Learning Politics from Television and Baron Noir

ACORN International Politics

            Pearl River      One study after another indicates that due to financial constraints, and likely political division, the teaching of civics in American schools has plummeted.  For my part, having taken civics and public speaking as electives in junior high school opened my eyes to the world around me on one hand and helped me find voice for my anger and interests on the other, as well as propelling me to run and then be elected as president of the student council in the 9th grade at Gregory Junior High School in New Orleans.  As a society, though, we have to wonder how young people learn the facts about politics?  If it’s from social media and the hermetically sealed bubbles that have been created there, we can’t be surprised at the divisions and excesses in our everyday headlines, from the local school board to Congressional halls.

Maybe it’s from television?  If so, it’s not hard to find some shows where politics is front and center, but I wonder what someone might learn, if in fact, there’s any chance that the shows are attracting a mass audience, especially among the young.

Some are just dramas, like NBC and now Amazon Prime’s “West Wing”, where politics was part of the play with some glancing hints at reality, but more about the scene than the story.  Others, like HBO’s “Veep” were comedies that underlined ambition and incompetence, which might have been lessons we should have worried about more.  “House of Cards” on Netflix and its forerunner on BBC were billed as behind the scene looks at how politics really works in the US and in Parliament, but to my mind were so dark and extreme that any real lessons would be either doubtful or dangerous.

“Borgen” gets high marks generally from politicos, and for my money was definitely worth a watch and not bad primer on Euro-party politics.  The show was originally produced by Danish public television and now is available in Netflix.  I’m no critic, but I found the show less interesting – and informative – after the first seasons.  For me, it also became a more individual drama about the lead characters, their lives and relationships than about politics, so my interest flagged.  Full disclosure, I haven’t even bothered with the fourth season.

We stumbled onto French Canal 1 “Baron Noir” on Amazon Prime recently when we were bumped off our son’s Netflix account.  We’re now in the middle of season three and loving it.  We missed season one somehow, so I’ll suspend full-throated judgement until then, but for our money, this has been the most realistic political drama we’ve seen on television.  I should quickly add for us this is a deep course in French parliamentary and presidential politics – and French history in big chunks – so although a great education for us, maybe less of a wonderful contemporary lesson for young American students.  Nonetheless, it is all about politics.  Personal relationships and issues are very secondary to the politics and don’t get in the way.  The show does an excellent job of presenting the shifting nature of party politics and the pros and cons of coalition building and political alliances, which would offer a profound education to anyone in how the real world or at least an approximation of it works.

Looking up the show on Wikipedia, I found that some markets called the show “Republican Gangsters,” so there may be a downside there, in which case, I would say, stick to seasons 2 and 3.  I asked Adrien Roux, head organizer of ACORN’s affiliate in France, the Alliance Citoyenne, about the show when we spoke this week while he was in the Paris office.  He immediately lit up and verified that the show was very realistic.  Not only had they all watched it, but they had used pieces of several episodes as training exercises for their staff.  That settles it for me.

Admittedly, learning about French politics won’t save democracy in the United States or even likely in France from what we see now in the headlines, but if public schools are not going to teach civics and higher education is not going to make it a mandatory requirement, society needs some way that we teach and learn about the welding of politics and principles.  Maybe there’s a television show out there that could do the job?  In the meantime, watching these shows would be better than nothing.