Month: June 2014

CyberSelfie: How Technology Has Shaped Our Self & Socialization

Cyber- is a prefix derived from “cybernetic,” which comes from the Greek adjective κυβερνητικός meaning skilled in steering or governing. It seems appropriate that cyber means to govern or steer skillfully, since technology also has the ability to steer and guide a society that puts increasing trust and faith in it. Technology was created for humankind’s convenience, out of legitimate needs and genuine wants, and is both tool and toy, luxury and necessity. Keeping with its dichotomous nature, technology can also be our savior, and our undoing. We stand at a crossroads, and have exploded technologically, while not maturing fast enough to properly keep up with our own inventions. We must learn to better interact with our tools and toys, and in so doing, learn to better communicate with each other. Technology can be safe and infinitely helpful, or dangerous and dehumanizing. It is up to only us to decide whether it be boon or burden.

I’m the first to admit that I’m mostly clueless when it comes to Net Lingua – the language of the Internet, including numbers, characters, emoticons, acronyms and initialisms. I can drop my fair share of smiley’s and winks and LOL with the best of them. However, I sometimes come across seemingly random sequences of letters I just don’t get. For example, why write ILSHIPAPMPLIWALBA instead of just saying ‘I laughed so hard I peed and pooped my pants like I was a little baby again.’ Just write LOL already. Maybe a Haha. Do you need to capture every bodily movement and reaction you had to something? I can’t understand why you would leave the abbreviation ISAITIGMAHANTGTTHRNISTTIMI when you can just tell someone, ‘I’m so amused, I think I gave myself a hernia and need to go to the hospital right now. I’m serious this time. I mean it.’ You’re already halfway there. That just seems dangerous to me.

Similarly, I’m always a little confused by facepalm. At first I thought it was a brand of Palm Pilot (if anyone even remembers those), then I guessed it must be a new social networking site. Finally, I deduced that it was a gesture representing frustration or fatigue with something. Of course, I never would have figured it out from its emoticon symbol (– ‸ x). WTF? (Of course, I know that one) If I were forced to guess the meaning of that random collection of squiggles, I think I’d say it stood for ‘pirate eye’ or maybe ‘knuckle sandwich.’ Perhaps even ‘poking a flower with a stick.’ That clenched fist isn’t even close to palming that face. And then there are those that just write it out. Complex thoughts are distilled, reduced rather, into short pithy words, phrases, or pictures quickly signaling exactly what we’re feeling.

One of the most dangerous facets of computers and our rapidly changing cyber-world is the idea of instant gratification. With WiFi, high speed internet, smart phones, and data plans, we can instantly send emails, instant message, leave wall posts, send pictures, update websites, download documents, video conference, conduct online banking, and many other things. In the not so distant past, people relied on telephones to talk, snail mail to write, photo shops to develop photographs, and posters to advertise businesses and yard sales. Things took time, and patience was required. We knew no other way, and today’s advances were practically inconceivable. There is something dangerous about instant gratification. Angry emails and comments can be written without proper reasoning. Inappropriate pics can be sent or posted, embarrassing any number of people. Online shopping, banking, and stock trading can lead to impulsive purchases, sales, etc. Finally, there is something lost in the brevity and haste it takes to write an email, as opposed to the time and care it took to write and mail a letter. In our ability to perform tasks in an instant, we are losing the character and dignity that comes from effort and work, and we are missing out on face-to-face time with others. We are gratified and satisfied, but must sacrifice a little something.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we are all a little spoiled by instant gratification, and perhaps it has to do with the fact that we can instantly reach all our friends, but whatever the case may be, we have steadily become a society of narcissists. Perhaps the most visible example of this love affair can be found in the ubiquitous presence of ‘selfies’ – appropriately titled, given their innate vanity. The most common selfie is a shot taken by oneself of oneself, and oftentimes posed and purposefully trying to look cute, tough, etc. Firstly, the selfie eliminates a separate photographer – a seemingly moot point, but important, given the fact that photographs now need no other person, and the subject becomes the photographer – and more wrapped up into themselves. The selfie is often multiple shots – sometimes dozens – instantly posted to social media. The selfie has made photography the domain of everyone – effectively relegating professionals to the sidelines. Selfies have made everyone a model, and people have become increasingly more vain and self-important. Pictures in general have increased exponentially. Parents are quite fond of posting numerous pictures of their children, while simultaneously humble-bragging-a passive aggressive way to brag, while pretending not to under the guise of humility. We all know that bragging is obnoxious, but we still have important news we think society needs to hear.

Our posts are the perfect place to humble brag, and demonstrate more of that neo-narcissim we all seem to possess. Never before had we a platform to announce to the world our random thoughts, bold plans, angry rants, thoughtful and uplifting quotes, and love for this or that. Suddenly, everything we thought or felt seemed important, and Facebook provided a captive audience we could declare our thoughts to triumphantly. What’s more, they could ‘like’ the thoughts, and further validate and encourage us. If they were really moved, they could even write comments, which is the ultimate thrill and show of support. This validation also served to boost our egos and gave us more cause to keep on writing. Social media exploded, and suddenly, we were all writing pithy Tweets in 140 words or less, pinning up art and recipes we wanted the world to see, designing our own websites, building an audience for the blogs we wrote daily, and posting videos of ourselves talking to the camera about some funny or important story. We are everywhere and seen by everyone, and our voice and image are reproduced over and over. All at once, we are the celebrities of Hollywood and professional sports we always saw on screen, but now share in that same overexposure. We are all celebrities, and our image is everything.

The problem is, none of us know how the other is feeling…what they’re thinking, and how they mean what they write. Because very few of us are good enough writers to expertly convey not only the facts and thoughts of a statement, but the tone and feeling behind it. Irony and sarcasm have become endangered species in our culture. For example, when I poked fun at Internet lingua above, I meant it to be light-hearted and in the spirit of fun. However, I’m sure there are scores of people out there deeply offended and enraged by my senseless attack on the Internet and the shorthand they choose to convey tone and emotion.

Even the best of us can’t possibly be expected to detect all the subtle nuance and intent behind everything we read. We’re not computers. Actually, that’s precisely the problem. Humans are thinking and feeling sentient beings, which are genetically predisposed and constructed to be warm and tactile communicators, who play various roles in our communities. Computers ‘think’ in code: numbers…algorithms. That is why we call them computers. They compute massive amounts of raw data at staggering speeds, while human’s fragility—and strength—lie in their innate ability to process emotions and to build relationships based on respect, love and affection, as much as on instinct. As of right now, there is no computer that can process and compute matters of the ‘heart.’ Although we are not trying to forge relationships WITH computers, we are actually trying to maintain relationships THRU computers. Therefore, we must understand that even though they seem to make our lives better, easier, and more convenient, they are also potential barriers to effective communication. We must remember that we are using a cold and dispassionate digital processor to feed our hearts and minds into, while expecting them to come out the other side exactly as we intended. You needn’t look any further than any common website, where you can witness digital miscommunication sow seeds of confusion, anger, and violence right there in the ubiquitous ‘comments’ section. Relative anonymity mixed with strong conviction and perceived threat explodes on the page with rage. Small misunderstandings are stripped of context and tone, and escalate quickly into scenarios that might turn deadly, were they live and in person. I am not suggesting that individuals don’t have a choice in ratcheting up their rhetoric and actively engaging others in conflagrations. Sure, there are plenty of people that abuse the web with misguided malice and aggression. But for every one of those internet ‘trolls,’ there are dozens…hundreds…thousands of us that are bruised and battered by the very fruits of our labor, designed to set us free and make our lives better. However, some of us don’t even realize it. Perhaps like a battered wife, we have come to accept our equilibrium – however unstable – as safe and familiar. In reality, the very tools we gave ourselves often misuse us. We are surrounded by inventions without intentions. Their sole purpose is to compute and solve problems towards an end. Human beings also have their goals and objectives, but we care more about how we get there and what motivates us to go after our goals. In fact, we are constantly reevaluating our methods and mistakes, and reassessing our goals and desires. As far as technology has come, it has not produced sentient computers, with the ability to feel and make decisions about their futures, and its impact on those around it.

Our computers are incredibly advanced today, but we easily forget that they are not windows by which we look through them and talk easily with a person we see just inches away from us. Instead, they are the locked doors we cannot see through YET, and thus, we are just inches from our loved ones, but unable to see or hear them properly. When we truly unlock that door, we will be able to pass better than we ever could through our windows, but until then, we must try to understand how a door works.

We stand on the threshold of great promise, or perhaps great misfortune. With everything at our fingertips, we still seem to forget our sense of touch. We hurl ourselves headlong into our futures, and tempt fate as we try and better our lives. And yet, we somehow always seem to forget that the times we cherish and hold dear to us rarely features a computer or the latest tech gadget. Those are the moments when we are most intimate with those we love. When we are personally interacting the way WE were designed to communicate. We’ve taught computers our language, using our numbers and our symbols, but it’s unlikely we could ever teach a computer the nuances of our heart. Not the physical organ that pumps our blood, but that elusive place that houses our spirits…our souls. How do you teach a computer how to feel for a human being, or what’s more, to allow that emotion to inform the decisions it makes, regardless of its programmed goals and its complex series of algorithms. It’s that irrational and unpredictable human essence that a computer cannot hope to replicate inside itself, and therefore, shouldn’t be expected to replicate from one of us to another one of us. A computer is that invaluable door that leads to wherever we care to go, but it’s still not a window. It’s not unlike that game we all played as children – the Telephone Game. One kid would come up with a medium-length sentence, and then whisper it into the ear of the child next to him. In turn, he would whisper it into the ear of the little girl by his side. Before long, the sentence has made its way around the circle, and arrives right back where it started. When the last child repeats the line out loud, the original boy cannot help but laugh at how distorted and corrupted his original message was. And that game is played with a small group of human children. Imagine what our technology can do to the messages we send.

