American news media is very entertaining. It is so often all about theater, and the focus changes readily lest one be too bored with the current act. The state of media says volumes about our society and our willingness to engage in truly meaningful dialog that offers an opportunity for reflection and learning about ourselves and the world around us. It's there, but you have to do some digging to find it.
International news reporting has a strong tendency to focus on those countries <suggestions include Iran, North Korea, Russia, China> or broad categories of people <suggestions for best play include Muslim or terrorist>, or for best effect combining the two into one, such as Iranian terrorists, that fail to see the light and wisdom of the American view. Prevalent American views in broad general terms might be as a 'beacon of democracy,' or 'font of freedom.' Never mind that two randomly chosen American people likely could not agree on what either democracy or freedom actually are (and maybe that is by definition), their historical context, nor how they manifest themselves in everyday American life. Ahh... tension... symbolic tension... A key ingredient to good theater.
One recent focus of the media was genuinely horrifying: The election process in Zimbabwe. The elements of good theater were all there. We had a villain in Robert Mugabe; a potential slayer of the villain, Morgan Tsvangirai; enormous drama around every turn; death; secrecy; betrayal; a populace cast as willing to risk severe punishment or even death to stand up for what they believe in while being beaten down by roving mobs of Mugabe supporters. A perfect operatic storm. It likely helps that the setting is not only far from home, but is almost mythical in our collective awareness, given that few people have any idea where Zimbabwe is located. Democracy and freedom were at risk.
Maybe we should do something.
Shortly before the election, the opera lost it's hero, Morgan Tsvangirai, the storyline got muddled, and it suddenly got much less interesting. It's important to have a hero, even if the hero is best defined as 'not the villain.' The election results were duly reported and we moved on.
During all of that reporting on Zimbabwe, of people literally facing death to get their voices heard, we held an election in California in which 19.75% of eligible voters participated. California elections have rarely attracted much more than a third of eligible voters in the past 30 years. The opera in the news seemed to have more relevance as an example of how horrible it can be to stray from the democratic model, and how fortunate we are to live in a democracy (even if the majority of us neglect to participate in it).
Maybe we should do something.
Unfortunately attention spans seem to get shorter and shorter. We have instant access to vast information at our fingertips but generally have difficulty teasing out what is important. We collectively put less and less value on critical thinking, with most things being stuck in black and white buckets, with little tolerance for shades of gray. Add to that the relevance of historical perspective, and the basic storyline suddenly becomes cluttered and we have to think about it.
Historical context seems almost a quaint notion. However, really good theater has context. Africa is one of the places on Earth where context - history, recent history - impacts almost everything. It is a history filled with bloodshed, of people being killed because they are in the way, killed because they are from a particular tribe, slavery in many forms, of foreign governments manipulating democratic processes to ensure that they maintain access to resources, or to keep other foreign governments from doing the same. Historical context helps to keep us from being reactive to everything in a fast-paced world.
Are there easy answers for Zimbabwe? Unlikely. It is, however, yet another opportunity to learn about power and human inclination to gain advantage over others, sometimes to horrible ends, while creating breathtaking fiction about our place in the world.
Great theater has the capacity to create insight into our lives. To accomplish that, the audience is invited to become part of the play, to identify with characters, sometimes to acknowledge facets of ourselves, including darker streams that run through human experience, that we would often prefer to remain out of consciousness or pinned elsewhere.
Short attention span theater offers little opportunity for reflection and maintains a separation between 'us' and 'them.' As a result, there is precious little opportunity for learning about ourselves, our place in the world, and our connection to our neighbors, much less the rest of the inhabitants of the planet.
Maybe we can do something.
As a post-script, Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai have agreed to talks in South Africa which may well feature a power-sharing agreement. Seems like a good place to start.