Voting Decency Off the Island

I remember when I first heard the word “lifestyle” thirty or forty years ago, and it gave me the creeps. It suggested that you could live in a way that might be different from your immediate neighbors, but would be identical to millions and millions of other people, nothing unique or personal about it, like the houses they build these days.

I have never watched the television program Survivor, either, but I’ve seen snatches of it and heard about it, and it has always given me the creeps, too. While channel surfing, I saw one part where a woman was talking about a musician and a guy who made people laugh.

She said he was a nice enough guy, but, she said, “You wouldn’t want to feed him.”

At the time I thought, “This is laying the groundwork for the time when the young people of America, once Social Security becomes an unbearable burden, decide to convert an enormous liability — Social Security recipients — into a valuable energy resource.” All you would need, after all, is a high-tech after-burner.

Well it turns out reality television gives someone else the creeps, too, Francine Prose, who wrote “Voting Democracy Off the Island: Reality TV and the Republican Ethos” in the March 2004 edition of Harper’s, which someone left in the sauna at my health club.

I gather that, on Survivor and other reality shows, they have teams, but ultimately you can’t win without betraying or at least outlasting your teammates. And millions and millions of children are watching and learning.

Prose enumerates the values implicit in the universe of reality television: “the vision of a zero-sum society in which no one can win unless someone else loses, the conviction that altruism and compassion are signs of folly and weakness, the exultation of solitary striving above the illusory benefits of cooperative mutual aid, the belief that certain circumstances justify secrecy and deception, the invocation of a reviled public enemy to solidify group loyalty.”

And she point out that these are “the exact same themes that underlie the rhetoric we have been hearing [in 2004] and continue to hear from the Republican Congress and our current administration.”

It’s no coincidence that Dick Cheney is heavily invested in prisons. The Republican vision of the world is like the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the angel Clarence takes Jimmy Stewart on a tour of the world as it would have been if he had not spent his life working at the Savings and Loan helping people buy homes and build decent neighborhoods.

They go to a town called Potterville, named for the Scrooge-like, Cheeny-like, banker in the movie, which is all bars and pawn shops and strip joints and liquor stores, and, of course, prisons.

To illustrate what I’m trying to say, let me pose this question: How would Jimmy Stewart, one of the most decent people who ever lived, who served his country as a bomber pilot in World War II, have fared on Survivor?

Nice enough guy, but you wouldn’t want to feed him.

We can’t let children watch this crap without telling them how sick it is. What kind of world do you want to live in?