I jokingly refer to myself as a Luddite – a technophobic person or anyone who is opposed to technological change and innovation. In reality, I own all of the same tablets, cell phones, laptops, etc. that all of you do. I am very grateful for the role technology has played and continues to play in my life. I honestly believe it to be a blessing. However, I am also observant to the things I see around me. I am both awed by the ‘miracle’ of technology, and soberly skeptical about the subtle deleterious effects it’s having on our society. I consider us to be in the honeymoon period with technology. It is seemingly moving at the speed of light, while noticeably improving the lives, and making things easier than they’ve ever been before. But that’s the crux right there. Nothing truly good ever came easy. That doesn’t mean fortune can’t smile on us and bless our sweat and tears. Of course not. Nor should we be expected to toil as our ancestors did, when we have the means to lighten the load. But as they say in Spiderman, ‘With great power, comes great responsibility.’ We only stand on the threshold now, but we wield enormous power, and the door we’ve decided to open can never be closed again. Nor can we walk back through it. Just as a bell cannot be unrung, we cannot hope to walk backwards through the snow, while trying to erase our presence by stepping in the footsteps we left before. In every way, we stand on a threshold that is hinged with the door of technology and guarded by scientists everywhere. Men and women with advanced degrees guard our very way of life, and even our own protection, as they search for answers everywhere they find a question. At the present, we are looking out across a land only dotted with technology, but one soon to be blanketed by it. That may translate into a faster and tastier cup of coffee or could just be the very devices we need to halt or ameliorate man’s nearly irreversible impact on earth’s fragile ecosystem. Those are keys to unlock doors we want to walk through, but it’s what’s on the other side, we just don’t know about.

Technology is undoubtedly a boon to humans everywhere. Right now, there are hospitals saving the lives of people who would have been dead less than a decade ago, but are now saved by the awesome power of progress. Missing children are reunited with their families because a computer chip somewhere connected a web of concerned citizens and child advocates. Our mothers and fathers are with us longer, and enjoy an unprecedented quality of life that only computers could have provided. Many of us are threads in a great network of people we’ve never met before, and a smaller group of friends and acquaintances, many of whom live in distant cities and some of whom we haven’t seen in years. There are countless other examples, and all only possible through the wonder of technological advance.

I would never suggest we throw away the tools we’ve earned and richly deserve. It took generations of committed minds, self-sacrificing toil, bitter heartache, sweat and tears, and the forward march of progress to bring us to this precise moment in history. We are in our honeymoon phase with technology, but any married couple will tell you, that cannot last. Not for want of trying or honest to God devotion, but because fires simply can’t burn that intensely, and expect to last the night. Though we may never fall out of love with technology, our zeal and obsession is only sustainable so long. Inevitably, there will be a widespread endemic of tech fatigue, where our unrealistic expectations are realized, and the allure of the fast and new begins to wear off. It may never translate into a full-fledged backlash, but there will be plenty of disillusioned people looking for something they can grasp. Something more substantial. Naturally, that something is someone, and it’s us. If we let technology run us, rather than the other way around, than we are merely slaves of our own inventions. In a world like that, we would have to face the ironic and unintended outcome of being further away from those we thought technology could bring us closer to. Instead of FaceChat, there’s simply chatting face to face. Of course it’s easier, less costly, and more time efficient to make a video call to a friend. But don’t confuse any of that with better. The decisions we’re making today are faster and easier, but as I said before, nothing truly good comes cheap and easy. Relationships are built over time, and the foundation rests upon the subtle nuances of human speech, gesture, and that unknowable quality that is always present between two close people, or even groups of people. The building blocks often include touch, eye contact, a knowing grin, a lift of the eyebrow, the tone of a voice, and the familiarity of a shared laugh. As technology advances, sound gets crisper, pixels deliver unparalleled clarity, and we get savvier with how to wield and manipulate this power in our hands, we are even more beholden to our devices. We end up building digital walls out of the stuff we like, even as we think we’re building homes for the people we love. What may seemingly bring us together may in fact be the very thing that tears us apart.

Averting a painful tomorrow could simply mean taking a few preventative steps today. Right now, we are still on our honeymoon, but we are also on the threshold of our home, with our young bride in our arms, and ready to walk through that door. It’s terribly difficult for new lovers to see through anything other than rose-colored glasses. To them, the honeymoon will last forever. Yet we all know that isn’t the case. When the heat and the passion begin to wane, couples often grieve the loss of whom they once were, and are frightened by the vacuum of not knowing what comes next. Some couples fill the void with children; others develop active relationships outside the home; some try and find peace at the bottom of a bottle or are addicted to their own distraction. Technology may be a great distraction, but as anyone in a long and successful marriage will tell you, it took a lot of work. Nothing came fast, cheap, or easy. All good relationships are like this. What happened after the honeymoon was over? Well, they might have strayed with distraction, but all of the successful marriages have one thing in common: communication. There’s no way of knowing how long our honeymoon with technology will last, but we need to try and take steps today to facilitate productive communication tomorrow. And by communication, I mean, communication between human and machine and most importantly, human-to-human communication. Right now, we can’t seem to see the forest for the trees. We’re too deep in it all. We are irrefutably seduced by the power we think we have in our hands. Of course, if the computer were fully AI (Artificial Intelligence), the computer would be thinking the same thing about us. And the computer would be right. We are slowly losing ourselves into this tantalizing – and in most ways – benevolent, life-changing force. There’s no retracing our steps in the snow or picking up breadcrumbs this time. We are in this for the long haul. Technology is with us to stay. Perhaps even longer than we will. That’s the problem.

In order to tame our technology, we must first tame ourselves. We must learn what it means to be in a room with another human being, and one that is not a chat room. It is absolutely essential that we relearn what it is to be human. We must all do exactly what every one of those successful marriages had to do after the honeymoon was over: learn how to talk to each other. The key to every relationship, especially marriage, is communication, and learning not just what to say to your partner, but how to say it. And, I might add, when. The only successful marriages—whether it be a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and a man—are built on the fundamental principal of building a home, and what it takes to share a space with someone you may love, but not necessarily know how to talk to. It’s hardly different with technology. You may profess to love your new iPhone, but you don’t effectively know how it works, and most importantly, how it objectively makes you feel. Just because you enjoy your computer doesn’t mean it’s enjoying you back. How do you forge a relationship with an inanimate object that just so happens to be able to do complex computations and send just the right present to your sweetheart? Being in the honeymoon phase means that we can’t objectively evaluate our obsession with technology. We don’t know to take steps now to avoid future pitfalls we may have. However, we must learn to use these unrivaled processing machines in our own heads, to be able to anticipate how we can better interact with our own technology, so that we may better communicate with the living, breathing people we love the most.

Learning to manage the technology in our lives means taking a step back, setting parameters, and outlining clear goals and objectives. What is it we ultimately hope to achieve with x, y, and z? How does this device actually affect my quality of life and does it put undue strain on my human relationships? What is the worst thing I can imagine this computer could do to me, and to those I love? How do I delegate tasks and manage my time better? What is it I crave the most in my relationships that I can’t get when I put technology between us? These are just a few of the questions that need to be part of a larger national, international, worldwide discussion about the role of technology in our lives. Our futures may depend on taking the reigns and wrestling with the very real questions of risk vs. reward. Right now, this progress thing is paying real dividends, and it’s hard to foresee a future where it doesn’t. Sadly, that future is already with us. We are sowing the seeds, and must come to terms with the stuff we want in life as opposed to the people we want to share it with. Don’t get me wrong: they are not mutually exclusive. There’s no need to organize a laptop bonfire anytime soon. I love my technology, and wouldn’t want to part with it either. But you know what I love more? People. And like it or not, our personal lives are suffering at the expense of technology. It’s subtle, and you may not even know it, but it’s there. Even as we collect over a thousand friends on Facebook or Snapchat our naughty pics to lovers, we are really just slowly building walls around us. Except our digital walls are littered with our own profiles and pictures, like it was Pinterest or something. They look just like us, even move and sound like us. But they are not us. They are bits of binary code and pixels and a whole bunch of other ‘magic’ stuff that most of us will never know. When all is said and done, our sea of walled-in souls will feel like they’re part of a collective, and they’ll each be interconnected. As of now, computers have no heart unless we give it to them. How ‘bout we find love in all the right places? We could all stand to love ourselves a little less, and find ways to love each other more. The fault, dear friends, is not in our devices, but in ourselves that we are underlings.

Tarantino Revises History With a Vengeance, But is it Irresponsible to the Present ? 



