Sunday, April 16, 2017

How Reality TV Gave Us Trump

Our society didn't end up in this place overnight.  Over the years, things have changed slowly, and it started when people dumbed themselves down.

Entertainment news is a lot like herpes. Nobody asks you whether you want it or not, you just end up getting it.  And in the news today is more Entertainment News, falling on the front page whether we like it or not.

And unlike real news, entertainment news is classic fake news in that it is mostly made up or designed to achieve a particular goal, usually to promote some sort of movie or television show and put money in the pockets of certain people.

This morning, whether I wanted to hear about it or not, the headlines (and radio) are screaming that a transgender person was "outed" on the reality television show Survivor.  This shocked me on a number of levels but not the ones the press release was designed to.  First I was surprised that the show Survivor was still on the air after all these years.  I mean, do people really watch this dreck after it's been clearly been exposed as scripted and fake?

Second, it is difficult to conceive that someone actually believes that this latest "outrage" wasn't heavily scripted and designed to garner attention for a television show whose ratings are probably falling.  Nothing happens on reality TV that isn't planned out well in advance and I am sure that this "outing" was one such scripted moment.

The third thing that was kind of annoying was that the media seems to be complicit in this sort of charade.  None of the news channels or networks seem to question whether a show which is been demonstrably proven as fake would allow something to happen on the show that wasn't in fact scripted and fake as well.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see this as a desperate ploy for ratings.  After all it worked. I am now aware of the television show I thought it went off the air a decade ago.

Reality television is fake just as professional wrestling is fake. People get upset when you say that professional wrestling is fake pointing to actual injuries that professional wrestlers receive as well as to the heroic acrobatics that the wrestlers perform. However the injuries professional wrestlers receive in the ring are a result of mistakes made during these staged matches. And although the acrobatics and athleticism of these matches is impressive it is impressive only because the carefully orchestrated maneuvers are designed not to hurt each other because it is merely a stage show.

We all knew this course, as even on a flickering 13-inch black-and-white television you could see people were sort of pulling their punches, so to speak, during these matches. I got another inkling while reading a copy of CableVision magazine which made a comment about a press release from one of the wrestling organizations which listed not only the lineup of upcoming wrestling matches but who the winners were, well over a week in advance.

My hippie brother, for his master's thesis, did an exposé on professional wrestling so to speak.  It wasn't so much an exposé as the professional wrestling people are quite upfront about the fakeness of it all. If you don't ask they won't tell you, but if you ask them point blank, they will admit that the entire thing is staged.

And speaking of "staged", my brother's thesis was about the fact that the language of professional wrestling was that of the stage and of acting and not of the arena and athletics. For example, in most sports you practice, but it professional wrestling they have rehearsals.  Most sports have locker rooms, professional wrestlers have dressing rooms. Most sports are played in an arena or a court or some other type of playing field.  Professional wrestlers have a stage.

To prepare his thesis, my brother visited the organization and visited an arena as well. They showed him how the "stage" was designed like the diaphragm of a speaker, so not only did it bounce, but the "whomp!" sound of a wrestler being "slammed" to the floor was amplified.  The organization was quite upfront and cordial about the entire thing and made no pretense that these matches weren't in fact staged with the winners determined in advance. They do this for a number of reasons.  They don't want people gambling on professional wrestling as it is, in fact, fixed. So they are quite honest about the fact that the matches are arranged in advance and the winners determined before the matches take place. And this is this is done because the winners have to be predetermined as the match is not real in the normal sense and that it is merely a reenactment of an athletic event.

(UPDATE:  Even though the matches are "fixed" and outcomes determined ahead of time, you can still bet on the matches!  How idiotic!)

And anyone with half a brain could figure this out. You hit somebody on the head with a folding chair they're going to be in a coma, not popping up to punch you back in the face.

But once again I digress.

The point is, and I did have one, is that we have seemed to embrace this form of artificial entertainment more and more in recent years.  Reality television was just a natural extension of this beast.  When I was a youth, professional wrestling, like roller derby, was viewed as something only the lower classes followed.  Middle-class people did not indulge themselves in such base entertainment.  However since that time, professional wrestling has gone mainstream and it's become more popular than ever before. From marginalized sport to big time entertainment.  Like monster truck rallies, it is huge.

If you connect the dots it really is part of the degradation of our overall culture, from the prevalence of casinos to the prevalence of payday loans.  It is the middle class in free fall.

Because being middle class is more than merely how much you are paid, but a state of mind.  At least for my generation, being middle-class meant placing a value on education and intelligence and having a certain level of sophistication - or at least aspiring to one.  If you look at the automobile ads back in the 1950s and 1960s, they often should people wearing fancy clothes driving their new Pontiac to a tony restaurant for an evening of elegant entertainment.  The message was clear, what you drove was indication of your level of sophistication.  And we all wanted to be sophisticated. Back then, we all wanted to be like the panelists on What's my line.  Today, we want to be on The Price is Right.

Today, the middle class wallows in this orgy of monster truck mentality, that it any moment they're about to break out and go barreling through the woods chasing after a bear with their mighty SUV or pickup truck. Or perhaps barrel into the arena for their professional wrestling match.  It's all about being tough these days - the culture of belligerence.   And being sophisticated is for weenies and losers.

Against this backdrop, reality TV was a natural fit.  I remember hearing about the show Survivor when it first came out well over a decade ago, as I recall.  They pitched the show as a chance for ordinary people to see if they could survive on a deserted island, a fantasy that many people have and is well-documented in literature as well (Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, etc.).

I thought this might be interesting to see if people could really make a bicycle from coconuts and bamboo like they could on Gilligan's Island.  However I turned the show off halfway through the first episode when they had their "Tribal Council" and then voted people off the island.  It was nothing more than a popularity contest, reminiscent of high school.  No one made anything with coconuts and bamboo, or really tried to Survive anything.   And of course, it turned out to be heavily scripted.

