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"Getting clicks plays no role in the selection processes," Cutler told me last week. "I'm happy to say to you that that is a mistaken impression. You won't be able to find anywhere that anyone associated with the show that says Web site support has any direct impact on somebody getting on the show. The decisions as to who gets on the show are made by producers of the show -- by me -- and by Showtime working together. I take full responsibility for that. The online support is a way of building a community of people in common with American Candidateand support a forum for ideas outside the two-party process."
So the "candidates" were tricked into pointlessly promoting the show, which will be cast like any other TV program -- with a casting call.
From a philosophical-consistency point of view, it's entirely appropriate for a show promising a glimpse inside the reality of politics to launch itself by duping 1,000 or so hapless wannabes into misallocating their idealistic impulses. And I can hardly fault a reality-show producer for conflating the concepts of "plausible deniability" and "truth," particularly when that producer specializes in depicting American politics. But the fact is, I wanted to see Benjamin make it onto the show; there's reason to believe she's been aced out; and as a columnist, I get to publicly complain when I don't get my way.
On a local level, radical progressives can have a detrimental effect on political discourse. In San Francisco, the rad-progs don't have many real issues to fight about, given that almost everyone else is a leftist. So we get local "struggles" over the proper type of backlash against the dot-com boom and the precise method by which the government should take over the electricity system. These are facsimiles -- or, if you will, reality-show versions -- of meaningful politics. They make it easy to mistake self-described San Francisco "progressives" for buffoons.
On a national level, though, radical progressivism is suddenly where the real, live action is. Leftists have been complaining for three years that the Bush administration co-opted big news organizations in the propaganda buildup to the Iraq War; last week the New York Times admitted as much in an editor's note mea culpa. Radical leftists have long been lonely voices complaining about the worsening plight of America's working poor, the subject of an emphatic Business Week cover story this month. Human rights violations in Iraq have been a lonely, radical-left pet cause since the war began; Benjamin has visited that country multiple times to draw attention to this once-esoteric issue, which suddenly has America riveted. Fringe leftists, including Benjamin, have tirelessly highlighted the lousy environmental record of American companies overseas -- fruitlessly it seemed, until Fortune magazine this month published a feature showing how corporations are succumbing to radical environmentalist pressure to change their ways.
The list goes on. Out of nowhere, the left's issues are becoming America's issues. Benjamin, a strident, articulate person with a real sense of humor, is perfect for bringing this trend into America's living rooms via a TV game show designed to depict a version of political discourse. But it seems she did not make the cut.
According to a Los Angeles Times article last week, American Candidate has selected 24 semifinalists, an assertion a Showtime publicist endorsed, adding that "we're not releasing the names at this time."
Benjamin thinks she's not one of those names. "They never invited me to L.A.," she says.
Cutler, who makes his living in the reality/not-reality business, used words to create the impression that neither Benjamin nor any of her 1,000 cohorts had yet been knocked off the show's contestant list, while refusing to deny publicist-confirmed reports that this had in fact happened. And he had a realityist's nuanced view of the accuracy of last week's Times feature on the show, in which he was quoted saying, "As David Mamet says, 'Always tell the truth, it's the easiest thing to remember.' Eventually, these kinds of disconnections between image and truth have a way of catching up to you. But who knows if this is even true in an environment where image might be everything?"
I asked him if the story was correct in saying 24 semifinalists had been selected.
Instead of answering, he said there hadn't been any final decisions.
"Well, is the Times account accurate?" I insisted. "It's either true or not."
"It's not true or not," he said, coining a realityist's epitaph. "I'm telling you what I'm telling you. The process has been to meet with people all along, and we're in the process of making the decision, and I have nothing to say about the process, because it's ongoing."
Now, I'd be the last person to say reality-TV producers aren't the proper sources for meaningless bullshit on the nature of truth; they are. In this same vein, it was good and proper for Cutler to deny the legitimacy of the concepts of truthfulness and falsity; it's his job to do this.
I'm even sympathetic to the motives behind Cutler's show, despite the bogusness of its "pre-campaign" launch. He said he'll portray the type of presidential politics that will occur when continental drift accelerates and America is transplanted onto Scandinavia. "There will be a diversity of viewpoints that aren't necessarily offered in the mainstream discourse, because of the nature of people [chosen to appear on the show]," Cutler said. "Across the board, whether the issue is war, the environment, big business, terrorism, how we deal with public education, or what our basic rights are, we will stimulate debate that's not being held because of the similarity of viewpoints of the candidates of the major parties."