A democratic society depends on debate, on free discussion, on common consent, on the submergence of individual differences in the common good. We agree to go along with things we do not entirely accept because we recognize them as the nearest obtainable to what we want. This is the only way, short of tyranny, that there can be stability.
Human freedom consists of our ability to see the world differently. Ideas have power. Ideals have a vision. By agreeing on what we are against we discover what we are for. What we think shapes what we do. Democracy may have brought freedom, but it came at a price: the world we are part of is more conventional, less concerned, more sensationalist and more spiteful. The whole thrust of modern thought has been towards reducing the sphere of individual moral responsibility. Human behavior is seen increasingly as the product of impersonal forces.
The United States today is a country where, because of the widespread collapse of education and the debasement of television and press, huge numbers of people will believe anything, and huge numbers of people at the top are prepared to tell them anything, or even believe in themselves. Americans have never quite digested television. The mystique which should grow stale grows stronger. We make celebrities not only of the men who cause the events but of the men who act them out on the screen, who lip-sync old songs for hand-picked studio audience and of those out-of-work actors who sell cheap trinkets, yoghurts and deodorants during commercial breaks of old film re-runs.
Thus, when "reality" shows garner as much attention as American Idol we wish to know the causes. One might suspect the content itself-a startling new idea, but the reason might also be social acceptability, or even just plain hype. Each of these programs, with their claims of righteous generosity, even-handedness and ratings measured fun, contains no new arguments and presents no compelling reasons why the studio audience, the show’s participants and all those simple folks watching at home shouldn’t be locked up in perpetuity.
By any standard, America’s most talented kid is an impressive achievement, a cultural prototype for the gullible and the sick. Their participants are better looking, slicker, more calculating, more diabolical, more astute in optimum crowd manipulation than their predecessors-a triumphantly bizarre television "celebrity" moment of puerile distortionism. The weekly voting-the suspense, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, with its close up shots, slow motion replays of abjectly thoughtless faces reeks of melodrama.
Television, in fact, has given status to the "celebrity" which few real men attain. And what is a "celebrity" if not the ultimate human pseudo-event, fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness. This is the ultimate success story of the twentieth century and its pursuit of illusion. A new mold has been made, so that marketable human models-modern ‘heroes’, could be mass-produced, to satisfy the market, and without any hitches. The qualities which now commonly make a man or woman into a ‘nationally advertised’ brand are in fact a new category of human emptiness.
The world we have been peering into is somehow beyond good and evil. It is a world of sentimentality, of makeovers, of people who are willing to shed a tear just before a commercial break, and then return with uplifting visions of a life with family by show’s end.
I can only conclude that the American Idol´s and Mr. Personality’s success in winning attention must reflect the depressing temper of our time-a historical moment of unprecedented un-generocity of thoughts when a mood and quest for knowledge can be powerfully abetted by an argument that beneficiaries (TV audience) cannot be helped, owing to inborn cognitive limits expressed as low IQ scores.
Then, there are your "made in the USA" talk shows. There are those who argue that each show is a small morality play, with the audience booing the villain and supporting the good guests. The show insists on as much-the tone, a throwback to the time-tested model of the past, is almost always conspiratorial. The nincompoops are more self-righteous, more vehement, and more paranoid. Instead of saying indefensible things and trusting that the viewer will love him anyway, they explain their hardships and plead their case, which is a very unreasonable thing to do with an abjectly stupid audience. I find it disturbing to see people allowing themselves to be used like Kleenex, but then everybody else in our trash culture appropriates profound concepts for shallow ends. Initial triumphalism giving way to grudgy defeatism-is today’s human psyche as seen through the prismatic binoculars of an intrusively globalised, theraupeutised and cocacolised American morality.
Attacking the entertainment of a therapeutic culture is a way of attacking its values: publicity over achievement, revelation over restraint, honesty over decency, victim hood over personal responsibility, confrontation over civility, psychology over morality. According to a well-informed source at ABC, the more intellectual you make the shows, the more the viewers yawn and go away. And why should we be surprised? In this society, shame is fame and sin is an instrument of upward mobility. And upward mobility is the American way.
In Webster’s English dictionary, fame is defined as "the frenzy of renown." The frenzied, meaning people who are intoxicated by synthetic significance-are complicit in this farce. Forty years ago, in his book "The Image," Daniel Boorstin argued that the graphic revolution in television had severed fame from greatness which generally required a gestation period in which great deeds were performed. This severance hastened the decay of fame into mere notoriety, which is very plastic and very perishable. The doctrine of "celebrity" triumphalism is inherently inclusive; it proceeds from the assumption that everyone already loves the wealthy and the pseudo-famous. Most pseudo "celebrities" seems to have understood that their life is a constant conjuring trick. There is an incurable precariousness to their position as they try to live off derivative dignity from an anachronistic concept while cultivating the royalism of a democratic age-celebrity.
That assumption is what makes the "celebrity" circus so creepy. The pseudo-famous know that they owe their careers to the celebrity industry, know that their tabloid sensibility is well suited to a tabloid culture, know that the whole enterprise is build on bad faith. Still, the ratings continue to climb… .
Americans have always had a voyeuristic streak. The USA has always been a culture of gawkers. They went to see the bearded lady and the albino man when the circus came to town. But now they want to be a part of the circus-the bearded lady and the albino man rolled into one. And it may be just the right thing for the current moment, in which the sleazy patter of tabloid culture has given way to a jittery onslaughts of bearded midgets, and 2meter tall off-springs and guaranteed to appeal to intellectually challenged (reason being highly optional). The abnormal is normal, and deviancy will be back right after the commercial.
Disturbing as I find the anachronism of the Variety shows, I am even more distressed by their pervasive disingenuousness. The hosts and the guests alike omit facts, misuse words, and seem unwilling to admit the consequences of their own actions. I have never seen anything more almost grotesquely inadequate in a way of confession.
Confession, as someone noted, began in a small dark box, with a screen separating priest and penitent. It is still in a small dark box, and there is still a screen, but this one is in everyone’s living room. In the new medium of confession, people violate their own privacy, spilling their guts not for absolution but for syndication.
In fact, we are living in a world where conspicuousness passes for distinction, and the society column has become the roll of fame… . AndrÃ© Malraux believed that the third millennium must be the age of religion. I would say rather that it must be the age in which we finally grow out of our need for religion. But to cease to believe in our gods is not the same thing as commencing to believe in nothing. To believe, we must take on the richness of a man, his existential density, immortality, eternity and not the sectarian, simplistic, visceral millenarianism. Of all the languages, the only eternal language is that of thought. Memory saves people from oblivion. The inherent danger, however, is that the prerequisite is lacking: curiosity deriving from respect for deeply alien cultures. That is not the main lesson of what is happening in the United States today, but it is a crucial lesson. The public debate in the USA increasingly is in the hands of the mentally retarded.
May you live in interesting times.