Given Quentin Tarantino’s last two revisionist epics, it’s not surprising that there have been rumors about a third installment in his revenge revisionist fantasies. With history littered with brutalized victims and unpunished oppressors, it’s fair to assume that Tarantino has a wealth of subject matter he could choose from: Perhaps he could take on America’s original sin – the systematic genocide and forced relocation of the American Indian population. Or he might just choose to make a revenge tragedy about a group reviled by every population – child molesters. The victims of abuse could band together and exact vigilante justice on their perverse tormenter, and others like him. There are many gross crimes sadistically committed against innocent groups of people all throughout history and today. Tarantino has chosen to take aim at familiar historical evil figures and/or institutions that are symbolic totems of oppression, tyranny, and dehumanization, and created a fictional hero (or group) representative from the oppressed ranks to avenge their mistreatment and in turn, brutalize the oppressors. Tarantino’s revisionist histories are great fun, and it’s especially satisfying to see familiar villains get punished, but is it responsible to do so? Does the filmmaker have a greater responsibility to the period and those oppressed during it? I believe he does.

As an unapologetic post-modernist, Tarantino manages a mashup of the old and the new, and the hip and the passé. In Django Unchained in particular, Tarantino is clearly borrowing upon the familiar trope of the revenge tragedy/ fantasy. Many of the Blaxploitation films of the ’70s employed such devices as the black protagonist exacting revenge on the white ‘honky’ and all their oppressors. The genre’s role in exploring and shaping race relations in the US has been controversial. While some held that the Blaxploitation trend was a token of black empowerment, the movies were accused by others of perpetuating common white stereotypes about black people. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new wave of acclaimed black filmmakers focused on black urban life in their movies, particularly Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, among others. These films made use of elements of Blaxploitation, but also incorporated implicit criticism of the genre’s glorification of stereotypical “criminal” behavior. The problem with Tarantino appropriating the Blaxploitation genre is that it’s disingenuous and intellectually bankrupt, pure and simple. Tarantino’s making the same Blaxploitation films he emulated in the ’70s, and has been remaking year after year.

For a man who’s been on the radar of moviegoers for over 20 years, he seems to be making the same film over and over. He still employs the same quirky, stylish dialogue (no one really talks as cleverly and with such an enviable ability to skewer pop culture as his characters all do), brutal, yet almost satirical violence, and preoccupation for revenge. His films have not matured, as he presumably has. They still feature the same kinds of somewhat sleazy characters making various decisions that will almost certainly be their undoing. Revenge is the ultimate motive to many. People went to his films expecting the same thing they got out of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and other similar movies. However, Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds were different. These were not strictly fiction, but takes on a history we knew and featuring familiar villains we all deplored, providing him with an instant revulsion in the audience and a recognizable hero who fights the very face of evil – Hitler and his Final Solution of systematic genocide in one, and slaveowners and their inhumane enslavement of millions in the other. Without one single reel being shot, Tarantino had an audience clamoring for revenge.

Tarantino uses the ’70s as his spiritual inspiration, and Blaxploitation films in particular. He seeks the flashy and stylish sex appeal of the gorgeous black protagonist, with the mouth full of all the most bad-ass vengeful one-liners. We see all the black stereotypes and shallow complexity of those of his race all around him. In some ways, Django is the everyman AND the outlier of his race. He is enviable, sure, but not representative of his people. Not unlike the films they are modeled after, the white villains are also two-dimensional bogeymen, devoid of complexity and legitimate depth. The black and white people that populate this world are remarkably uncomplicated, and conveniently fall into one of two categories: good or evil. There is very little gray in this movie. Not only do Tarantino’s films emulate the aesthetic and soul of Blaxploitation films, they also represent the superficial handling of their subject matter. The plots are thin, and the characters are devices and stereotypes with very little complexity. Characters are motivated by large and unwieldily concepts, like revenge. There is very little contemplation of what it means to take another’s life.

Tarantino’s cast of characters is comprised of un-nuanced stock heroes and villains. The kind of baddies who are well-dressed Snidely Whiplash villains, with nary a nuanced bone in their bodies. In these films, he’s been choosing actual historical figures and groups that are rightfully maligned and despised, but still inflicting pain dozens of years later. These aren’t colorful eccentric characters from ‘Pulp Fiction.’ These villains didn’t just tie a woman to the train tracks. We’re talking mass genocide….Institutional slavery and racism, and wounds that are still very fresh today. His monsters are still with us, and it’s easy to dehumanize these perpetrators and see them as faces of evil. In movies like Pulp Fiction, the lines of good and evil were blurred, and we came to love and relate to all of his quirky cast of flawed and tainted hoodlums. His fictitious creations were inherently stained and both likable and repellent. These historical revenge fantasies don’t allow us the same familiarity, and we are not allowed to relate or identify with the monsters we’re forced to malign.

Is Tarantino the first to spoof these groups and exact his own brand of revisionist justice? No. But the problem is, he does it in a way that is reckless, dangerous and irresponsible. Because he calls himself an artist, and thinks he’s creating great art. What he fails to realize is that it may look pretty, and be well-crafted, but it does not strive to reach the threshold of art, since it is patently lazy and fails to provoke any meaningful discourse. In fact, it is so careless with the n-word and its history, it may serve to bury or obfuscate a truth that needs to be unearthed, rather than excavate it. Just because we have a black President does not mean we are post-racism. Tarantino has appropriated another piece of history for himself…for his own titillating and exploitive ways, with absolutely no regard for his subject matter. Putting a gun in the hands of a black man, or a Jew, and having them exact merciless justice on their oppressors is NOT the same thing as trying to understand, and engage with history – however painful. It might even be no better than the Roman Galadiatorial fights.

Are these films FUN and ENTERTAINING? Absolutely. In fact, I like them both quite a bit. I own the latest one. I have no problem with them as pure fun mindless entertainment. I also have no problem that they are prurient, excessively gratuitous, hip, and provocative. However, I also find them exploitive and voyeuristic. It’s reckless to open a can of worms like racism or anti-semitism and not address the issues we still contend with today. Both are still very real byproducts of slavery and genocide, and are actually more far-reaching than that. To have a non-Jew/black excavate two of the most heinous moments of history, and seemingly use that misery for all its gruesome details, seems exploitive and voyeuristic to begin with. Furthermore, if you are going to set a story there, and have murder and revenge as integral to the story, it seems there should be a responsibility to tell the story as thoroughly and honestly as possible. Can we witness the complexity of Germans, and their steadfast belief in the right of what they were doing? Can we see the humanity of some slaveholders who were complacent participants in a peculiar institution that had ensnared most Southerners? Can we see the nuance and differences in the slaves who populate the plantations? But most importantly, can we see the consequences and dehumanizing effects the language of oppression has on its victims and perpetrators and how that trickles down to today? Can we see how the very act of avenging justice on the slaveholders and oppressors comes with a high price? The avenger is committing heinous acts of murder and revenge, and is no better than those he seeks to punish. Is the answer to violence, violence? Is there a sin that is passed down from generation to generation?

Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterdsare both fun and diverting movies, and promise injustice will be avenged and the guilty punished. There is a long tradition of revenge tragedies, dating back to the Greeks, and perfected by Shakespeare, amongst others. Hamlet is a perfect example of a character seeking and exacting revenge on someone who has wronged him and his family. However, what Hamlet has that Django doesn’t, for example, is a sense of hesitancy, regret, and remorse. He doesn’t struggle with his conscience, and weight the consequences of his actions. The movie doesn’t attempt to grapple with the long-term effects of such a monstrous institution and where we still see its lingering memories today. The fire has been put out in both these atrocities, but the embers…the coals of what allowed them to happen are still smoldering underneath.

Does every movie that depicts a past injury or shameful period in history have a responsibility to address the past’s wrongs and the motivations behind such epic injustice? Perhaps not. A love story set in Victorian England does not necessarily have to right the wrongs of child labor laws and the plight of London’s working poor. However, a film that is directly taking aim at a group of oppressors might have such a responsibility. It’s important to put an event in its proper social setting and historical context, and perhaps even more important to understand how racism or anti-slavery could flourish and spread. It’s challenging to allow the evil monsters and antagonists to possess humanity and be deeper than shallow mustache-twirling archetypes. There may even be more horror in seeing the humanity of a person that commits such heinous and inhuman acts.

Lastly, it is dangerous to suggest that the easiest and most effective way to find justice is to rewrite history, and right all the wrongs that were inflicted upon a certain group of people. This justice is only sought with a heart of vengeance and is only exacted through brutal and unfeeling murder and torture. The avenger is reduced to the sadistic carnage characteristic of his master, and effectively loses his humanity in trying to retrieve it. The punishing avenger is trying to shed as much blood as his people have shed, but the action is a futile one. There is no way that a movie hero can avenge the brutal treatment his people have endured. There is no revenge fantasy big enough to reverse the wrongs that have been perpetrated. Therefore, it seems silly and unrealistic to reverse the wheels of time, and try and punish the evil, and right the wrongs of yesterday. Such fantasy allows the audience to delight in such revenge, but does not ask anything more of them. The audience is not allowed to see the true horrors of the Holocaust or the long-lasting reaches of slavery. They are treated to a shallow story of good vs. evil, and not provided a context. The few survivors of the Holocaust and the descendants of slaves everywhere, can take little comfort in looking down the barrel of a gun or setting a bomb under Hitler. I had no objectives to the abundant use of the n-word, since Tarantino is right in asserting that it was ubiquitous in that time period and place. I took more issue with not providing a context, and not seeing the wounding effect it had on people, and the dark legacy we have been left with.

