Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Voting Democracy Off The Island; Reality TV and The Republican Ethos by Francine Prose
What lends the scene its special poignancy is that Melana knows, as do we, that what has befallen her is not some cruel accident of fate. Rather, she has brought misfortune on herself. In filling out the questionnaire that led her to being selected as the heroine of Average Joe, she indicated that " a good personality" mattered more to her than did appearance. And in doing so, she violated one of the cardinal rules, a basic article of faith, one of the values that this new version of reality pumps out, hour after hour, night after night, into the culture . Had Melana watched more reality-based TV, she would have learned that surface beauty (preferably in concert with a strong manipulative instinct, a cunning ability to play the game , and vast quantities of money) is all that counts. Melana has transgressed...
The most obvious lesson to be drawn from reality TV, the single philosophical pole about which everything else revolves, is that the laws of natural selection are even more brutal, inflexible, and sensible than one might suppose from reading The Origin of the Species. Reality is a Darwinian battlefield on which only the fittest survive, and it is not merely logical but admirable to marshal all our skills and resources to succeed in a struggle that only one person can win.
And in case we lose sight of first principles, the show's (Survivor) motto, which appears in its logo , is "Outwit. Outplay. Outlast."
Observant readers may already have noted that the guiding principles to which I have eluded- flinty individualism, the vision of a zero-sum society in which no one can win unless someone else loses, the conviction that signs of altruism and compassion are signs of folly and weakness, the exaltation of solitary striving above the illusory benefits of cooperative mutual aid, the belief that certain circumstances justify secrecy and deception, the invocation of a reviled common enemy to solidify group loyalty- are the exact same themes that underlie the rhetoric we have been hearing and continue to hear from the republican Congress.
But even when the collaboration between the military, the government, and the entertainment industry is not overt, these shows continue to transmit the perpetual , low frequency hum of agitprop. The ethics ( if one can call them that) and the ideals that permeate these programs at once reflect the basest, most mindless and ruthless aspects of the current political zeitgeist
The merciless individualism and bloodthirsty competition turn out to represent the noblest, most heroic aspect of this new reality. The darker more cynical message- the lesson beneath the lesson, so to speak- is that every human being can and will do anything for money.
Pragmatism ( actually the deformed cousin of pragmatism: "the art of the possible') is the main concern, whereas morality is a luxury or worse, an impediment, an albatross. And given the limitlessness of what our fellow human beings will do for cash, considering the folly of acting according to ethical principles, its only logical that everyone lies all the time.
If the truth is a millstone around one's neck, civility is likewise a hobble guaranteed to slow us down. And why should we be polite when rudeness is so amusing, and when we all secretly know that the spectacle of exclusion and humiliation is the highest form of entertainment?
Contestants remind themselves and one another to "follow your heart" to "listen to your heart" as if ( and despite the observable evidence to the contrary) neither the eyes, the brain, nor the genitals deserve to be consulted.
But even if reality TV continues to explore the far frontiers of cruelty and competition, its unecessary for these programs to get much more sadistic or grotesque. They merely need to stay the same, and to last long enough to produce an entire generation that has grown up watching them and may consequently have some trouble distinguishing between reality TV and reality. Because what matters is not what's on television but the ghostly after-image that lingers in our minds and clouds our vision after we turn off the television.
The castaways votes, as we do, but its a democracy that might have been conceived if the spirit of Machiavelli had briefly possessed the mind of Thomas Jefferson ; indeed, the reasons behind the survivors' ballots might puzzle our founding fathers. Because this fun-house version of the electoral process seeks to dismantle civilization rather than improve it ; the goal is neither the common good nor the furthering of life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. It's a parody of democracy, robbed of its heart and soul, a democracy in which everyone always votes, for himself.
- Harpers- March, 2004