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The new opiate of the masses


The religious right has been waging war on Hollywood for decades. 25 years ago it was the amorality of “Dallas.” 15 years go it was the titillation of “Baywatch;” today they pillory the godless decadence of shows like “Desperate Housewives,” and the “Mandingo Moment” when one of its white female stars flirted with a black football player in a Superbowl promo.


These guardians of the pure are certain that Hollywood has coarsened out society. I am inclined to agree with them about the overall quality of network television, though their preferred responses scare me silly. But I am worried about a completely different danger oozing from today’s prime time programming, an evil far more perverse than Janet Jackson’s nipple or Bono’s profanity. I worry because we hear virtually nothing about it, and because the change is so felicitous to our moral and economic masters.

America is utterly enthralled with what is perhaps the most ironically misnamed product ever unleashed on the opiated American public: “reality” TV. Millions of people watch nightly as ordinary schmoes (many of whom are actors, but never mind) are plucked from their lives of quiet mediocrity and given a shot at fame and fortune. America’s Next Top Model and American Idol pluck the talented (assuming, as TV-land does, that physical beauty is a form of talent) from obscurity and launch careers. (The circular absurdity of being famous for being famous, and how that turns into a career, are hereby reserved for another time.) Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, The Bachelor and their ilk reward the shallow and shameless with money and their requisite 15 minutes. (Few today recall that the original definition of “geek” was a talentless carnival performer so defeated by life that he would bite the heads from live chickens for money. Think of that next time you watch “Survivor.”)

We know why Hollywood foists such drivel on its target audience. The shows are cheap to produce. And said audience watches. But why? Why do millions of Americans chose to medicate with such staged, hokey, meaningless excrescence?

I believe the primary reason Joe Sixpack watches is that he thereby vicariously lives his own fantasies of emerging as a butterfly from the chrysalis of his own glamourless life. Where past generations understood that such transformation required hard work (or, as in the case of slackers like our President, considerable skill in the choosing of one’s parents), today’s Americans are bombarded with evidence that the media deux ex machina can obviate the need for such inconvenience.

This new, passive myth has filled the vacuum left by the death of the old: the Horatio Alger story. Americans have always believed, in a way Europeans have not, in class mobility. The world’s tired, poor, huddled masses head for Lady Liberty, work hard, and rise into the middle class or even higher. As a result, America has thought itself to be a less class-based society, and its social policies have done less to favor the poor than those of most European nations. In the American mythos, poverty was largely a consequence of personal failure.

If that myth was ever based in fact, the reality is now clearly otherwise. Indeed, the myth of actual class mobility was interred by no less than the Wall Street Journal, arguably one of the holiest books of the capitalist religion, in a page one story on May 13th.

"Despite the widespread belief that the U.S. remains a more mobile society than Europe, economists and sociologists say that in recent decades the typical child starting out in poverty in continental Europe (or in Canada) has had a better chance at prosperity," the Journal noted. The WSJ also noted that a recent study (by a Federal Reserve economist, no less) showed that, "Only 14% of men born to fathers on the bottom 10% of the wage ladder made it to the top 30%. Only 17% of the men born to fathers on the top 10% fell to the bottom 30%."

If science has debunked such a bedrock myth, one of two things would seem to follow: either the disadvantaged in our society will wake up, and act (and vote) based on a more realistic view of the world, or a new sustaining myth will be propagated in order to keep hoi polloi sedated.

A more perfect role for television is difficult to imagine.

And so a populace trained by its religion to believe in miracles, magic and divine intervention has welcomed the morphing of the Horatio Alger story into something far more injurious to society: rather than look to their own efforts and resources to better their lives, the proles hope against passive hope that they will be chosen to play the television lottery that transforms ugly ducklings into swans, poor into rich, and obscure into famous. The result is arguably more effective in inoculating Joe Sixpack against economic class consciousness than a lifetime of hypocritical scoldings from Pat Robertson and James Dobson could ever be.

The hallmark of this new crop of gentry-in-waiting is an unprecedented dissociation of preferences from realistic self-interest. To an unprecedented degree, these tele-sheep tend to favor not the interests of the economic class to which they really belong (and which the odds are overwhelmingly that they will never leave), but the interests of the class living in the style to which they expect to become accustomed. The world thus no longer consists of rich and poor: there is a third category, which should perhaps be known as the “rich-any-day-now.” Robin Leach (was there ever a man so perfectly named?) will be leading a camera crew through their mansions next year, or the year after that at the latest. It should surprise no one that millions choose that fantasy rather than face the ugly reality – that George Bush will never have a beer with them; that they will never review their head shots with Tyra Banks, and that Donald Trump will never fire them – at least not on prime time.

This neutralization of class consciousness has been the religious right’s greatest achievement. Convincing ordinary folks that gay marriage, activist judges and the like are greater threats than their own economic distress is a virtually unprecedented feat. It has allowed the constellation of Christian churches to create a civil religion full of bombast and devoid of charity—a God-blessed dystopia where the meek inherit nothing but debt, and the actual rich reap the manna that flows from the rich-any-day-now’s myopia.

There was a popular saying a decade or so ago—“I’ve abandoned my search for truth and will settle for a good fantasy.” Hollywood, with the obvious blessing of the parallel elite in Washington, has made that self-defeating escapism into its central dogma.

Where is the harm in the champagne dreams of our Budweiser nation? It is the same harm that built the casinos on the Las Vegas strip, that monument to mankind’s folly. It is the same harm that puts future organ donors on motorcycles without helmets. It is these, but worse, because the collateral damage from your belief that this time you will be lucky at keno is minimal. The shrapnel from lower class America’s identification with the upper class is the angry renunciation of the social contract by those who need it most.

And so poor and middle class Americans support tax cuts for the wealthy, because deep down they just know, against all odds, that any day now they are going to be rich, too. Of course the real reality is that they are as statistically likely to become America’s Next Top Gigolo as I am to win the Tour de France, but they willingly choose to in effect play a lottery in which 99% of the winners are known before a ticket is bought.

John Steinberg bloviates regularly @

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