In conclusion, I really like these films for what they are – fun and mindless revenge fantasies. However, I also found Tarantino missed a genuine opportunity here. For over 20 years, he has been making the same kinds of movies, and he has matured and grown very little as a filmmaker. Sure, his special effects have improved, and he has become more skillful with the camera, but he also hasn’t stepped out of his comfort zone. The problem with idolizing the ’70s is that a lot of that work was thin and superficial, and didn’t last because it offered very little artistic merit. His films are not thoughtful and contemplative. These movies were perfect chances to explore race and prejudice in our country. All while making a fun action film. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Tarantino made some fun films, but also dangerous explorations of prejudice without addressing the greater question of what made it and how we are still living it today. Once again, we got style, but little substance. I want to see Tarantno mature as an artist, and take all those tropes he loves, and craft something deeper and more thoughtful. Spielberg gave us Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and employed all his tricks and tropes, but added layers and meaning. It’s time Tarantino grew up, and made a film more like Hamlet, and less Foxy Brown.  Probably the most egregious thing is that Tarantino considers himself a great artist, and his work to be great art. He is very talented, and is stylish and fun to watch, but I’m afraid his work falls short of great art. Once he begins to engage his audience, and ask big questions, then I will consider him more seriously. For now, he is fun and continues to be entertaining.

Game of Thrones Spoilers

Thank you to all you ‘Game of Thrones’ fans who evidently never read the books and were therefore totally unprepared for the carnage of last night. I personally DVR the show and typically don’t watch it until Monday, so I appreciate your decision not to explicitly drop spoiler bombs, but to decide instead to cleverly express your gut-wrenching shock, furious rage, and despondent sadness at that one thing in particular, that the show perpetrated against its viewers last night!!!! For which you will never watch the show again. Gee, I can’t imagine what could have happened, through all that subtle subterfuge. Haha. Come on now! I guess I should stop watching too. I hear ‘True Detective’ is good, and there’s no pesky book it’s based on.

Whereas, all of my smug and satisfied friends who had actually read the books may have made snarky comments and even ridiculed me for not reading the series beforehand, they NEVER once gave a single thing away. I applaud them for their discretion and I’d like to think I could be so strong. (though probably not)

As for you first gaggle of illiterate scalawags, I am crushing your head and I will never forgive your indelicate indiscretions. And no, second group, I still don’t want to read the books. 😉


There’s Simply No ‘You’ in Utopia: The Fallacy of Felicity in Plato’s ‘Philosopher King’ Society

The word ‘Utopia’ was coined in Latin by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean. The word comes from the Greek: οὐ (‘not’ or ‘good’) and τόπος (‘place’) and can variously mean either ‘no-place-land’ or ‘good-place-land.’ There is quite an obvious distance between those two places. It’s fitting that the one Greek derivation of utopia would be ‘no place,’ since it would appear that utopia truly is no place that we’ll ever know or find. On its face, today’s violent and barbaric world is not so very different than the time of More, or even Plato, for that matter. However, communication and technology have irrevocably transformed our world and our connection to each other in it, leaving it proverbially ‘smaller.’ We have lost sight of those distant and idyllic civilizations of peace and tranquility once crowding the pages of lore. On a very literal level, we have thoroughly chartered and explored nearly every inch of this planet, and it is increasingly improbable that there are lost Shangri-Las still yet to be discovered. Even our understanding of the deep sea or the depths of outer space is sober and rooted in science, more than fantasy. Science Fiction itself projects utopian/ dystopian worlds—writ on an intergalactic canvas—but still allegories of Earth’s woes. On a theoretical level, ours is a world being culturally unearthed every day, and we are bombarded with new sights (and sites) that dramatically alter our worldview, and invariably make the strange and exotic familiar and comfortable. We may hold onto the last vestiges of enmity and barbarism, but today, it is couched in a highly sophisticated nuance the world has never known. We live in a society where we have adopted the idea that our leaders should look like us, and be superlative versions of ourselves: a little better looking, more stylish, confident, yet humble, etc. We do not inhabit a world where we place our trust in unparalleled giants of intellect and sagacious reasoning. We ask that they be smart and capable, but also possess so much more. Plato’s ‘philosopher king’ is enviable in theory, but our leaders need to be men and women of sterner stuff—of thoughtful and deliberate action, and even more careful diplomacy. They must certainly learn at the feet of philosophers when they deeply consider the natural rights of man, that are those not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, but are rather universal and inalienable truths and states of being. It is there that Plato’s philosopher king would retreat into his cave and ponderously and judiciously govern his fellow man. Such a ruler would be characterized by a dogged pursuit of inalterable essences and truth in deliberation. This same man would desire to peer beneath the superficial gloss of shallow understanding, and understand the richness and fundamental use and purpose of a thing. Plato’s rulers would thoroughly explore the deepest and most profound meaning in the world around them, to not only understand it better, but also be able to fairly and firmly govern it as well.

I would argue that such a world couldn’t exist today. Our leaders cannot be ascetic philosophers, governing from contemplative places of solace and scholarship. They must be men and women of the world, and exert even more energy engaging their Earthly peers, than exploring the ethereal catacombs of their own minds. We are far less physically active than the ancestors we might call barbaric today, but we are far more active in other ways. Like the increasingly diversified and multi-tasking workplaces around the globe, we elect leaders that demonstrate a wide array of strengths. We cannot solely rely on superior intellect and an exhaustive probing exploration of fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Those are the men and women that populate think tanks and demonstrably affect policy change. These are the loyal aides and advisors, Cabinet members, and trusted friends that think into a problem, so as he may think around it or through it. Instead of electing pure thinkers and philosophers, our world demands a more nuanced politician, and one who understands the delicate, and often perilous, balance between force and diplomacy. Leaders like this must possess: a deep and meaningful emotional intelligence; judicious reasoning capacity; a sizable wealth of knowledge, particularly regarding history and political maneuvering; empathy; and most importantly, a highly evolved, diversified, and adaptable style of communication. We live in a rapidly changing world of ubiquitous technology and communication. Any leader worth his salt, must expertly navigate the waters of diplomacy – with all the challenges of negotiating with adversaries, battling with foes on the home front, and balancing it all in the harsh glare of the media spotlight. Communication is the absolute number one most important trait for any world leader to have. Much of the rest can be learned, but communication—talking, negotiating, forging peace, flattering, standing resolute, warning, cajoling, and all the rest, are vital to a nation’s safety and livelihood. Frankly, it can mean the difference between building new bridges and burning down old ones.

One might find fault with this analysis by pointing out that both More and Plato were speaking theoretically. The work of both men is undoubtedly philosophical and academic, and intended to develop and further the paradigm of a parallel and ideal universe. Not surprisingly, it’s not clear whether More and Plato were suggesting anything more than a theoretical daydream of an n unblemished world. The first recorded utopian proposal can be found in Plato’s Republic. The text is part conversation, part fictional depiction, and part policy proposal, and proposes all citizens be categorized into a rigid class structure of ‘golden,’ ‘silver,’ ‘bronze’ and ‘iron’ socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens would be trained in a rigorous 50-year long educational program to be benign oligarchs—the ‘philosopher-kings.’ The wisdom of these rulers would supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, war would be contracted out or eliminated, and there are few laws in such a society. Plato effectively creates a utopian society, but one plagued with a rigid and unfair class system, and a society of wealth and elitism making decisions for the vast unwashed masses. Plato’s democratizing relief comes in the form of trickle down benevolence, and is the direct result of absolute power steadfastly held in the hands of a few titled men. All the cerebral heavy lifting in the world couldn’t account for the vagaries of human nature and unavoidable circumstances and catastrophe. I would argue that it is virtually impossible to solve the many ravishing ill of this planet, while refusing to come out of a gilded box of contemplation. 50 men can hardly provide for the needs of an entire nation, regardless of how smart they may be. Plato’s ‘philosopher-kings’ lack a tactile relationship with the world around them, and could never engage our diverse and challenging patchwork of nations today. However advanced and remarkable Plato’s Greece might have been, it was by no means, an egalitarian society. Plato was undeniably a product of his time and social standing. Even while pondering the ineffable uncertainties regarding the meaning of one’s own life, I have no doubt that Plato struggled with the even greater challenge of grasping life outside one’s own head. Plato’s search for truth was understandably solipsistic at times, and it’s not surprising that we see his utopian leaders look much like himself. Yet, was any of this meant to be taken seriously? Did Plato intend for it to be an academic model of an ideal world, with its sole purpose being for instruction and pedagogical scrutiny? If so, the theoretical proposal is interesting, but one flawed in its applicability.

