Typing Faster

December 15, 2009

How Reality TV Destroyed America: Part Deux

Filed under: Kvetch, Stuff I Like — petertypingfaster @ 4:57 pm

In case you struggled with the hyperbole of the Vanity Fair piece I riffed off the other day, here’s an equally trenchant, though more restrained take on the same.

Culturally, this has been the decade of the reality show. And what do we have to show for it? Not much more than the contestants themselves.

Hard to argue with that, though the damage, as we’ve seen, goes far further than one might imagine at first.

Which brings us to Jersey Shore…One senses that if [all the contestants] put their heads together, it’s still doubtful they could beat a carnival chicken at Tic-Tac-Toe.

Ouch. How could I not resist blogging about an article that compares the cast of a show to a carnival chicken? Of course if the piece continued in that vein we’d have another Vanity Fair piece, but the author takes a bit of a right turn into more rarefied academic territory.

The British historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilizations thrive when the lower classes aspire to be like the upper classes, and they decay when the upper classes try to be like the lower classes. Looked at through this prism, it’s hard not to see America in a prolonged period of decay.

It’s not all bad news to be sure. The elite minority’s general acceptance of racial and sexual equality as important values has been a moral triumph. But not without costs. As part of this transformation, society has embraced what social scientist Charles Murray calls “ecumenical niceness.” A core tenet of ecumenical niceness is that harsh judgments of the underclass — or people with underclass values — are forbidden. An added corollary: People with old-fashioned notions of decency are fair game.

Long before the rise of reality shows, ecumenical niceness created a moral vacuum. Out-of-wedlock birth was once a great shame; now it is something of a happy lifestyle choice. The cavalier use of profanity was once crude; now it’s increasingly conversational.

Reality show culture has thrived in that moral vacuum, accelerating the decay and helping to create a society in which celebrity is the new nobility. One sense that Richard Heene [Balloon Boy’s dad] thought — and perhaps still thinks — that the way to make his kids proud of him was to land a reality show. Paris Hilton, famous for being famous thanks in part to a “reality” sex tape released days before her 2003 reality show, The Simple Life, is now a cultural icon of no redeeming value whatsoever.

Whatever you think of what Toynbee and Murray would call the “proletarianization of the elites,” one point is beyond dispute: The rich can afford moral lassitude more than the poor can. Hilton, heir to a hotel fortune, has life as simple as she wants it to be. Tiger Woods is surely a cad, but as a pure matter of economics, he can afford to be one.

Lord knows I’m a critic of President Obama, but this is undoubtedly one area in which he is — personally — a force for good. Whatever the merits of his policies, the image Obama projects is one of reserved decency and diligence, even a healthy snobbishness.

Wouldn’t it be nice if his cheerleaders in Hollywood took that example to heart?

So what’s the lesson to take form this?

Personally I’m going to go with this one: “We could all be President Obama if it weren’t for reality TV.”

Damn you reality TV! Damn you to the blackest pits of Hades!

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1 Comment »

  1. […] Knucklehead wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptOne sense that Richard Heene [Balloon Boy's dad] thought — and perhaps still thinks — that the way to make his kids proud of him was to land a reality show. Paris Hilton, famous for being famous thanks in part to a “reality” sex tape … […]

    Pingback by How Reality TV Destroyed America: Part Deux « Typing Faster | Reality Topics Blog — December 16, 2009 @ 11:03 pm


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