|Composite photo of raptor from Squam Lake|
and a stump from Boscawen Town Forest
CC Jean Stiimell
Friday, June 3, 2016
What's Really Real?
A version of this essay was published by the Concord Monitor 6/1:
What’s really real?
The dawn of our new century marked the debut of Survivor, TV’s first reality show. It seemed like an innocent, isolated germ of an event but, since then, the genre has exploded to the point it has infected vital organs of society, threatening our democratic way of life, or what is left of it. If you think this is just my own paranoid, frothing of the mouth, I have good company.
Actor and filmmaker Gary Oldman describes reality television as “the museum of social decay, while esteemed journalist Ted Koppel worries that reality TV marks “the end of civilization.” Reality TV destabilizes by sleight-of-hand, switching reality with fiction.
Good fiction, although by definition “make-believe”, can connect us to deeper values and higher truths about what it is to be human. Reality TV, however, which purports to be nonfiction does the opposite: their producers use deceptive or even fraudulent practices such as misleading editing, coaching participants on how to behave, or staging scenes for the cameras and then pass off the result as an unscripted, straight-forward event.
Another criticism of reality TV is that the genre is intended to humiliate or exploit participants, make celebrities out of untalented people who do not deserve fame, and glamorize vulgarity and materialism.
I know where you think I am going with this. Much of what I have written sounds like I am describing Donald Trump. And, in a way, I am because reality TV and Donald Trump are jointed at the hip.
Out of the multitude of reality shows the networks have thrown at us, The Apprentice is one of the longest lasting and most popular – and, of course, totally identified with Donald Trump! He has hosted this reality game show that judges the business skills of a group of contestant from its inception in 2004 until 2015.
Yes, Trump has been there since the beginning: instrumental in perfecting the genre and now making himself synonymous with it by making the 2016 Republican Presidential nominating process into this own reality show.
Media outlets are overjoyed because, due to stiff competition from the internet, reality TV is one of their last big profit makers. Trump has accurately commented on why the networks are groveling to give him free air time, explaining that when “I go on one of [their] shows the ratings double, they triple!”
In essence, Trump has created the first political reality show starring himself with the blessing of big media who, in turn, are making a killing. Actually, it is worse than that: the big three networks are, in a real sense, the instigators and prime movers for what has happened.
Way back in 1987, Ken Auletta wrote a book, “Three Blind Mice” about how the TV networks lost their way by successfully lobbying to undo public trust restrictions that ensured the integrity of news broadcasting. He warned that as a consequence a “new video democracy” would emerge where viewers would vote with their clickers for style over substance, entertainment over news.
As he predicted, ratings have increasingly influenced news content, culminating this year with the coronation of Trump, a triumph for the infotainment industry and its reality show mentality.
What can be done to reverse this trend?
The short answer is a resurgence of grass roots democracy and our commitment to buy and act locally. The only thing that is really real is the particulars of our own lives, enmeshed as they are in our families and community. Yes, reality shows on TV purport to deal with the particular, but because they are staged and scripted, they eliminate the real existential choices that are the essence of what it means to be human.
For a real life reality story close to home, I am reminded of Geraldine Largay, the 66 year-old nurse whose body was recently found just over the border in Maine. She was hiking the Appalachian Trail two years ago when she became lost in impenetrable undergrowth after leaving the trail for a bathroom break. She tried her best but could not find the trail; her cellphone didn’t work; she lit fires to attract attention, she tried everything she could think of. Nothing worked. 23 long days later, she died of starvation.
Remarkably, rather than frantically raging against her fate, she went gentle into that good night showing remarkable courage and grace. Here’s her final, heartbreaking entry in her notebook, moss-covered by the time it was found:
“When you find my body, please call my husband George and my daughter Kerry. It will be the greatest kindness for them to know that I am dead and where you found me – no matter how many years from now.”
We don’t need to waste our time on make-believe reality stories on TV – or make-believe political candidates – when right here near-to-home, we are awash in stories, real stories that affect our lives. Best yet, often times, we can play an active part in determining how these stories develop and how they end. And that’s just what we need: democracy from the ground up!
Wendell Berry tells us that our main job today is to learn to distinguish between local life and the abstractions that we have allowed to obscure it. He says the chief instrument of economic and political power has become commodified speech that can’t distinguish general from particular, or false from true: “Local life is now a wren’s egg brooded by an eagle or a buzzard.”
Isn’t it time to kick this abstract apparition – predator or vulture, whatever you care to call it – out of our nest and relearn how to brood our own eggs.