Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
The White Supremacist Show
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, September 3, 2002 --
When CBS announced plans to create a tasteless reality television show based on the 1960s hit, the Beverly Hillbillies, I was aghast. The network now plans to find a real-life bumbling family of white hicks, relocate them to Beverly Hills, and put their lives on television as the viewers laugh at them. Not very nice.
As I pondered the social implications of the new Beverly Hillbillies, I couldn't help but think about a recent march of white supremacists. Just five days earlier, hundreds of riot police had assembled near the Capitol building. They deployed a battlefield-scale array of armaments including a water cannon mounted on a tank, a circling helicopter, shotguns with teargas shells, and horses with Plexiglas armor over their eyes.
A solid line of these riot policemen separated the Nazis from a much larger crowd of counter protesters. This crowd proved their open-mindedness by shouting obscenities and waving signs with incredibly obvious slogans like "No Racism."
Not surprisingly, the supremacists in the march did not appear very supreme. Taken out of context, the group might have misled the observer that handlebar moustaches, prison tattoos, and bad polyester sport coats were the latest fashion trends. It was a pathetic group of angry men who likely use racial hatred as a way of feeling better about their own pathetic lives.
I have a similar theory about the audience of reality television shows like the new Beverly Hillbillies. Ever since Jerry Springer began engineering real-life emotional crises for viewer entertainment, I have been dumbfounded by the fact that people want to view such material. The only conclusion that I can reach is that voyeuristic insight into the events of people with really awful lives gives pleasure to those with only moderately awful lives.
This might be innocent enough, except that these shows affect real lives -- and not for the better. Viewers are indirectly responsible for the results of reality television by boosting the television ratings that make shameful degradations profitable. And the worst cases are pretty severe. Two years ago in Peru, a show called "Anything for Money" offered hungry peasants paltry sums for bathing in frog urine.2 In today's economically paralyzed Argentina, a game show called "Human Resources" asks unemployed contestants to tell the most heart-wrenching story to win opportunity for a menial job.3 And here in America, the degradations on shows like "Fear Factor" aren't far behind.
Perhaps the most nauseating thing about reality television is that there is absolutely no shame in it. People openly discuss the happenings of these shows by the office water cooler as if there were no moral repercussions to their viewership. This is outrageous. People should be ashamed to watch reality television shows.
Of course, the First Amendment protects producers and viewers of reality shows just as it protects the white supremacists who march on Washington. But just as respectable people should socially ostracize those with racist beliefs, people supporting lesser degradations of humanity are also deserving of ostracism. People should be free to watch the new Beverly Hillbillies. But that shouldn't stop others from shaming them.
1. The Washington Post, Gold in Them Thar 'Hillbillies'? August 29, 2002
2. Associated Press, 'Reality TV' Peru style: Trashy shows entertain, distract during election year, March 15, 2000
3. BBC News, Argentines Seek Gameful Employment, May 2, 2002