Even in Plato’s time, his world could have benefited from more diplomacy and less conquest. But of course, holding up ancient Rome to 21st Century values and constructs is unfair and ultimately, a worthless endeavor. I’d like to think we’ve evolved as a people, but perhaps our primitive and savage natures are simply buried under learned civility, but easily awoken should the threat arise. In the conflicts with our foes, lay the conflicts with ourselves, as we are both the instruments of slaughter like our ancestors before us, and are our better selves, who call for peace and reconciliation. We are still evolving, and cannot seem to fully reconcile our animal instincts of defense and survival with our rational goals of peace and collaboration. Ours is a liminal age of great hope, and grave dangers. As we stand at the crossroads, we must choose a future for our planet, marked by cooperation, tolerance, and good will, or divisive territorialism and demonization of those deemed different and threatening to a certain way of life. Such prejudice can be found on both sides of the aisle, and there are heroes and scoundrels in every wolf pack and church choir. When it comes to peace, man’s reach may always exceed his grasp, and some who refuse to let go of their ancient grudges may never learn to reach for something new. As each generation passes on, more and more ancient grudges are buried with them and we seem to move that much closer to peace. In many ways, our miraculous tools of communication and fellowship have opened our eyes to the once exotic, and now familiar. Opposing lifestyles seem more acceptable and those we once feared are suddenly humanized by the time we now share together. In this time of tumult and possibility, more of us are awaking to the inalienable rights of everyone to live lives of liberty, dignity, and the freedom to control their own destinies. Rigid and unyielding institutions of learning, religion, government, and other monolithic pillars of our society, must evolve and accept that their members can live free and fulfilling lives, while investing in the growth and progress of the places they spent years embracing. However, these houses of the holy and home to sacred texts and learning must learn to embrace those who number in their ranks, or else risk extinction from failure to adapt. Even Aristotle concluded that “…it is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily.” And yet, these aging and immovable people and institutions still threaten our future, as their voices are invariably louder than those who preach peace and acceptance. They still wield the power to influence smaller and smaller numbers of younger folks. And sadly, many occupy the highest offices in the land, and are responsible for making public policy, and reinforcing laws and doctrine that propagate hate and intolerance. These elders of the state are dangerous to our well being, because their actions cast long shadows. In the case of dramatic global climate change, the decisions we do or don’t make now may have catastrophic and irreversible consequences in the very near future. These are just some of the many challenging issues that weigh heavily on our nation, and in turn, the world.

Being President of the United States, or any other country—to a lesser degree—takes a complex skill set, which cannot be forged solely in the furnace of the mind. Plato’s philosopher kings were finally deemed the most desirable rulers, after eliminating four other lesser possibilities. He arrived at this conclusion after deep consideration of the pros and cons of other political systems. After the death of Socrates, Plato was disillusioned with democracy and an Athens that was past its height of power and was waning and groaning under the weight of its pluralistic and populist philosophy. Plato was also fatigued by the loss of life inflicted by a costly war that Athens ultimately lost. Even the class system was clumsy and illogical, rewarding the common and uninformed man with the right to vote and influence law and policy. But Plato’s philosopher kings were not ideal choices, because their ponderous scholarship and search for the truth was self-imposed exile from the nation they’re charged with leading. Plato’s ideal and just state is an aristocracy, the rule of the best. He believed leaders needed to be wise and trained in how to run a state, just as captains of ships are trained in how to run a ship. And yet, his kings are thinkers and speculators, divorced from the needs and wants of the city they serve. They have never wanted for anything, and cannot be expected to equitably serve the needs of a needy and diverse city-state. Training an aristocrat to be a fair and consistent ruler is impossible in a vacuum of academic rigor and the fortification of cerebral acrobatics. As Greece was in decline, the democracy buckled under its own tyranny and corruption. Plato didn’t live to see it fall, and come under the rule of Macedon and later returned to the Greeks. Yet Aristotle did, and fell victim to one of the same charges of heresy that cost Socrates his life. In this instance, Aristotle was not executed, but paid the price in exile and an ignominious death. Although Plato had been his teacher, Aristotle disagreed with much of Plato’s philosophy. Plato was an idealist, who believed that everything had an ideal form and that the ideal government was an aristocratic hegemony of intellect and inherited leadership acumen. His philosopher kings would be well suited to rule, as they were products of superior education, good breeding, and refined tastes. In his ideal world, the aristocracy was preternaturally adept in ruling fairly and equitably. They understood their duty and responsibility. The ruling class was inextricably linked to reason and lived to gain wisdom. Their unquenchable thirst for knowledge and profound understanding would allow them to make informed decisions, forged in the crucible of carefully weighed arguments and facts. Plato believed no other class could provide such measured deliberation. As Plato’s prize pupil, Aristotle disagreed with an ideal state and believed in looking at the real world and studying how it realistically functioned and operated. He ultimately concluded that “…it is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily.” On the other hand, Plato posited that “excess of liberty, whether in states or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.” His ideal state was rigid and despite his severe hatred of tyranny, he chose to put the reigns of power in the hands of a select few citizens. Plato’s philosopher kings were not only perfect in breeding and pedigree, but in their natural reluctance to lead—preferring the ascetic pursuit of truth and enlightenment. Plato found virtue in such hesitancy, reasoning that “The truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.” In the end, Plato concluded: “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, . . . cities will never have rest from their evils . . .”

Our world is unmistakably different than the world of Plato and Aristotle, and Sir Thomas More. Their utopias favored the rich and educated, and provided a blueprint for a world perhaps ruled by withdrawn thinkers and reluctant leaders. Such men might theorize the way to win a war, but likely will not taste the sting of defeat or know what it is to lose a comrade. Their leaders will be insulated from their subjects, and know very little about the clasp of a handshake between foes. Our leaders cannot afford to be so aloof. They must inject themselves into the national debates, and make concerted efforts to reach out to their constituents. Not only as a political maneuver and way to bolster poll numbers, but also as a way to understand the thoughts, needs, concerns, ideas, and complaints of the American public. Philosopher kings don’t seek answers outside of themselves, and our contemporary world leaders should not escape into the caverns of their own minds. That is not to say that there aren’t several politicians who could benefit from more introspection and careful consideration. We all know that there are far too many leaders whose partisanship blinds them to the nuances and sober fairness of various laws, compelling them to vote quickly, but not carefully.

In our modern society, we have cowboy legislators and unyielding leaders of churches and other religious bodies, always quick to attack and reject issues of global importance, like climate change and non-proliferation weapons treaties, while fiercely and sadistically denouncing marriage equality and gender parity in the workforce. Such arguments may be rightfully justified in the eyes of their church, but the US government is not an arbiter of taste and morality, but a provider of equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, etc. It does not get simpler than this: if you allow the marriage between a man and a woman, you must allow the same between those of the same gender. This is no Jim Crow style justice of ‘Separate, but equal.’ All parties must be afforded the same rights, as mandated in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Similarly, women are entitled to earn the same exact wage as their male counterparts, and any business or entity defying that principle must be fined and held in compliance. These are the kind of raw nerve cases that test the civility of congress and its ability to work together for the common good, but which inevitably divides our government and stops the wheels of progress. Both parties are shamefully guilty of playing politics, and impulsively rejecting legislation, based solely on whom it’s sponsored by. These same men and women are quick to judgment, spin words of discord and blame foes liberally, and are exceedingly fast at taking action, for fear of being left out in the cold. More often than not, this body of legislators effectively function as a plutocracy, and are often tied together through wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Not surprisingly, the vast majority emerges from America’s aristocracy—understandably, given the prohibitive costs of mounting a viable campaign. Although we do not like to think of a rigid class system in this country, there most certainly is. Though they may refer to themselves as lower upper class or upper middle class, or use slippery euphemisms like ‘We were comfortable’ or ‘We never had to go without,’ these privileged few make up the 1%, and make up the populations of Ivy League schools, boarding schools, yacht clubs, golf tournaments, philanthropy and fundraisers, tropical villas, and a long list of exclusive pastimes. Perhaps these are the aristocratic philosopher kings that Plato described. However, on closer examination, it’s painfully clear that despite their education and breeding, a substantial number of our civic leaders are entrenched in their party and religious/ social/ political agendas, to the detriment of reason and careful consideration. Their decisions are hasty and habitually guided by loyalty and political gain. These are not the philosopher kings we seek, and could benefit from honest assessment, a willingness to collaborate and compromise, and a balanced analysis of every proposal put in front of them. It is their job, after all, and they have an obligation to all of us. Ours, it seems, is not a perfect or ideal system of government and our lawmakers (and other government employees, particularly Supreme Court justices) could possibly effect meaningful change in this country, if only they employed more of the scholarship and search for truth that the philosopher kings would naturally possess. Perhaps if our government took a step back to practice reason and empathy, we would reach agreement faster and more meaningfully.

Plato’s philosopher kings were men of learning and scholarship, and reluctant to get involved with affairs of state. They would rule with the commanding power of their own minds, using reason and dialectical discourse to work through problems, and envision scenarios and solutions. They were, for all intents and purposes, reasoning machines, and would perfectly serve the state and fit his ideal. And yet, these loyal and cerebral subjects do not possess the backbone and resolve to engage with the world around them. They are timid and reluctant to engage the common man, and are simply not experienced enough to understand his wants and needs, and serve any class but their own. Their brains are not sufficient enough to provide the wattage it would take to shine a light across the land. They are not men of action, but weak and ineffectual brains upon the throne. In stark contrast, the American political system—at every level—is rife with corruption, dirty campaigning, toeing the party line, making unethical alliances with businesses and wealthy contributors, making deals that undermine the opposing party, sabotaging the political process, hijacking a vote through absence or filibuster, and generally refusing to use reason and logic to work through a problem. These are not Plato’s philosopher kings, and could most certainly improve our crippled political system by resisting hasty reactions and dismissals, while taking time to deliberate and find ways to compromise and find common ground.

