What Mitt Romney and Honey Boo Boo Have in Common

For a moment last week, it seemed the nation had started to regain its collective sanity. The final season of MTV’s Jersey Shore was announced because it’s time for Snooki to settle down. It appeared that Fox News had fallen out of love with Sarah Palin and may not renew her contract for whatever it is that she does.

Even the far far right seemed to discover that there really is a limit to the craziness this country will tolerate. Making up facts about reproductive biology doesn’t fly like it used to. Despite what Rep. Todd Akin wants us to believe, women’s bodies don’t have a secret way of shutting down pregnancies from rape.

These are all the sort of responses that a mature nation aspiring to be a thought leader ought to be making. They seemed to be signs of hope. But as Al Pacino says so memorably in Godfather: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” And then along came Honey Boo Boo.

The Learning Channel (TLC) has a new reality series about an American family that’s gleefully ignorant and spectacularly dysfunctional. It’s mesmerizing in very small doses. Doctors may warn that large doses of this show will cause permanent brain damage. Angry lexicographers are probably standing in line to chastise the people who named it The Learning Channel. Their choice of the gerund “learning” is tragically misguided. The Clampett-friendly “larning” might have been better.

Besides the damage to America’s reputation inflicted by Honey Boo Boo and her family of felons, it was another reality show last week caused far more serious damage to our credibility and our capacity to understand the world around us—the Republican National Convention. The convention not only brought us the queasy spectacle of one of America’s most storied actors and directors talking trash to an empty chair, but also speeches by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan that contained what the New York Times called a “litany of falsehoods,” speeches that were wildly applauded by millions who should know better. As The Times put it, these two speeches “seemed to signal the arrival of a new kind of presidential campaign, one in which concerns about fact-checking have been largely set aside.” That fear was confirmed when a defensive Romney pollster told ABC News that: “We’re not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

The biggest attack on reality was the contempt Romney showed for science. Romney’s “laugh line” that President Obama has promised “to begin to slow the rise of the oceans” was meant as a swipe at Obama, but it was also a smack at climate change and science in general. To please the campaign contributors who own large deposits of carbon-based fuel (like the Kochs), Romney, Jethro Bodine-like, has pretended that science is just silly “book larning” and has executed a slow motion flip-flop on climate change. To deny climate change is to deny science in general. Romney chose to mock it. And that was funny to the audience at the RNC.

It would certainly make a funny premise for a reality TV show to see how Honey Boo Boo and her family, Jed Clampett and his, or a science denier like Mitt Romney and his Koch-loving cabal would make decisions about science and technology. But for some reason, I just don’t feel like laughing.