National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 20, 2003

TV ‘reality’ distracts us from real struggles


Is anyone wondering about the influx of so-called reality shows proliferating on our TV screens? If we watch television regularly, we should begin to wonder what the media are trying to convince us of -- that this is the way the world is today? Have we, the consumers, somehow become collaborators with those who produce these “reality” shows that, in actuality, avoid any connection with the true reality of most Americans’ lives? And if so, why? Has our existence, our true reality in the United States, become too harsh and uncomfortable for us to stomach after a hard day’s work?

The United States has been at war since 9/11. Called a war against terror, it has become much more than that. The war in Afghanistan, still ongoing, was launched in direct response to that awful day when the heavens rained death down upon us. But another war exists behind the war on terror, the war on Afghanistan, and even the war on Iraq. It is a war against some of our most foundational values such as privacy, freedom of speech and freedom to congregate and protest that with which we disagree. This war threatens our grip on reality as it distorts what is actually taking place in our government and redefines words and understandings such as freedom and patriot to mean the exact opposite of what they have historically meant.

In my courses on liberation theology at Georgetown University, I usually include a section on civil religion in the United States. Such a religion, many would acknowledge, has always existed in the United States since the landing of the Mayflower and Gov. John Winthrop’s assertion that this small colony shall be as a “city on a hill,” giving the light of freedom to all nations. In civil religion, aspects of patriotism and nationalism take on a sacred aura that equates national symbols like the president and the flag with religious icons such as God and the cross. The language of President Bush and many others certainly retains and promotes this. The United States has for some become the New Jerusalem, bringing salvation to all nations, whether they want it or not.

The reality that exists in the United States today is that looking the wrong way, buying the wrong book or wearing a T-shirt with peace symbols on it can lead to your arrest and incarceration without any of the due process mandated by our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. This is the reality of rules and regulations being promulgated without debate or serious discussion, even if they overturn the balance of power instituted so carefully by the founders of this democratic republic. It is the reality behind reality shows that serves to mask the whittling away of basic constitutional rights and freedoms. Instead of circuses and Christians being martyred by lions in public arenas in order to distract the people from the implosion of the Roman Empire, the people of the United States are being bombarded with shows that turn us into opportunistic voyeurs bereft of any sense of morality, compassion or common decency. Slowly, our sense of outrage is anesthetized.

First, it was “Survivor.” It was at first fairly interesting to watch men and women of every race, ethnicity and sexual orientation make fools of themselves before millions in the hope of winning $1 million. Interestingly, the amount never varied even as the airwaves became inundated with copycat shows such as “Big Brother,” “The Bachelor” (and “The Bachelorette”), new “Survivor” in even more exotic locales, and finally “Joe Millionaire,” a fake millionaire who would be exposed to the women seeking to wed or bed him on the last show.

Apparently there is no requirement too outrageous and no activity too indecent for a number of people to accept as long as they have an opportunity to win, regardless of how slim the chances are. Thus, we see people covered with rats or scorpions, immersed in mud and crawling insects, and we ask ourselves, “Would we be willing to do this?”

What messages are these shows sending us? Are they simply an opiate, lulling us to the real struggles for survival going on in our country where millions have no health insurance, can’t afford to pay the increasing costs of prescription medicines even when they have insurance, and are facing foreclosures and evictions? The costs for future generations, who will be required to repay what we’ve spent, rebuild what we’ve destroyed, fulfill the extravagant promises we have made to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, and live with much less than we now take for granted, are being ignored as we are tempted by the promise of a tax cut and threatened with a $75 billion tab for the war in Iraq.

Has anyone wondered what impact these prime-time shows, with their endless, sexually tantalizing commercials, are having on all of us but especially on our children? We chastise our children for the language they use, the clothes they wear, and the music they listen to while wondering where they have learned these bad habits. Many are increasingly prone to alcoholism and drug addictions, seemingly immune to violence, irresponsible, and promiscuous. In other words, they lack any sense of a moral conscience. Yet we sit with them, watching these shows, making fun of the participants while guiltily envious of the “goings-on.”

Many Americans no longer listen to the news on radio or watch it on TV or read about it in the papers. We don’t want to hear about the bad things in life so we close our ears and shut our eyes, hoping it will all go away. We retreat into ourselves, too often denying responsibility for anyone or anything. We deny reality by watching distortions of it on our televisions.

Diana Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 2003

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