In the final analysis, Plato’s philosopher kings are unrealistic projections of who he envisioned as best leading a nation. It is no coincidence that his vaulted rulers look like him, and that he would naturally overlook the many deep flaws in such an impractical system. The reluctant and solipsistic nature of deep reflection and limited to no exposure to the outside world was probably not a viable option for Classical Greece, no more than it is for 21st Century America. At the same time, our system of government is fundamentally broken, and refuses to work together. This governing body is quick to take action and lock horns with opponents, the media, and anyone else that will listen. The one thing they fail to do is use reason to discover that collaboration and openness are not in fact signs of weakness, but rather, the cornerstone of all healthy negotiation and mutual respect. If Plato’s ideal state is anywhere, it is somewhere between philosopher kings and the power-junkie legislators moved by money and party agendas. In the middle lies a moderate engagement with their world, and a thoughtful considerate approach, with always the goal of compromise, along with civility and respect.

In our mythic ideal state, our Presidents and lawmakers and governors, and every public servant would understand that leaders couldn’t escape behind a desk and think through every scenario possible. There is a time and a place to take action, and leaders know that it is imperative that action be swift and purposeful. Ours is a complex world, and it is full of diverse people, separated by distance, language, culture, and belief systems. We must invest in leaders that can deliberate and draw conclusions from the vacuum of their mind, but also be prepared to engage defiant and reluctant foes, reach across the table and make painful concessions, and learn the cultural idiosyncrasies of those you’re negotiating with. When we invest in reason and logic, we understand that modern life is too complex to simply rule from the brain or the heart, and that every great leader is a thoughtful person of action, who is unafraid to defend what is theirs. We can so easily be both cerebral and people of action. The philosopher king is perhaps most unlikely in America, but the essence of disciplined scholarship and careful consideration, are skills every one of our leaders could benefit from. Plato’s aristocratic rulers could just as easily pick up the decisiveness, ease of communication, and skillful navigation through rough and unpredictable waters that are characteristic of politicians in the West. Perhaps together, we could find balance between heart and mind, and action and thought. Our leaders could be philosophers who probed the universe for answers, but also understood that the world around us needed answers and that meant making tough decisions along the way. Finally, we would find compromise, even if we could not agree to the same truths. Our philosophy should allow us to dream of an ideal world, while finding concrete ways to make that dream a reality.Image

Immorality Television: You’re Better Than Them & Better Them Than You


For many people, the thought of a world without reality television is undesirable, if not altogether unbearable. For others, reality television is the scourge of our airwaves, and has accelerated the coarseness found everywhere in our society today. Before the ubiquity of computers and the Internet, there was reality television…gently and harmlessly working its way into our living rooms, and our very consciousness. Shows like The Real World were voyeuristic, sure, but perhaps they offered some insight into interpersonal communication and small group dynamics. Over the years, more and more shows were added, and they diversified – with premises revolving around cooking, dating, singing, dancing, etc. There was seemingly a show for everyone, and catered to a wealth of different interests. With something for everyone, reality television was clearly here to stay. Over time, it lost its newness, but never its popularity. You could hardly remember a time before such entertainment. It was in our well water. It was in our blood. But was it good for us?


There were both quality shows, and tasteless dreck, like any network programming. We kept on watching. The lines between the two often blurred, and it was easy to excuse away our guilty pleasures as pure harmless amusement. Over the years, the stakes seemed to get higher and we demanded more and more thrills. We weren’t satisfied unless we witnessed physical violence, screaming matches, tears, humiliation, or some sort of shaming event where the participant was severely embarrassed or cruelly scorned. Of course, we’d never admit to that, but that’s what we all wanted. Naturally, not all shows were like this, but as one might expect, those raucous and sensational shows began to dominate the landscape. Their crowded presence in the television market allowed these loud and shallow shows to subtly contaminate the well. Shows that were not inclined to such antics were suddenly less vigilant in their standards of decency. Some resisted, and paid the price in cancellations. Networks that once offered educational and cultural programming, became unscrupulous peddlers of lurid television, devoid of all nutritional value. Reality television spread like fire, and took over swaths of new and old cable networks. Despite the fact that a considerable portion of the population denounced reality television and found it had more of a deleterious effect on the public than a positive one, we still kept on watching. As much as we all denied it, clearly someone was watching. It was everywhere, and growing by the day.

Networks knew they had caught lightening in a bottle. They could assemble a skeleton crew of writers to sketch a scenario…a premise…and then hold some kind of mass audition….and then populate a house….island….kitchen….stage….etc. with ambitious amateurs, who were already hungry for their deserved 15 minutes of fame. By and large, they didn’t have to pay these amateurs, or at least, not very much. Their overhead was keeping up the production costs of the show. For all intents and purposes, there were no writers to pay, union actors to hire, royalties or rights to negotiate, and they had nearly no production design costs in the way of sets, costumes, special effects, etc. How could they not push reality television on the American public? Of course, it didn’t take that much convincing. We were hooked.

MW-CQ763_realit_20140815112037_MGOf course, we all know we’re being manipulated at both ends of the bargain. You’d have to be real dim to not know that these little conflagrations of anger, sadness, rage and all those other marketable emotions are completely staged and scripted. Scenarios are arranged to maximize conflict and enmity. Well, duh. Conflict and obstacles are the foundation of world drama and script development. No one really wants to watch an hour of someone clipping toenails and brushing their teeth. Reality television producers quickly realized that the reason people go to theatre or watch scripted films and television, is that good writing is always tightly wound and simmering with tension and anticipation. Characters have objectives that clash, and we only see the most dramatic moments in these peoples’ lives. Drama is about seeing Willy Loman’s WORST day, not the day he mowed the lawn and nothing happened. Unfortunately, reality is not so interesting. But since they couldn’t script it, they have to boil all the drama into succinct sound bites that they can replay ad nauseam. They wanted it both ways.

The reality of reality television also relates to its parasitic relationship with Hollywood and the industry, in general. There’s no way to get a truly accurate idea of how much damage reality television has had on the Industry, because frankly, it has lined the pockets of some, while beggaring others. It has been Hollywood’s boon, while leaving others bust. It is common knowledge that its impact on regular working actors in Los Angeles and New York was devastating. Seemingly, over night, average people – untrained and with little to no experience – were taking jobs that would have been guest spots or series regular gigs in scripted television shows. Writers were put out of work. Designers looked elsewhere. Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?

The Bread and Circus had arrived.

But lest you think I have nothing but superior contempt and loathing for reality television, I also concede that it does have its virtues. For one, the very genre may not even exist if it hadn’t been for the glut of awful and anemic sitcoms that littered network television in the eighties and all through the nineties. People were fatigued by the predictable and formulaic plots and one-dimensional stock characters. The medium was exhausted and offered little variety. Shows like Seinfeld broke the mold a little, and blossomed, whereas other stale stinkers fell away. Americans were hungry for something more real. Something more genuine. They also wanted to see people that looked like themselves. Eventually, some people not only wanted to watch people that looked like them, but watch them do foolish and dangerous things, all while secretly feeling better about themselves and their poor decisions. As shameful and dark as it is to admit, there’s a visceral satisfaction – however small – that we all take in the pain of others. Not that we actually want another person to be hurt or killed, but they are our proxy after all. They suffer, so as we don’t have to. In scripted drama, that’s simply an actor fictitiously representing that pain. In reality television, it’s a real person, in real pain. And somehow we forgot the difference.

2009-07-07-reality-tv-destroy2Despite the deluge of small-minded, xenophobic, racist, exploitive, sexist, offensive, querulous, and sensational reality television, there have also been a number of quality programs that have enriched the lives of millions. Shows like American Restoration, 1900 House, Mythbusters, SciGirls, Cake Boss, The Amazing Race, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown are educational and entertaining. Many people would argue that at the end of a long day, the last thing they want is to be educated, and the first thing they want is to be mindlessly entertained. And amused by the outrageous antics of people that may look like them, but are thankfully not them. Reality television opens peoples’ living rooms up to the world, and can take them hiking through the outback, sitting on a broke down porch in rural Georgia, dashing around a noisy and fragrant NYC kitchen, or sitting by a pool in Beverly Hills. This was no longer Sam Malone’s crowded bar or Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe’s living room. This was the world. And it was not theirs. At the end of the day, what’s the harm in a little escapism?

