Monday, December 3, 2007

Misfortune as Entertainment (again)

The Reuters story about Who Wants to Marry a U.S. Citizen? was released last Friday morning; and I have yet to read any follow-up report revealing that this was a hoax. There is certainly an air of legitimacy in their account:

The show's backers at Morusa Media hope to make a sort of love match between reality TV and a national obsession with immigration. But the producers make no promise that a marriage will occur or lead to U.S. citizenship.

Show creator Adrian Martinez said that Morusa Media has not yet found a network to produce or air the show, but he is currently in talks with one cable TV network and already has signed up contestants for six episodes.

Between the consequences of the writers' strike and the continuing popularity of "reality" (scare quotes intended) programming, this may very well be the real deal coming soon to a cable channel near you.

Making entertainment out of the suffering of others goes all the way back to the oral predecessors of Ancient Greek drama. The Greeks could dignify it with the concept of catharsis, but few shreds of dignity were left by the time Imperial Rome was calling the shots. Even the exploitation of political undertones is not especially new, particularly when the politics were highly sensitive, since a "fiction" was always "safer" than logical argument or exposition. So does this project really deserve any special attention?

I suspect my own sore nerve resides in that premise of "a national obsession with immigration." It is not that I disagree about the obsession. Rather, the problem is that this is yet another highly complicated mess in which we are mired with little hope of extricating ourselves. The situation is a complex web of contingencies that impact the very nature of how business is conducted, the health (or sickness) of both the national and global economies, and the roles we play in international relations. If the national public, as a whole, is "obsessed," it is because they feel hopelessly lost in all the complexity, lacking the foggiest idea about whom to believe or, where elections are involved, whom to support.

Then along comes this (proposed) television program. If it really does get produced, there is a good chance that it will create an audience base; and that base will be lulled into thinking that they now "understand" the immigration problem. They will be deceived, of course, since they will come away with nothing more than a gross trivialization of the problem that reduces it to a handful of particularly dramatic case studies. What is more chilling is that the producers of this program will then be able to shape public opinion on the basis of the particular cases they decide to present. Put another way, this kind of programming will set the bar for a whole new level of propagandizing; and, if the producers turn out to be free of any ideological bias, they will quickly discover the virtue of selling out to the highest bidder.

Worse yet, the mere act of proposing such a project, regardless of whether or not it ever hits the airwaves or coaxial cables, has effectively let the genie out of the bottle. Now that what passes for television news has pretty much exhausted its strategies for keeping its viewers entertained (without worrying too much about keeping them informed), the baton of issues-and-events-as-entertainment is being passed to "reality programming." I would guess that at least half a dozen similar projects are now being hashed out in reaction to Friday morning's report; and, in the context of the current writers' strike, that estimate may be pathetically low. Thus, we are entering a new age of attitude towards government and political processes. This new age will no longer need to bother with postmodern resistance, because all it will need for a foundation is self-gratification; and there never seems to be a shortage of that particular commodity!

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