Monthly Archives: June 2009

Bread and Circuses: Reality TV and the Decline and Fall of American Society

 

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“The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses!” – Juvenal, 2nd century C.E.

The status of a society or civilization is based largely on their attitude toward self-absorption and indulgence.

While the Romans saw asceticism, sacrifice and gravitas as civic virtues, their imperium could withstand any obstacle imaginable.  Yet their downfall can be just as swift, according to the Roman satirist Juvenal.  Get them into circular arenas to watch animals and people disemboweling each other, usually after gorging on dormice and buggering slave boys, and the barbarian hordes saw just another bunch of saps in bed sheets. 

The British ruled the waves with a stiff upper lip, a love of “king and country”, and a host of underdeveloped countries that couldn’t fight back.  Yet get them in a fight with European powers (You know, the ones that DON’T use spears and arrows), especially in the 20th century, and they slog through a morass of self-doubt and defeatism.  No wonder we had to bail them out of two world wars.

Unfortunately, it is the inevitable fate of the United States to suffer the fate of all great civilizations.  I have been loath to admit the decline and fall of our great society, especially since I had hoped America would learn from the mistakes of Rome, Spain, Britain, Russia and the like. 

Yet American society has become soft.  Instead of dormice and slave boys, its fast food and online pornography.  And our gladiator games?  Reality television.

You heard it here.  Reality television signals the demise of American society.

If you look even more closely, the more popular reality programs are, in fact, shaped almost exactly like a day of games at the Roman amphitheater.  Where Spartacus wielded his gladius against men and beasts, well-coiffed men and women now wield microphones, chef’s knives and sewing machines against their foes, to the thrills of the people.  Let’s take a look more closely:

(1)    Opening Act –The Freakshow/Execution of Criminals:A day at the games usually began with opening acts like women, midgets or small children fighting each other, usually accompanied by the execution of criminals—later Christians—in cruel and unusual ways.  Today it’s the freakshow early auditions for American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance or America’s Got Talent.  The judges get a good laugh, the viewers get to see the lack of talent in most of America, but most are cast to the proverbial lions rather quickly.

(2)    Second Act—The Beast Hunt: This is the part of the games most people remember. By mid morning, lower-level gladiators are hunting all sorts of wild beasts in a freakish safari conducted on the sand of the arena.  The modern version includes the “theme shows” on American Idol, ridiculous immunity challenges on Survivor, the quick challenges in Top Chef or Project Runway, or that weird skills challenge Gordon Ramsey does in Hell’s Kitchen.  They force contestants out of their element, and further cull the weaker challengers from the herd. 

(3)    Third Act—The Group Stage/Mid Level Gladiators: Later in the day, close to noon,  the mid-level gladiators, mainly local boys, come out in quasi-choreographed set pieces often based on real battles.  Usually squads of gladiators face off all around the arena, providing a cornucopia of blood and gore.  Those who can’t hack it are killed fairly quickly, often by their own team members.  The team aspects of shows like Survivor, Project Runway or the Apprentice bear this out.  In each, the worthless members are ignored, cast aside, or openly sacrificed for the betterment of the stronger players. 

(4)    Fourth Act—The Main Event: By this stage in the games, the day is scorching hot, and the arena stinks of rotting flesh and blood.  This is when your top-flight talent has their bouts, usually one on one or in pairs, before a crowd that hungers for more blood.  There are obvious modern examples: the fights in The Ultimate Fighter or The Contender come to mind.   The final rounds of the talent shows like American Idol also evoke a mano-a-mano ethos.  Yet the essence of this is the tribal council of Survivor.  Here, two people are fighting verbally for their lives as the council votes to extinguish one of them, much like Caesar appealing to the crowd to judge a fallen combatant in the arena.

(5)    Toss UpSurprise battles/Sea battles: It isn’t just the reality competitions that often add a “twist” at the last minute.   Due to the fickle nature of the Roman audiences, games promoters had to come up with new gimmicks almost constantly.  One of the more popular “twists” was the sea battle, where the amphitheater was flooded to allow warships filled with gladiators and ordinance to have at each other.

The modern reality program, especially the competition, offers many other similarities to the great bloodfests of millennia past.  For one, there is an acute sensory overload.  Roman audiences were on top of each other in the roasting heat, with the smell of B.O., blood, rotting flesh and excrement all around them.  Today’s television viewer is barraged by graphics and lights that pound the retinas into oblivion.  I’m convinced the opening credits of American Idol cause seizures somewhere.

Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the “fine kill”, the slow death, the drawing out of the effusion of blood.   Roman crowds hated quick deaths: it spoiled the entire show.  A truly great gladiator could keep his victim suffering for a long time, drawing out the agony until the crowd yelled “hoc habet!” (“He’s had it!” in Latin) and the death blow finally struck.  Take a look at any judgment segment of a reality show and you can easily spot the similarities.  It may not be a literal gore fest, but it is truly an emotional bloodletting.  The constant commercial breaks, the open weeping, the judges lashing into their hapless victims—all meant to draw out the inevitable “elimination” as long as possible for the public’s amusement.