The effects of prolonged exposure to a steady diet of reality television may be as elusive to measure as the effects of video games on adolescent minds. There can be no doubt that we have become a coarser and less polite society. We are far less likely to offer the common courtesies to each other, that our parents and grandparents would have taken for granted. It’s been a long time since movies like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, Psycho, or even Jaws actually frightened and sickened moviegoers at the cinema. Today, we have become so desensitized to violence, that we are hardly disturbed at the sight of graphic depictions. Even AMC’s popular hit, The Walking Dead routinely depicts brutal gruesome acts of violence on regular cable television, which in the past would have only been relegated to Rated-R films. Our ratings standards have slowly been relaxed, as our tastes and attitudes towards sex and violence have evolved over time. This has been a long and steady evolution, and there’s no one culprit, if that’s even the word to describe a society’s mutual consent to move away from its conservative Puritan roots. Perhaps video games have played a part…or the movies we see…or the rancor of our political system. It might be the natural byproduct of a nation at peace and relatively prosperous for a number of years. It might be reality television. In all likelihood, it’s all of those things, but much more.

reality_tv-206x300 Reality television isn’t innately good or evil. There is nothing more natural than the desire to film the people and events around you. That’s the very essence of the uniquely American home video. Reality television in itself is a highly versatile medium, with a lot of potential to both educate and entertain. The two DO NOT need to be mutually exclusive, although sadly they most often are. Shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Jersey Shore, Toddlers & Tiaras, Temptation Island, Duck DynastyThe Real Housewives of…, and Celebrity Rehab are toxic, and really have no redeemable qualities. We have become so starved for ‘the real’ that we have created a dominant and immovable genre of abuse and misuse. It’s judges cruelly lay into fragile artistic egos; it’s quack doctors have no scruples in toying with the emotions and triggers of their celebrity patients; roommates refuse to share space and would rather confront each other in violent shrieking tirades; chefs berate their underlings in angry, expletive-laden tirades for every minor error in the kitchen; uneducated greedy mothers exploit the talents of their children for profit and gain, while they themselves are exploited by a network with the same objective; overweight contestants are taunted and ridiculed, while they work hard for the money, as much as the coveted ‘sexy bod’; selfish, bored and spoiled housewives have nothing better to do than backstab and undermine their ‘frenemies’ – a word that was coined in the 1950s, but never truly found its ring until this generation. These are the people we choose to spend our nights and weekends with, and over time, they too have truly become our frenemies.


The sheer act of being exposed to a morally bankrupt, selfish, dissolute, and malicious person does not necessarily mean you are going to be corrupted yourself. No more than a teenage boy exposed to a violent video game repeatedly is going to turn around and commit a heinous violent crime. HOWEVER, there is something to be said for an exclusive steady diet of nothing but garbage television. Just as there’s no harm in eating the occasional cupcake. But when you start to eat only cupcakes, then you have a real problem. Shakespeare is full of treacherous and duplicitous self-confessed villains, and many of them are written in complex ways, so you can empathize and even identify with them. They are often funny and smart, and have other appealing traits, that make them likable. This invokes a mixed feeling of dread in the viewer, since there is a certain understandable regret or shame in rooting for a monster depicting such horrific acts in front of you. We see this in our best episodic scripted television today. Tony Soprano and Walter White would hardly be worth watching if they were two-dimensional villains, without the humanity we crave in our heroes–villains or not. However, these characters are also surrounded by characters that are resolutely good and positive influences. In fact, the majority of those around them are likely “good”–a fact probably true of our own world and lives. Scripted television and theatre allows that ‘evil character’ to jostle against the goodness of those around them, and we are privy to the logic that goes into their poisonous decisions. And we see their doubts and the inherent goodness try to sway the scoundrel away from his predetermined course. Most importantly, we see the consequences of those actions, and there is often some kind of justice and/or redemption meted out in the end. And you may say, but wait, real life does not always give us tidy just endings, and villains aren’t always punished. But they are. Whether it’s their freedom denied, their loss of loved ones, crippling poverty, or the heavy burden of regret, they are punished–even if not to the satisfaction of their victims. Dramatic writing can expertly craft moments of justice and reward, and allows us to glimpse the impact on everyone involved. Reality television often pits one unsympathetic villain against another, and revels in the carnage that follows. There often are no redeemable people, and the fights, toxic behavior and poor decisions are not contextualized or commented on in any meaningful way, Bad behavior is not punished, but actually rewarded. Deception, lying, and cheating end up proving to be effective tools and qualities, and people cultivate these traits in an effort to win. Nearly every reality show on television has some aspect of winning and competition, even the more domestic ones.

imagesAll too often, reality television turns its camera on the moment of crisis, when the action is at its highest, and reason has long been abandoned. These moments are bloodsport, and offer us very little in return. The innovative use of the ‘confessional’ in reality television allows the subjects to talk frankly to a camera and confess their deepest secrets, animosities, motivations, etc. This seems to be the functional equivalent of the monologue or soliloquy in theatre, film, and television. The problem is that the clips are heavily edited, and all but the most lurid and provocative is excised from the tape. We are often left with a confessional that was strong-armed out of the subjects almost immediately after altercations, with no time to calm down and reason through their thoughts. Confessions end up being filled with curses and threats, and promises of future violence. Although there are certainly times when these moments betray remorse, allow for reason, and foster reconciliation, the vast majority are angry rants of rage and the inevitable plotting of revenge. We are robbed of the chance to witness those quiet moments of introspection that we all have–even those of us most shallow and least self-aware. It is human nature to dwell on our actions and interactions, regardless of whether we approve or disapprove. In reality television, we see all of the fire, but none of the air that breathes it life and the brush that feeds its flames. People came to see stuff burn.

Reality television is an expertly crafted illusion, and we are all held fast in its spell. Even those of us that understand it’s not reality, and who view it for the fun and silliness of it, are still unsuspecting victims of its heat. When we view such cruelty, abuse, and ridicule on regular scripted television, we are always still aware that we’re watching actors portray fictional scenarios. We may be moved or angered, but we’re never entirely lost in the fantasy. And perhaps that’s not a bad thing. It allows us to empathize and emotionally invest in a character or storyline, but never lose our objectivity completely. We are witness to a crime, but not necessarily its victim. In reality television, the lines are blurred, because we instinctively know that we are not watching actors perform lines from a script, but are faintly aware that we are still being manipulated, and that scenarios don’t typically happen so succinctly and conveniently. The words coming out of their mouths may not be scripted, but they do seem to be guided and styled by those who know the truth that reality is not so interesting, and much more prosaic than we would like. Just as improv comedians and Commedia dell’arte actors have archetypal characters and familiar loose plot structures/scenarios/tropes they can draw on even without scripted dialogue, the participants in reality television quickly learn to exploit their own speech and expressions for sound bites and catchphrases on the show. Reoccurring conflicts and hostile scenarios generate their own scripts, as the characters’ sound bites meet, and each fill an archetypal role in the family/business/competition.  Furthermore, in regards to its claims at truth, reality television is a perfect example of the well known scientific theory of Observer Effect, in which an object is irrefutably changed by the very presence of those observing it–however unobtrusive they may be. Reality television stars know they’re singing for their supper, and if they want that camera to continue to follow them, they had better perform. This inevitably leads to nastier fights, more violent brawls, higher risk taking, exaggerated emotion, and other high-octane antics. Just as the producers are orchestrating internal conflict and editing scenes to maximize enmity, the stars themselves are investing greater and greater amounts of anger and energy into fights, lovemaking, and even tearful scenes of reconciliation. The subject is inalterably changed by the camera that captures them, and our unscripted television show suddenly inherits a team of amateur writers in the stars they choose to cast. Needless to say, nobody’s taking home an Emmy in scriptwriting.

honey-honey-boo-booReality television is a myth we all cheerfully buy into, but are equally injured by its duplicitous nature. At the end of the day, we know Walter White is a character played by the talented Bryan Cranston. He hasn’t actually killed all those people, but we can still take comfort in the justice he earned and the cautionary lessons we take from it. It is wildly entertaining, but also instructive and enlightening. Walt was us–the everyman–who felt small and unappreciated, and ultimately, had nothing to live for. His empire was his own masculinity and a desperate need to feel big again. We saw his devastating journey, and even when we were appalled and disapproving, we still understood who he was and why he did it all. In reality television, we are robbed of context, and only see the carnage, without any of the true complexity that makes us human. Shallow, vicious, and contentious people are selected for their marketable volatility. They are not cast for their thoughtfulness or ability to effectively communicate with those around them. It is bloodsport. It is a cockfight. Reality television fulfills our deepest primal and reptilian urges, while depriving our brains of anything nutritious. The genre is a myth because it tricks us into thinking that we are watching real people go about their lives, but then we also know that these lives are tightly manicured and edited story lines with ‘real people’ vying for our attention, and manipulating reality to suit the needs of the story and themselves. And yet, even though we know it’s unscripted, over-produced and directed meaningless drama on camera, it is still REAL, for the very fact that real people are getting hurt–physically, psychologically, and emotionally. We always knew that Walter White was really Bryan Cranston wearing fake blood. But it’s different when we feel invested in a reality television show in a way we would a drama, because we’re still taking small delight in the injury of its stars. We are witnessing actual pain in a real human being, but somehow processing it in a scripted-fictional psycho-structure. If nothing else, reality television–among other factors–has disrupted what we knew as reality, and left us in a place where it’s now harder to distinguish between fact and fiction, and what we should invest our empathy in. Our fictional hero wears the makeup, our reality television star wears the real bruises, but it may be us who comes away with the most damage.

