“Entertainment became the most obvious direct manifestation of freedom that liberalism offered humanity and, at the same time, the most tangible confirmation of the dominant status of the democratic man and his tastes.” So wrote Ryszard Legutko, an eminent Polish philosopher, statesman, and editor of Solidarity’s underground philosophy journal in the 1980s. His more recent The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies continues:
The omnipresence of entertainment was something by which the democratic man became easily recognized: it was his trademark, his coat of arms, his—so to speak—identity card.
Legutko’s book was published in 2016. That was the year Volodymyr Zelensky entertained the people of Ukraine by dropping trou and playing the piano with his genitals. Just an average guy with his pants down. It was a winning act, a companion piece to his self-created—pre-campaign—role as an idealistic school teacher in Servant of the People.
Critics responded precisely as entertainment consumers were supposed to do. America‘s reviewer was typical. He chirped that the calculated political comedy show illustrated Zelensky’s “love for Ukraine and democracy.” Reliably sentimental, he conflated a carefully designed TV performance—a fictional TV character—with the real man. [The show ran on the network owned by Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, Zelensky’s business partner and campaign manager.]
Our cultural craving to be entertained—to have fun—has consequences. In a few telling paragraphs, Legutko writes that, for centuries, inclination toward entertainment was effectively separated from the serious essence of life. Yes, there was Carnival. But then came Lent. There was no confusing the two. Each addressed different needs and served different functions:
But . . . the barriers separating one from the other weakened and the temptation to give entertainment more and more prominence became irresistible, particularly in societies in which sin had lost its deterring power.
In today’s world, entertainment is not just a pastime or a style but a substance that permeates everything: schools and universities, the upbringing of children, intellectual life, art, morality, and religion. . . . Entertainment imposes itself psychologically, intellectually, socially, and also, strange as it might sound, spiritually.
Failure to present human undertakings with some degree of entertainment is “unthinkable and borders on sin.”
The modern sense of entertainment increasingly resembles what Pascal long ago called divertissement: that is an activity, as he wrote in his Thoughts—that separates us from the seriousness of existence and fills this existence with false content. Divertissement is therefore not only being entertained in the ordinary sense of the word, but living and acting within artificial rules that organize our lives, setting conventional and mostly trivial goals which we pursue, getting involved in disputes and competitions, aspiring to honors-making careers, and doing everything that would turn our thoughts away from fundamental existential matters. By escaping the questions of the ultimate meaning of our own lives, or of humankind in general, our minds slowly get used to that fictitious reality, which we take for the real one. And are lured by it attractions.
Baseball Illustrates The Point
Just a few minutes before copying that passage, the New York Sun ran A.R. Hoffman’s column “Speedup” on new rules to make an elegant game move faster. A pitch clock plus a bevy of other tinkerings are intended to make the game less deliberate, more flashy. Hoffman writes: “Timeless rhythms . . . appear set for a collision course with newfangled rule changes, which baseball’s commissioner, Robert Manfred, expects to ‘produce a crisp, more exciting game with more balls in play.’”
Subtlety, artistry, intelligence—these are the qualities that moved Willie Mays to call baseball “such a beautiful game.” Commissioner Manfred had decided that speed and excitement are more entertaining.
Legutko has a penetrating eye for the condition of modern media-saturated democracy:
The difference between Pascal’s divertissement and today’s entertainment—or rather, having fun, as it has become customary to say—is that the modern man . . . knows very well that it is an artificial construction, not the real thing. Whether some other, more objective reality exists is to him a matter of indifference. . . . Having neutralized all musings about objectivity, the modern man takes pride in his deep involvement in entertainment, which . . . he considers natural.
This is the passage’s concluding—and cautionary—insight:
For the first time in the entire history of mankind there appeared a type of human being who thought that not having been surrounded by entertainment from cradle to grave in all areas of life was an anomaly.