The insatiable need for this visceral entertainment feeds on itself.  Go to any part of the Mediterranean touched by Roman civilization.  Most of the ancient buildings have disappeared completely save one—the local amphitheater.  The arena did a big part in pacifying far-flung provinces and extending Roman control over these vast areas.  Turn to any channel nowadays and there is at least one, often multiple, reality programs on its schedule.  Remember back when MTV’s The Real World was seen as this weird show about people living in a loft in New York?  The newest season of the old warhorse just started and no one cares, thanks to the vast array of up-tempo reality schlock to choose from.

Finally, these two institutions share an ominous distinction.  They both work to make their societies reject the very values that make them great in the first place.  The games were such a drain on Roman economy, society and government that more and more of the empire’s resources were spent on entertainment, to the detriment of more important matters.  This did not get lost on the tribes along the frontiers of the empire, who sought to exploit the weaknesses in the imperial system to infiltrate and eventually subsume the empire itself.

I’m going to sound like an old crank, but reality television is but the apex of a constant drive in our culture of consumerism and greed.  The constant need for instant gratification, immediate fulfillment and emotional stimulation over intellectual growth has spawned this explosion of programming.  In all this hubbub about Jon and Kate, the American Idol voting controversy, etc. we have become attached to what amounts to a society within a society, outside of the events and institutions that actually affect our lives. 

Take my better half, for example.  Whilst I was watching coverage of the unrest in Iran and the Michael Jackson death, she was downstairs watching another show on Bravo for the umpteenth time.  It wasn’t until bedtime that I actually told her that Jacko was gone.  If there’s no ticker feed on the bottom of the screen, she’d be cut off from the world–and I don’t blame her, the poor thing.  With the amalgam of crap on television, it’s no wonder she seeks the comfort of other people’s misery.

Sacrifice.  Respect for law and order.  Respect for government and its institutions.  Working for the betterment of all.  Protection of individual liberty.  These ideas are being flushed down the toilet in our society–and Mark Burnett, Simon Fuller and the rest of those bastards are running to the bank.

It won’t be long before we see fights to the death resurface on TV.  Once the UFC starts arming their fighters and going to the death, we as a society have officially checked out of existence. 

I’ll be saving the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for a society that has grown a pair and can say no to its own implosion.

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The Importance of Being Earnest: Why Hypocrisy is the greatest danger in Education.

We’ve all heard the line before: “Do as I say, not as I do.” In education, this comes up more often than we realize.

How often do we see this scenario: A teacher is covering a lesson with the class when a student curses at another. The teacher admonishes the student about the use of bad language. Once in the teacher’s lounge, however, that same teacher will swear like a sailor–often with children in earshot of his/her salty tongue.

This is among the more mundane examples, but it can quickly spiral into other matters more substantive. I cannot stand how education programs stress to new teachers the need for complete impartiality in all instruction. This is impossible. Let a robot teach the class, and maybe it will be impartial–yet someone had to write the material for the robot.

So we’re reduced to saying one thing in class and believing something else. With my students, it was always more beneficial to express my opinions out in the open, as long as I make clear they are just my opinions. Kids respect honesty, even if they are often dishonest with themselves or other adults.  If you start lying to them now, they will either (a) mindlessly listen to every word you say, or (b) not trust anyone for anything.  This doesn’t make for an informed citizenry. 

Hypocrisy is the main focus today, as I reflect on one of my favorite artists.  One of the most influential singer/songwriters of the 1960s was Phil Ochs.  Unlike so many of the 1960s political-esque artists who wouldn’t attend an antiwar rally unless from inside their Ferrari, Ochs was a true believer.  Even though I disagree with many of his political views, I respect and admire someone who makes their opinions clear without the “base alloy of hypocrisy”, as Abraham Lincoln stated.

Below is an updated version of his classic “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”, along with a video. It was re-written by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra and psychobilly pioneer Mojo Nixon to reflect the late 1990′s-early 2000′s.  Even if you don’t agree with these guys–and I don’t, not always–appreciate that they, like so many educators, strive to cut through the hypocrisy to be as honest as possible. 

We should all be mindful of how our words and actions are conveyed to children.  REGARDLESS of our own political viewpoint.

“Love Me, I’m a Liberal” – Original lyrics by Phil Ochs, adapted by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon

I cried when they shot John Lennon
Tears ran down my spine
And I cried when I saw “JFK”
As though I’d lost a father of mine

But Malcolm X and Ice-T had it coming
They got what they asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

I go to pro-choice rallies
Recycle my cans and jars
I’ll honk if you love the Dead
Hope those funny grunge bands become stars

But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

I cheered when Clinton was chosen
My faith in the system reborn
I’ll do anything to save our schools
If my taxes ain’t too much more

And I love blacks and gays and Latinos
As long as they don’t move next door
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Rush Limbaugh and the L.A.P.D.
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can’t understand where they’re at
Arsenio should set them straight

But if Neigborhood Watch doesn’t know you
I hope the cops take your name
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Yeh, I read the New Republic(an)
Rolling Stone and Mother Jones too
If I vote it’s a Democrat
With a sensible economy view

But when it comes to terrorist Arabs
There’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Once I was young and had an attitude
Stickers covered the car I drove in
Even went on some direct actions
When there weren’t rent-a-cops to be seen

Ah, but now I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

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In Memoriam: Michael Jackson’s Thriller

I’m still busy here, but the King of Pop has passed on. Michael Jackson, you will be missed.

Here’s Michael’s magnum opus. It can’t be embedded, so follow the link to YouTube and see it there.

Rest in peace.

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