The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’ve reached the sad place where activism has turned into a reality show

A protester raises his fist during a rally on June 1, 2020, in Las Vegas, against police brutality. (John Locher/AP)
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So, they’re turning activism into a reality show? Has it come to this? And in this of all years?

Here’s the idea behind CBS’s “The Activist,” which is coming in October: Three celebrities will watch as half a dozen aspiring activists compete to see if they can impart effective change in one of three causes — education, health or the environment — during a network series with a five-week run.

The prize? The winners get to attend the Group of 20 summit in Rome this fall to meet with world leaders and try to raise money and awareness for their cause.

Anyone who has engaged in real activism may give this made-for-TV model a glowering side-eye. The contestants don’t compete for actual funds to do good works but merely for the right to crash an international conference and try to shake down world leaders for cash? Instead of a crown of glory, that almost sounds like the second circle of hell.

CBS is surely trying to capitalize on the current avalanche of doom in the daily news cycle. And my critique is based mainly on the network’s press materials. However, throwing a group of golden-hearted do-gooders into a gladiator’s ring where viewers vote on the nobility of their activism from a sedentary perch on their sofa is a brand of cynicism we can do without.

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What exactly are the metrics for judging? The ability to sell a passion project? Demonstrated impact in just five weeks’ time? Success in attracting an army of compatriots equally dedicated to the cause? Real activists will be familiar with these tests, but this being television, we can also expect a veneer of drama and emotional manipulation.

Will aspiring activists fare better if they present well or have a “started from the bottom now we’re here“ personal story? Will they float to the next round if they can summon a river of tears or effectively master a resting pitch face?

This show will be arriving in a moment when real, on-the-ground activists are engaged in some of the most consequential battles imaginable — voting rights, climate change, economic and digital equity, health disparities, police reform, and the future of democracy. And when there are already too many people who dismiss their efforts as wokeness run amok.

A different kind of activism disguised as patriotism led to the violent storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.. Activism that fuels the rising flames of white supremacy and nationalism looms as a clear and present danger in several places around the world. A show that tries to exploit a wave of genuine social activism to create a culture of hazy (or lazy) online engagements is an unhelpful distraction from the real work going on and the real challenges we face.

Contestants onThe Activist” will engage in in “missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events aimed at garnering the attention of the world’s most powerful decision-makers.” Reality shows build audience by creating tension around the idea that some contender routinely gets fired, or voted off the island, or is forced to relinquish his or her apron.

This Darwinist touch runs counter to the core work of activism. Failure is part of the equation. Effective activism requires solidarity with Sisyphus. Setbacks don’t stop warriors for change from trying to push that rock up the hill. And they don’t get voted off the hill or made to feel like a loser.

I am not here to bash the entire reality TV genre. Shows such as “The Voice,” “Chopped” and “Forged in Fire” have created a wider appreciation for the rigors of amateur entertainment and the culinary arts, and the awesome talents of metalsmiths who make swords and bowie knives.

And I could actually get behind a competition where contestants were given five weeks to figure out how to remove as much plastic as possible from the ocean. Or how to deliver broadband and computers to communities where families now sit in the parking lot outside McDonald’s so the kids can do homework with the help of free WiFi.

But “The Activist” doesn’t seem designed to really promote change or create a greater appreciation for individual effort beyond voting on social media. When it airs, I will give this show a look and report back. But I hope it won’t make a mockery of activism. And I hope viewers will be the ones judging whether it centers on not just the celebrities and would-be social warriors, but also spotlights the broken systems they are desperate to improve.

CBS, along with producing partners Global Citizen and Live Nation, is billing the show as a program that “will make you want to get up and change the world.” Then why not invite people to do just that? And put some real cash behind some of the ideas? That would be something worth watching.