Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Survivor: New Meat

I’ve never watched a single episode of the various CBS Survivor shows. It’s not that my entertainment tastes are so refined. I’ve watched my share of crap TV. It’s just that the whole premise behind these Survivor shows is such bullshit. If they’re going to put these people on deserted islands in order to see who lasts the longest, then put them on the islands and see who lasts the longest. Don’t fake it with phony challenges and such. Let’s see how these bozos do without any food and water for six months. He who survives wins the prize. If someone gets injured or sick, and dies, tough luck. How about a little cannibalism? I mean, don’t promise the Coliseum, if you aren’t going to deliver the Coliseum.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but I don’t understand why anyone would want to watch some phony survival contest, and America’s television viewers have apparently come to see it the same way, and ratings for these shows has been declining. So, how has CBS responded to this situation? They’re giving us Survivor: Cook Islands. In this version of the franchise, the contestants will be divided up into four “tribes” that are segregated according to ethnicity. There will be a tribes of whites, blacks, latins, and asians. A number of civil rights organizations have protested, claiming that CBS is promoting racism.

No doubt this show will promote racism, in some small sense anyway. However, more than anything else it reflects American realities. The fact is that, in the public space, racism is the 500-pound gorilla that everyone pretends isn’t there. (Class is another such big gorilla in that space, but I’ll leave that for another post.) If one were to learn about race in America only by watching TV, one would conclude that it’s a thing of the past and that, when racial incidents occur, an overwhelming majority of the people disapprove of them.

Racial differences as presented on TV are mere foibles of the sort that provide fodder for comedians. A staple of beer commercials is the group of white and black guys watching sports, as though this sort of thing were typical. I’m certain that there are white and black guys who are the sort of good buddies who watch sports together, but such situations are so rare as to be anomalous. The reality is that, when it comes to our private lives, we gather into self-segregated cliques and crews.

Without a doubt, there have been significant advances in the race situation in this country. When I was a very small child I visited my grandparents in Florida. I can remember the water fountains, one for whites and one for coloreds. Those days are gone and hopefully forever, but racism still thrives in America. Here in Georgia, I have worked with many educated and intelligent whites who, when they felt that they were in a situation where they could speak freely, expressed the opinion that blacks were intellectually inferior, and thus incapable of holding down the jobs that required intelligence and education. One coworker who had a master’s degree in computer science even went so far as to claim that the National Football League was being taken over by blacks because they had harder heads and could therefore better tolerate the hits that the players have to take. That is such nonsense that I thought he was joking at first, but he was completely serious.

These sorts of opinions are still out there, but there proponents have been intimidated and silenced. That is for the best in my opinion, but we shouldn’t underestimate the strength of those attitudes. The right-wing movement that put the Bush cabal into power is deeply rooted in the beliefs of this publicly silenced segment of our society.

I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Survivor: Cook Islands does well. Most people in this country believe in racial stereotypes. Black are better athletes than whites. Asians are better at science and math than whites. Whites are smarter than blacks. Mexicans don’t mind living in big groups, stuffing a dozen people into a single apartment. Those are just some of the stereotypes and, to the extent that they might seem to be true, the explanation lies in the realm of the social and cultural, not in some mythical notion of race.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A Life of Luxury

So, I’m sitting there watching some nothing show on the History Channel. A promo comes on for an upcoming feature about Osama Bin Laden. The announcer says that we may not know where he is, but we know where he’s been. A talking head then comes on and says that Bin Laden was living a life of luxury while conducting a war. He is presumably talking about the mujahedeen war against the Soviets.

At first I thought nothing about this but, when the promo came on a second time, I got to pondering what was being said. I have no idea what they mean when saying that he lived a life of luxury but, since he is of Arab extraction, and because we’ve all been taught what those Oriental types are like, we’re obviously supposed to conjure up visions of dancing girls, rich food, and fine wines. It’s supposed to suggest that he’s a corrupt and depraved individual. Now, for all I know, Bin Laden may well be corrupt and depraved, but think about it. Doesn’t the American president lead a life of luxury?

Dancing girls? Well, ask old Bill Clinton about that. Rich food and fine wine? The White House has a chef, and I doubt that old George and Laura do any cooking themselves at the ranch in Crawford, unless he’s grilling steaks during a photo op. Remember old George Senior? He was fascinated by the scanning device at a supermarket that he visited during a campaign appearance. He’d never seen one before because he’d never had to shop.

The fact is that anyone who has servants is leading a life of luxury. They don’t necessarily have to party down and screw like bunnies. Just ask the Pope. If anyone leads a luxurious life, he does, and he’s not exactly known for his parties.

What this all points out is how brainwashed we Americans have become. Without a second thought, some talking head can say that Bin Laden was living a life of luxury while conducting a war, as though that were sufficient in itself to condemn him. I doubt that there were many who saw that promo who thought that there was anything at all ironic about it. But then, if the Busheviks are to be believed, to think too critically is to give aid and support to terrorists.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Not So Distant Mirror

I recently finished reading A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. It’s a history of fourteenth-century Europe as told by following the career of a prominent member of the French nobility, Enguerrand VII, the Sire de Coucy. He rose to the very highest levels of power in the French monarchy and he was noted in particular for his diplomatic skills.

I really enjoy the way Tuchman writes history, and this was my second reading of the book. The first was some fifteen years ago. I had forgotten much of it, and it was delightful to become reacquainted with the subject. There are so many interesting little tidbits that I found intriguing. For instance, at that time there were only a dozen cities in Europe with populations of over 50,000, and eight of them were in Italy. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

There were also some amusing tidbits. Deschamps, an epic poet and chronicler of the period, writes that he wished the fashion for head coverings at court would return to spare the feelings of the bald. (He was bald himself.) He even expressed sympathy for those that he termed the cheveux rebourses, who carried mirror and comb around with them so that they could comb their hair over their bald spots. Imagine that, there were guys with those ghastly comb-overs, even way back in the fourteenth century.

Tuchman’s book provides much to ponder on the more serious side as well. The fourteenth century was a particularly terrible time for the French common folk. It was bad enough that the nobility looked upon them as little better than domestic animals, but they were stuck in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War. Not only did that mean onerous taxation, but the tactics pursued by the armies of the time meant that the common folk were the ones to suffer. In the fourteenth century, military architecture had reached the point where it was impossible to take a fortified settlement. As a result the defending army would hole up in the fortifications and the attackers would initiate a siege. The first thing they would then do was to destroy the crops, burn the surrounding villages and farms, as well as killing and raping the inhabitants.

This got me to thinking. The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East has let to much commentary about how civilians are the victims in these modern-day wars that rely so heavily on air power and highly technological weapons. I even saw a talk on Book TV on CSPAN2 where a doctor who had worked with an NGO in various war zones said that over ninety percent of casualties in the wars of recent years were civilians. That’s way up from the estimates of World War One and Two. However, down through history the main victims of all wars have been the non-combatants. They may not have died in the wars per se, but it wasn’t uncommon for the victors to engage in orgies of slaughter. There have indeed been periods where the common folk were relatively untouched, but they are anomalous. I could elaborate, but it would require an essay of monograph length to explain it. I recommend Of Arms And Men: A History of Wars, Weapons, And Aggression by Robert L. O’Connell if you’re interested in the question.. Among other things, it addresses the historical and sociological questions of why war visits such horrible depredations upon the common folk in some eras but not in others.

Of course, the common conclusion that is often drawn from ruminations like the ones above is that war solves nothing. That is unfortunately not true. A lot is at stake for the ruling elites in wars, and a lot can be gained. That’s exactly why wars happen.