So this evening my husband was clicking through channels and happened on some pirogies in preparation. Next thing I know, we're watching "Top Chef." We both hate reality shows, but my husband's love for food trumped that disgust for about twenty minutes; twenty truly awful minutes.
I despise these shows. They make me cringe. If I'm going to watch human drama, I want it well scripted and brilliantly acted. Putting ordinary humans in an electronic petri dish and watching them react to a variety of stimuli is, well, inhuman. It's mean. This may come as a shock to my readers, but I have no meanness in me. I can be a bitch, but I'm not mean. I take no joy the suffering of others; even others I despise. And an unflinching camera lens directed at people's pain, anger, disappointment, and general vulnerability holds absolutely no allure for me. Watching adults struggle not to cry on camera or shift in their shoes looking uncomfortable is not edifying. It's degrading to participant and viewer alike.
But some people must love it. These shows are taking over the airwaves for some reason. As our political system collapses, as our young men and women are being blown up in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans want nothing more than to look at the flop sweat of some young hopeful grabbing 15 minutes of fame. So I ask again, are we Rome? Is this really the bread and circuses of a dying empire?
A few weeks ago, I caught one of my favorite "Star Trek" episodes: "Plato's Stepchildren." I always took the title to refer to the way Rome was a pale, degraded imitation of ancient Greece, because surely the people Kirk and crew encounter are supposed to be Romans. The Platonians are a bunch of ageless telekinetics who get their kicks torturing a dwarf who lacks their superhuman power. But it is the seemingly all powerful, ruling class that is weak. Wholly sedentary because the slightest scratch can kill them, they must live vicariously through the suffering of others. To them, entertainment is forcing the Enterprise crew to put on a live sex and torture show. Like sad marionettes they are forced to dance, sing, and that whiter than white Captain Kirk is forced to kiss Lt. Uhura; the first interracial kiss on television. (So... it was under duress. A small point.) But finally Kirk turns the tables and points out that:
You're half dead, all of you! You've been dead for centuries. We may disappear tomorrow, but at least we're living now, and you can't stand that, can you? You're half crazy because there's nothing inside. Nothing. And you have to torture us to convince yourselves you're superior.
This is what Americans are becoming; cosseted, feeble, and utterly dependent on a decadent and exploitive system. We're apparently so unchallenged internally that we think watching people squirm on camera is high drama. Where's Captain Kirk when you need him?