Our culture’s desire for circus freaks

In the summer of 2004, I worked at a law firm in Redlands, California. The other clerk in the file room listened to the new (at the time) and ultimately unsuccessful Air America all day. The late afternoon show with Janeane Garofalo and Sam Seder, one of the furthest left shows from what I could tell, once had Jerry Springer (a Democrat). I was struck with how they never once challenged his career of exploiting stereotypes of poor people, the very people that progressives claimed to stand up for.

Springer’s show and others like it represent an ugly trend in our culture that’s not new but seems to be growing. Hussein Ibish’s recent interview with Chris Lehmann, author of a new book called Rich People Things, really made some incisive comments about this, I think. Most of the interview is fairly standard progressive political discussion, sometimes interesting, but mostly not. But their discussion of reality TV was good.

I’m not sure if they always go by these nicknames, but for the purposes of this conversation Ibish was “Q” and Lehmann was “A”:

Q: One of the most surprising entries in your book is the one on reality television, which I wouldn’t necessarily think was a rich people thing except insofar as all TV shows are made by rich people. But it raises some very interesting questions. First of all, the whole category is an oxymoron. There couldn’t be anything further from reality than TV and never the twain shall meet.

A: And there’s something especially perverse about manipulating the appearance of reality to make it seem as though it is documentary vérité. I only came upon this as a subject because my wife was a TV writer and critic for a long time, and consumes it a great deal….

A: So she was watching all these shows and it suddenly dawned on me that the topics were not surprisingly based on, because who else would want to do such a thing, desperate people who wanted a quick buck.Q: It’s what always drew people to become circus freaks.

A: I think the right analogy is that of the geek, the original geek, someone who would bite off a chicken head for cash. Two things gradually struck me. One was, there is literally a show on VH1 called “I love money” in which people really scheme and debase themselves and subject themselves to horrible, total exposure and at the end of the show they go to the vault where you’re voted out and it’s all very symbolically rich and repulsive. And you have this show called “toddlers in tiaras”…

A: But seriously, what I realized is that in all these spectacles, what they are doing is they are presenting a public theater taking poor people who have the wrong sort of ambition and punishing them, humiliating them publicly. The tacit script of all these shows is, despite all the mythology about social mobility in America, there evidently is a class of people who we relegate to geek status. For all the talk about economic reward, and we should be having a conversation about what Wall Street gets paid or whatever, this is the economic punishment side. This is the moment where we hold that these people who are just less educated, vulgar, have bad social skills and family relationships, and we just say, you don’t belong.Q: So it’s similar, in that sense, to another place on TV where the same kind of thing happens on those daytime sort of spectacle shows where they’ll bring on the goodies and baddies, people who are supposedly deviating from the normative bourgeois mores of American society, and the audience is supposed to boo and hiss or applaud in order to reinforce the way you’re supposed to behave.

A: It’s a symbolic kind of show trial. In a Sally Jessy Raphael show in the 1990s, and this is a perfect example, economics aside, about how there is something immoral, to use a quaint term, about this because what they are doing is fucking with people’s heads. They took this homophobic man and had a gay coworker of his publicly confess a crush, and humiliated him, and eventually the guy went and killed him.

Q: That was bound to eventually happen, wasn’t it?

A: You invade other people’s psyches, and you humiliate them publicly, and what the fuck do you think is going to happen eventually? All these spectacles have that undercurrent of risk, and what’s going on beyond that though is your making the statement that there is a class of people who it’s okay to f— with. And they signed a contract, so we are legally covered, and let the gladiator exhibition began. It is hard not to think of ancient Rome.

I should be clear that I have not always turned away from the freakshow myself.


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