Democratic Underground  

When Reality Bites, Bite Back Harder
June 24, 2003
By Dennis Rahkonen

The unhappy trend began with "Real World," which has been running on MTV for years.

I'd often find my teenaged daughter raptly watching it as I'd scurry through our living room, eager to escape a television show where privileged American kids, with all the advantages often so grimly lacking elsewhere, were routinely bitching about their "unfair" lives.

I'll admit that being a young person anyplace can be hard. But if you want to see "tough," spend some time in Somalia or Bangladesh. Or work in a cross-border sweatshop where the mandatory items of youthful U.S. fashion are exploitatively manufactured.

In the imperialism-ravaged Third World, teens learn how to operate assault rifles in rebellion against crushing injustice, or even become suicide bombers out of abject desperation. Pouting in Pleasantville just doesn't cut it as "harsh".

Following that off-putting offering's success, our TV networks have become a "real" wasteland far beyond Newton Minnow's bleakest expectations. A pioneering Federal Communications Commission head, he saw television as a medium with disturbing possibilities for great abuse.

Well, surf through the channels today and prepare to get abused in spades! It's amazing how unreal reality TV actually is.

Does any North American's existence involve running around an island jungle in a loin cloth while sweating bullets, brandishing a sharpened stick used to kill rats for lunch?

We don't bungee jump from a gazillion feet up or chow down on earthworms, trying to conquer the "fear factor" and become the surviving winner who'll limp away with a nice prize.

A dozen beautiful young women have never competed to marry me, and the odds are getting exceedingly long it'll happen anytime soon.

Here's my take on why all this is occurring:

First, reality shows save entertainment providers scads of money. If you forego actors and screenwriters, you don't have to pay for talent. Pocket the difference and laugh all the way to the bank.

It's always been tough to break into the "biz". It gets even harder when you're not up against another thespian for a job, but a stock trader whose killer instinct from the brokerage floor carries over well to a reality show where being ruthless is an asset.

Most people I know are decent and kind, not cutthroat in a fiendishly selfish extreme. They aren't into conniving and backstabbing their neighbors to come out "victorious" in the long-running series that is their lives. Reality programming relies on just the opposite, and fosters a screw-others-before-they-screw-you mentality that undoubtedly has Jesus shaking His head in dismay.

If you use TV to convey an impression that people will do anything for money, it's easier to sell the notion that monopoly's predation is normal. Don't whine about big business exploitation. It's just a part of "human nature".

Also, there's a definite mollifying effect involved. If you're out of work and figurative wolves are at your door, at least you aren't in the Australian outback around a fading fire as wild dingoes threaten to drag you off into the shrubbery. Keep the proletariat from rebelling by showing them how bad things can "really" get.

Reality television keeps us diverted. It manipulatively focuses our attention on inconsequential rather than serious absurdities, such as aggressive wars or outlandish tax inequities, both carried out to benefit the very class that produces...reality shows.

I'm not a believer in conspiracy theories, so I won't say this is all carefully planned out to our mutual detriment and the hierarchy's gain. But it isn't simple coincidence, either.

With the FCC having recently voted to give media giants even more decisive control over what we see, hear and subsequently perceive, the outlook for tomorrow isn't pretty. We're truly entering an Orwellian era that'll obviate critical thought and action.

What to do?

Individually blowing up our TVs, as singer-songwriter John Prine suggested, wouldn't work. And neither would blowing up a collected pile of TVs at a Madison Avenue intersection, since George Bush would cry "terrorism" to justify more assaults on our liberty and well-being, in freedom's name.

But, because the average person can't build a rocket ship in his back yard out of spare parts and escape to Neptune, we're forced - as a unified entity - to fight back.

The call for proper entertainment and accurate news has to be integrated into all other demands for progressive change that our various movements advance, to avoid mass peonage under a few monopolized fat cats' thumbs... and their degraded values.

If true democracy and populism are to retain validity, we need to click off our remotes, put away our beers and cheesy puffs, and get active on an unprecedented scale.

Let's combine the best features of the Rebel '30s and the Radical '60s, creating a wave of insistence not just for peace and social justice, but for a nurturing of the human spirit through the inspiringly uplifting, not the abysmally downgrading.

Let's show the bastards who the real "survivors" actually are!

Dennis Rahkonen, from Superior, WI, has been writing progressive commentary and verse since the '60s. He can be reached at

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