I was hoping that it would be a real show and that people would try to survive and then eventually give up, one by one, pleading to be taken off the island and given food and water.  We would see who was wily enough to survive in the wilderness on the basis of their own ingenuity.  But such was not the case.

The show became wildly popular and spawned a plethora of knockoffs and other types of reality shows. The formula is simple and I've discussed it before and it's been documented online by many people with better video editing skills than my own. You put a bunch of people into a situation you tell them generally what to do.  You film it all and then edit it down to 30 or 40 minutes of video making small comments and incidents appear to be major arguments.

Because, like with professional wrestling, what people want to hear these days is trash talk and people talking behind each other's backs and arguing with each other in person, the sort of lowest-common-denominator part of human nature.  Again this is the middle class in free-fall, trading culture for gossip and tawdry soap operas (themselves once viewed as lower class, but today, mainstream).

The population of our country has nearly doubled since I was born. Yet in most major cities, cultural institutions are failing for lack of interest.  Local symphonies, operas and ballets are closing one by one. Museums struggle to stay in business unless they put in a "Children's Museum" replete with Disney-like special effects and things for the kiddies.  I was very disillusioned when I went to the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry to see one of the few captured U-boats from World War II.  It should have been a somber display of a cultural artifact, but instead was cut open to make it into a Disney-like ride for children (with sound effects and flashing lights) who didn't seem to appreciate it anyway.  It seems we can't enjoy an intellectual level of discourse anymore, everything has to be lowered to the lowest common denominator.  It seems like the marching morons.

So what's the harm in reality television? Once we accepted reality television as real (as many people actually insist that professional wrestling is real) people will accept anything as real and posit that reality is whatever you perceive it to be which is it dangerous philosophy.

In college, some professors like to espouse this idea particularly in psychology or philosophy classes - that reality is subjective and depends on the point of view of the person making an observation. And to some extent this is true in physics (quantum mechanics) where there is a theory that measuring something in it of itself affects the measurement.  In the field of relativity, how something is perceived is based on the point of view of the person perceiving it, particularly with regard to the time-space continuum.

But Physics aside, there is an actual everyday reality that exists, you can't perceive your way out of it as many people find out eventually, much to their dismay.  During the economic crisis of now a decade ago, many people thought they could just buy whatever the hell they wanted to and pay for it later on.  They thought that loans with onerous terms would never have to be paid back or that the government would bail them out.  I kid you not - prior to the meltdown I would hear from Realtors telling clients that even if they couldn't pay back their mortgage the government would likely bail them out as no one would allow the economy to free-fall.  As it turned out the banks were bailed out (some, anyway) but the individual mortgage holders were not (at least not very often).  And that's a form of reality that could have been predicted.

Sadly that economic meltdown led to the rise of fake news such as Breitbart and Infowars.  People did not want to admit their skewed perception of reality was wrong so they invented yet more distorted versions of reality, piling one house of cards upon the previous failed house of cards. So it wasn't their fault they lost their over-mortgaged mini-mansion it was Bill Clinton's fault because he very cleverly created the Community Reinvestment Act over a decade prior, knowing full well it would blow up in the faces of the American people.  (Of course, this is just coded language for blaming the blacks.)

And so it goes even today. President Obama is no longer president and his left office and spending his time water skiing or whatever.  Nevertheless the far-right raises him as a boogie man secretly pulling the levers of power in the "deep state" which is actually running things and foiling President Trump at every turn.  People actually believed this shit. 

As we have become more and more ungrounded from reality and lost our compass both moral and factual (and cultural), it's become easier easier to sell any kind of story to the American public. Professional wrestling, reality television, fake news - it's all the same damn thing, fake stuff sold as real and people believing it.

And  if you think I'm picking on the Right and the Republicans, the Left and the Democrats have been just as culpable. Why not just give everybody  raise?  We can double the minimum wage overnight from $7.50 to $15 and it won't affect the economy at all, right?  Why not just give everybody free health care, ask insurance companies to send the bills to the government and the government will just pay? What could possibly go wrong with that?  And of course, nothing in your life is your fault - it is all the "big evil corporations" (that you work for) and "Wall Street" (where you've invested your money).

No, both sides of the political spectrum have delved too deep into this alternate reality in order to push their agendas on the American people. The very few politicians who try to point out the folly of such things are usually shouted down, much as moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans are shouted down. Moderate Democrats who try to discuss things in realistic terms will find themselves out of office by the midterm elections not replaced by stalwart Republicans but by far-left Bernie Sanders followers.

The problem, as I said before, is that we keep swinging between these two radical extremes which are both on founded in unreality.  It's sort of like when you put a sleeping bag in the washing machine and it goes on spin cycle it wobbles from side to side so eventually it starts marching across the room pulling the water lines out of the wall and flooding your basement until the electrical cord comes unplugged. An unbalanced system is a dangerous system.

So how do we put a stop to this, or at least get our country back on track? I think it begins with putting an end to this fake bullshit whether it is entertainment or news or not.  We have to stop reporting entertainment news as real news.  We have to stop pretending that press releases are actual news events. And we have to stop pretending that fake news sites that use made up stories are real and that journalists who spent decades researching issues and reporting the truth are fake.

In other words, it's not just one thing but an entire trend.  It is the dumbing-down of America.  It is the free-fall of the middle class - something that was not forced upon us but that we embraced wholeheartedly.  We made the choice to embrace low culture, to embrace rumors and urban legends. We made the choice to debase ourselves in this matter.  It is only when we start making better choices that things will change.

Sadly, most people today spend an inordinate amount of time defending poor choices, their own and that of others.