In 1985, Neil Postman published the book Amusing ourselves to Death, in which he claimed that the visual language of television and cinema results in cultural shallowness, causing public passivity based on a desire to be amused. According to Postman, the public has been “drugged to death” by visual content (that is, to the death of critical thinking). Postman described the television age through the desire to be amused, claiming that this need sidelined rational-critical thought.
Although Postman perhaps excessively leans towards technological determinism, he undoubtedly predicted the impact of visual culture, which today, is even more apparent in the age of social media dominated by amusing film clips and reality television, whose sole purpose is to entertain.
The need for amusement long ago slid from the cultural realm into the sphere of political communication. It is possible that the first politician who understood the usefulness of amusing audiences was United States President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), who utilized his acting abilities to entertain audiences through jokes and dramatic flare during speeches and debates.
The use of amusement reached its height with Donald Trump’s entrance into politics during the 2016 presidential election. Trump arrived on the scene armed with the entertainment abilities he garnered from his tenure as a reality tv star, as he understood that presenting a character who would say the most scandalous and extreme statement would amuse the people, grab media headlines, and would, in the end, result in his election as president. It was not for nothing that the first debate between Trump and Clinton in 2016 attracted 84 million television viewers, in addition to live stream viewers. This record-breaking number of viewers did not tune in to hear rational argumentation, but to gawk at a highly entertaining train wreck.
Undoubtedly, the most astute political animal on the Israeli political scene, Prime Minister Netanyahu, has a deep understanding of the need for amusement in politics, as he tends to utilize multi-media presentations and various gimmicks that display ridicule for political rivals (for example, the “sourpusses” speech) – Bibi is good for entertainment, and entertainment is good for Bibi.
Recently, Netanyahu has adopted a highly entertaining cinema genre – the mafia film – which, in addition to serving to threaten his political rivals, serves to amuse the Israeli public – amuse it to death (of critical thinking). In the classic mafia films, such as The Godfather, Scarface, and Goodfellas, the tension, the violence, and the strange honor codes, essentially serve the purpose of amusement, rather than causing real fear.
When Netanyahu and his messengers act like a mafia gang, one of their main purposes is to amuse the Israeli public and to distract our attention from the depressing state of society. In addition to mafia-like behavior serving to threaten political rivals and media and judicial gatekeepers, it also grants us a sense of relief from our difficult situation. MK Miki Zohar’s threats against the Attorney-General, Miri Regev’s threats against talk-show host Eyal Berkovitch, and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin overturning the Knesset voting results regarding the establishment of an inquiry into the submarine scandal, all serve as amusement and entertainment, moments of pause from our bleak lifestyles under the stresses of the COVID-19 reality. We are indeed shocked by the aggressive and uncouth behavior of the messengers of the mafia-boss, but this behavior also gives us moments of drama and levity.
The “house of cards” that Netanyahu has established within the Likud party fascinates us exactly as does the actual television drama House of Cards. We enjoy watching how Netanyahu plays with various “soldiers” as though they were chess pawns, as his attack dogs are advanced within the Likud power structure, while those who refuse to stay on script (such as Gideon Sa’ar) are likely to face a fate similar to that of Fredo Corleone. In this mafia movie, all the classic roles are apparent: the revolving door of attack dogs (David Bitan and David Amsalem, who were recently replaced by Miki Zohar and Osnat Mark, after outgrowing their usefulness), the naïve new kid on the block who the mafia boss succeeded in enticing him to join his side (Benny Gantz), the cops who understand who they are meant to serve (the police commanders who give orders to use excessive force against protesters), and the impoverished group that supports the mafia-boss in exchange for various types of hush-money (the Ultra-Orthodox).
This script is so amusing – that it amuses us to death. Indeed, an impressive protest movement has been established in recent months and there is a general awakening against Netanyahu’s mafia methods. However, if elections were held tomorrow, Netanyahu would have a reasonable chance of victory – illustrating that large portions of the public (even those who would not vote for him), have a basic need for the amusement that the Bibi-show provides. Indeed, there is nothing like a good mafia movie broadcast during the evening news to forget one’s troubles after a difficult day of searching for new ways to make a living and dealing with the kids stuck at home.