Many who talk about the “dumbing down” of America, attribute it in some small part to reality television and its deleterious effects on minds. I think even its staunchest defenders would agree that the majority of it is puerile mindless entertainment, and nothing more. Naturally, they would still contend that it is harmless, and certainly no more destructive than violent fictional programs are. But there is something different. While it’s impossible to know whether reality television is a causative factor or merely a symptom, it certainly seems to have spilled over into our lives. There are many of us who only watch this kind of television. Others are casual viewers. I myself watch a few shows from time to time, and enjoy them. However, I do feel that it is slowly contaminating our culture in ways that may not be readily apparent. And I don’t mean that in some Judao-Christian moral crusade kind of way. My tastes run dark and macabre, and I enjoy twisted tales of humanity. However, my fictional proclivities are at odds with the reality of a genre seemingly built on voyeuristic ridicule and confrontation. Many of the shows are vicious competitions between amateur hopefuls, just like you and me, who are thrust into the spotlight. The level of discourse is often needlessly cruel and critical, and participants are almost always subject to unreasonable scrutiny and ridicule, particularly regarding their bodies and appearance. Undoubtedly, reality television is not alone in its negative portrayals of body image and superficial value judgements, but it is a very flagrant offender–if for no other reason than the fact that it is so crass and wields its criticism so honestly. There is no artistry in the harsh words of judges, doctors, lawyers, and other arbiters of this world, for they are wounding for ratings, not betterment. We know we are watching ‘reality,’ and slowly, that reality becomes ours. We are somehow unable to fully extricate ourselves from the worlds we find ourselves in. Their crass language becomes ours, their standards of acceptable behavior may find its way into our impenetrable moral code. Humans are instinctively mimetic–we imitate our parents almost from birth. Our lives are rich patterns of the tricks we learned long ago, and the imitations we pick up nearly every day. We are incalculably tied to our televisions, and every image and sound we process make their way through the unchartered pathways of our mind and leave hypothetical engrams in their wake. In a show like Breaking Bad, the script might skillfully lead its audience to places where it can draw conclusions and take away something meaningful, whereas a show like Temptation Island simply orchestrates predatory scenarios of unethical enticement and encourages reckless infidelity. Where one depicts wreckage, but ultimately leaves fertile soil, the other reaps carnage and leaves nothing but scorched earth behind. With a few exceptions, even the better reality television shows are crude and instantly gratifying, without any of the work. Entertainment does not have to be mindless, and depicting cruelty does not have to be cruel. I am no prude or Puritan. I thoroughly enjoy violent, and even profane art and culture. But what I do abhor is thuggish and uncivilized crudity in a form that sometimes passes itself off as art, but is ill bred and incapable of rising to that level of imagination. I resent any loud and unsubtle bully hijacking a society’s imagination, and convincing us all we are eating a well-balanced meal, rather than a bagful of sugar. I object to the idea that entertainment cannot be more than one thing. Writers throughout the ages have crafted violent, suspenseful, heart-wrenching, thrilling works of fiction that also happened to be clever, poetic, nuanced, deep, instructive, uplifting, profound, and much more. If Shakespeare could entrance and excite the illiterate commoner in the pit, while simultaneously stir and delight the royalty in the boxed seats, than any capable writer, director, and producer can do the same. It doesn’t take the Bard’s genius to create art that is both pleasing and edifying, but it does take an imagination and a desire to invest in people, not fleece them.

Survivor_ImageDespite my strident objections to 95% of all reality television, I also recognize that it may have inadvertently given us a gift back–The ‘Golden Renaissance of Television.’ I may be going out on a proverbial limb here, but I think it’s reasonable to point out that the growth and explosion of reality television on the American psyche happened not long before the rebirth of great American storytelling – particularly in hour-long cable network television dramas. Although there had been some early contenders – The Shield, Hill Street Blues, etc, it was really the forward-thinking programmers at HBO who got the ball rolling. Most people consider The Sopranos to be the benchmark and official starting point of this golden age we seem to be happily in. From there, other shows followed, like Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The West Wing, Downton Abbey, House of Cards, Sherlock, Luther, Homeland, and Orange is the New Black. Now, it seems you can’t flip a channel without coming across a really well-written, engaging, well-plotted, acted, designed, and directed show–on any number of networks. There’s still far too much reality television out there, but at least we have our own lightening in a bottle, and can see our way home again. Each of those shows offer comedy, drama, action, romance, rich character development, and tightly woven plot lines filled with all the twists and turns you could ask for. Even the most violent and sensational still offer up thought and reflection, and leave you better than when you went in. Was necessity the mother of invention here, and were writers forced to think outside the box in order to survive and tell stories again? Wouldn’t it be rich if reality television were responsible for an explosion of creativity that would ultimately take some its own programs off the air? I’d like to think that it’s no coincidence that as our minds were flooded with more and more nonsense, there was an uprising of artists, who decided that they had had enough and boldly created audacious and innovative television, that recaptured the imaginations of at least some of the American public.

top-chef-logo-image-413526-article-ajust_930I do not condemn all reality television and its very existence. The desire to pick up a camera and film our neighbors and ourselves is the essence of art and its fascination with preserving our image. There are wonderful shows that educate, and others that showcase the talents of singers and dancers, and other artists. However, I take exception when any one medium dominates another, and seems so transparently fueled by money and ratings, often at the expense of those it portrays. The few reality shows that are fantastic all have a few things in common: they are not exploitive of their subjects; they are instructive in some way; their objective is to bring out the best in their stars and allow the world to see their talents, rather than their worst traits; and they all understand that if the people and stories are exceptional to begin with, the show will most likely be a highly entertaining and informative hit.

Watching reality television from time to time is not going to rot your brain. However, it also isn’t the safe and fun vacation it purports to be. Parents especially should take an active interest in what their kids are watching. As it’s evolved (or de-evolved, as the case may be), reality television has actually become a rather perilous place, where reality is blurred and we are inundated with negative stereotypes, caustic language, irrational anger, violence of all kinds, molestation, incest, ignorance, sexism, racism, bullying, ridicule, and brutal criticism and discouragement.

I find it inexcusable when networks and fans of a certain reality show act shocked and disappointed to learn about the deplorable comments and actions of the show’s stars off-screen, especially when it is consistent with their behavior on the show. In December 2013, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson went on an “anti-gay” bigoted tirade in GQ Magazine, after which his network A&E condemned the comments and said they don’t reflect their own values, and that they were shocked and dismayed. They decided to impose an indefinite suspension. This reaction was disingenuous, since the network had heard remarks like this from Robertson and his family before, and they knew exactly what they were getting when they signed them in the first place. That’s WHY they signed them. They’re controversial, and they’re the highest rated program on the network. The show has broken several ratings records on A&E and cable television as a whole. The fourth season premiere drew 11.8 million viewers; the most-watched nonfiction cable series in history. Fans also acted shocked and horrified at Robertson’s remarks, and although some abandoned the show, most went right back and continued watching.

There is a disconnect-hypocrisy found in the minds of many hardcore reality television viewers. Many, if not most, consider themselves morally superior to the people in the shows they watch, and even derive a sense of haughty pleasure at being better than the people they watch for amusement. They may consider themselves good, just, fair, moral, open-minded, and compassionate people, but then turn around and watch child abusers, cheaters, racists, sexists, homophobes, and other deplorable characters on their shows. Remember, this isn’t fiction they are watching, with actors just doing their job. These are actual “lowlifes.” As such, there is something morally reprehensible about someone deriving pleasure from another person’s misery, and feeling a sense of superiority over them. Furthermore, by watching these programs, people are indirectly stamping their approval on this objectionable and dangerous behavior, and rewarding poor parenting, deception, bigotry, and more with lucrative television deals. When these stars receive high ratings and endorsement deals, we are endorsing their bad behavior and encouraging them to continue.


Not long ago, it was learned that the mother of Honey Boo Boo had chosen to get back together with her boyfriend, a convicted child molester, despite the danger to her daughters. Somehow, Americans were shocked and surprised. They were disappointed in this uneducated woman, who they considered ignorant “white trash,”grossly obese, and a bad parent. How could they be shocked, when she was already the target of their scorn and ridicule? We knew this man, and what he was like, and we knew the woman who chose him. How could anyone be surprised at such news? Now we learn that one of the ten boys on 19 Kids and Counting molested four of the nine girls back in 2003-4. The show follows a deeply religious couple and their 19 children, their childrens’ spouses, and their grandchildren. All of the children are homeschooled, and access to entertainment, such as movies and television, is limited. The values presented on the show have been associated with the Quiverfull movement, which has been described as promoting strict family conformity, male hierarchies, and subservient roles for women. The clearly repressed atmosphere undoubtedly played a role in this incestuous molestation. The whole situation is a real shame, but not one that should have been a shock to anyone. Most of these reality shows are a breeding ground for conflict, rape, abuse, violence, bigotry, intolerance, promiscuity, and worse. It infects our minds, our words, and our actions.

On the one hand, if you’re there to watch reality television because the behavior looks like your own, then it only reinforces your bad behavior and effectively puts a stamp of approval on your dysfunctional traits. If you’re there to observe people that aren’t like you and perhaps to feel superior to them, you are still somehow condoning their behavior by the very fact that you are a happy witness to such incivility. And can you really claim the moral high ground, when you take pleasure in other peoples’ misery? Even as we think we walk away unscathed, we carry words and actions with us, and cannot unsee what we’ve seen. We may not use their words exactly, or react as hotly and as violently as those we’ve seen, but we’ve somehow still condoned that behavior, and may have internalized all the violence and poor decision making. Just as we are the unwitting victims of what we all witnessed on September 11, and can never see the world the same way again, we are also products of our television, and of a genre that plays cruelly with only some of us, but may make victims of us all.