contrast with the misery in which the majority of Rwandans live in the countryside. Enormous divisions are evident, in both standards of living as well as in the interpretation of the past. But discussion of these differing perceptions is not permitted.”

The Zapatistas, a group of insurgents fighting in the Chiapas region of Mexico, aren’t usually thought of as environmental activists. But FPIF contributor Jeff Conant believes that the Zapatistas’ approach is green through and through. “In 1994, the Zapatistas clearly told the world that we had exhausted all other options. In the teeth of climate catastrophe, every living thing on the planet is now backed against the same wall. Change takes time, argues every prudent voice. But after centuries of toxic industry, decades of climate change denial, and years of playing politics as if there were winners and losers, time has run out.” Read his article to find out What the Zapatistas Can Teach Us about Climate Change.

We have two books to recommend to you this week. Fixing Fractured Nations gives a rundown of the ethnic conflicts that threaten to tear apart states in Asia. FPIF contributor Greg Chaffin writes that the book’s “comprehensive analysis of ethnic conflicts in Asia provides the basis on which real solutions can eventually be formulated.” Meanwhile, according to FPIF contributor Anna Kalinina, China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, “clears away the cobwebs of consistent misperceptions of China’s international actions.”

FPIF, August 10, 2010

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