When I was a teenager, the things that we deemed fake and/or trying too hard were called cheesy. By deriding a cultural entity (a person or a TV show or similar) in such a way was to reduce it instantly to the marginal status it rightfully deserved.
For example, the syndicated ur-American Idol, Star Search (hosted by Ed McMahon), was cheesy. It was filled with lesser talents desperate in their ambition to become stars.
Then came the Fox Network, which elevated cheese to a theretofore unattainable status. News and entertainment of dubious quality and substandard values achieved prime time network eminence. Cable television, of course, had already begun to chip away at the invisible wall of cultural standards, but Fox, with it’s much broader reach, moved the ball irrevocably forward. I point to the TV show Married with Children as an example.
Next came the Internet, which is the great leveler of Democracy. With the means for any person to reach anyone, any time, the Internet sounded the final death knell of cheese. This democratization has been both a great boon for society and a shameful leveling of the cultural standards that were once an implicit part of our social contract. Paris Hilton being a prime example.
While this leveling has given millions – myself included – a means to express themselves and reach a broader audience, it has also destroyed the hierarchy that maintained standards of prudence and decency. Genuine talent is no longer necessary to achieve acclaim. Just good looks and a good publicist, if that. Ambition, which formerly needed to be framed by legitimate qualifications, became a talent in-and-of itself.
This death of cheese has so permeated the culture that no sector is left untainted. The genius of Karl Rove was in recognizing this cultural shift and exploiting it in politics to advance the extreme right-wing agenda of his boss George W. Bush. Of course, the agenda wasn’t really Bush’s. He, we all know now, barely has a thought in head. But he was the imperfect vehicle (rhetorically challenged, incurious, arrogant, though secretly insecure) which Rove utilized in this time to ensure that the ambition of the GOP was fulfilled. Bush won two terms. The first, barely, because he was someone you wanted to have a beer with. The second because 9/11 scrambled the brains of Americans.
I, like many of you, have always held a deep suspicion that this cultural change portended bad things for America and the world. I’ve watched as Americans have become stupider, more manipulatable, less interested in the world around them. We are all too busy dancing in the mirror.
And now, with Sarah Palin, my fears have been justified. She is the Reality TV/American Idol candidate for the most powerful office in the world. Without legitimate qualifications and the necessary interest and judgment to hold the office she seeks, she has risen like a phoenix to become an uber-celebrity and, somehow, beyond all reason, a genuine possibility to be president of the United States.
Cheese thy name is Sarah.
This is what we always feared. The great democratization of society has put intelligence on the same level as stupidity. Education on the same level as ignorance. Character on the same level as good looks. Judgment on the same level as “gut” reaction.
Nothing is cheesy anymore. And, as a result, what finally happens when a society abandons it’s standards is that Sarah Palin can have her manicured finger on the button.
I want my cheese back.