I’ve been stalling about writing this particular story. The word “heartsick” should tell you why.
So I’ll temporarily evade entering the heart of this story by going back many years ago, to a memory of a lunch — no, “lunch” is too proletarian; it was a luncheon — at the Plaza Hotel, in its Oak Room. (I don’t remember whether Trump owned it at that point but if he did, it wasn’t for long: he had to make one of his regular forays into bankruptcy shortly after.)
I’d been invited by “Alice,” a long-time friend, who’d come to New York with a group of women pals to go to shows, eat, shop. Aside from my relationship with Alice, I sensed I’d been invited to be The New Yorker; the group came from another part of the country.
Everyone except me was elegantly and expensively dressed. (Whatever I was wearing, it was casual and from a discount store. I never paid retail for clothing.)
Maybe it was a presidential election season because, oddly, politics came up. I don’t recall participating. I do remember one woman speaking what was clearly her mantra: “I vote my wallet. I always vote Republican.” And everyone nodded.
All the women, Alice’s friends, were white and were from well-off suburban neighborhoods. Alice’s neighborhood was all-white and pleasantly middle-class. When they came to New York, which they did fairly regularly, they stayed in posh hotels or apartments. I understood it meant a lot to Alice that, in her perception, she’d moved up in the economic hierarchy from middle-class to wealth.
At the time of that luncheon there was no reason for me to think, “these women are racists.” Yet I had stored the mental picture of all of us at that big round table: I was the oddball while they were a unified group. A peer group with certain rules that were not mine.
In 2008, after Obama was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate, Alice told me about some books she’d been reading, books that claimed to report on “dark truths” about Obama.
Was it the first time I heard the name Jerome Corsi, conspiracy theorist? Definitely the first time I saw how some writers had set up a channel outside credible journalism to twist and distort history and influence gullible people. It was also the first time, as Alice told me about all the “truths” she’d been gathering — she started each presentation with, “Did you know about–?” — that I faced the discomfort of not knowing what she was talking about, not understanding her reference points, her citations.
First time I was made to feel uneasy. Not uneasy about these “truths”: I knew they were over-hyped minutiae or utter garbage, and in the case of the “dark truths” about Obama, clearly racist. But I was uneasy because I couldn’t refute them with clear facts. They were presented as truth only available to people who knew where and how to get these truths.
And, again, I wasn’t one of those “insiders.”
Until the late summer of 2000, I had never watched a reality TV show, until I paid Alice a visit.
She picked me up at the train station. As I snapped my seat belt, she warned me, “Tonight I’ve got to watch the last “Survivor” episode. You don’t have to watch it with me but I’m going to watch it and you can’t talk to me during it.”
OK, I said. I was game.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have used the word “game” to describe what I watched. Whatever the “rules” were – Alice occasionally would give me terse explanations – maximum sadism was the central dynamic. How cruel could human beings be to each other when liberated by a television producer from common boundaries of decency and empathy?
And, of course, there was masochism. Why on earth would anyone sign on to “Survivor,” specifically to subject herself to this monstrous, widely broadcast contest which guaranteed regular applications of viciousness and moral collapse, as well as visuals of the malnourished contestants who could have been prison camp inmates?
Why? Well, a million-dollar prize to the “winner.” Maybe that’s why. (I believe the tortured losers got nothing except whatever glory they felt they’d garnered by being demolished on TV.)
And this was not “reality” TV. It wasn’t even a metaphor for reality. It was the extreme of artifice. In actual reality, a bunch of people, mandated to be enemies of each other, do not set up camp on a remote island and, accepting a construct of fake “rules” and “laws” and “contests,” go about killing each other off. (That, by the way, is metaphor – mine, not the show’s.)
But the worst of that evening was watching Alice watch “Survivor.” She was rapt. She watched it the way both of us watch football games – fixated, physically and emotionally linked to what happens on the TV screen.
Sixteen years later, Alice called to tell me whom she’d voted for.
It was a shock. Maybe it wouldn’t have been had I been following “Survivor” all those years.
As an ignoramus in the land of reality TV, I did not know until recently that the creator of “Survivor,” a transplanted Brit named Mark Burnett, also created “The Apprentice.”
I have no facts of life to brandish here, to hold up like a cross in front of Dracula. I can’t claim watching “Survivor” leads to treating democratic elections as an extension of the brutal “entertainment” presented by reality TV.
But I think about it. A lot.