All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered… And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. – Thomas Merton
We can interpret the ascendancy of a certain real-estate mogul, reality-tv celebrity, windbag demagogue, and presidential front-runner in many ways. (No names, please: why help the ratings?) Here’s mine: he’s the logical and disastrous result of the way screen-based “entertainment” dominates our personal imaginations and what civic life we still possess. What did his supporters say, over and over again, as people all over the political spectrum realized with mounting alarm that this guy wasn’t going away? “He’s just so fun to watch!”
Even people who watch it will call TV the idiot box, laugh disparagingly about how bad a habit it is, mutter (especially if they have kids) about how there really should be more books around, but, you know, you get home at night and you just want to crash, right? Sure, there’s genuine exhaustion and desire for comfort in a time when the average American is stretched thinner than ever, financially and emotionally. But, as in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from Republic can suggest, the TV habit breeds other habits that overtake us from the inside and hollow us out.
The Allegory’s a little parable about the nature of reality and the thing inside humans that makes us choose comfort and habit whenever we can. Imagine a bunch of prisoners chained inside a dark cave with their faces to the wall; they’ve always been there, and they don’t know anything different. Across the wall pass shadows of objects held up by unseen people for the prisoners to view. The prisoners, of course, confuse the shadows with the real things. Then, one of the prisoners breaks out of the cave and ascends into the sunlight. At first he’s stunned, blinded, confused, in real physical and psychological pain. But as his eyes adjust, he realizes as he looks at the objects around him that he is seeing reality for the first time, and that it’s wonderful. If he returns to the cave to share his discovery with the other prisoners, however, they won’t thank him. Instead, they’ll try to kill him. Why? In my classes, students are quick to answer that. He makes them uncomfortable. He makes them wonder if everything they’ve believed is a lie. And people will do anything to keep making themselves feel safe. And students aren’t slow to notice, either, that those shadows on the wall can look a lot like a TV screen.
The Greeks had a lot to say about illusion, reality, and private space. Our modern word idiot comes from the Greek idios, meaning someone who has refused the duty of every (adult male) citizen, public conversation and engagement, because he is just not interested. The idios has retreated to the “safety” of his own private world. (And in 21st-century America, that private world increasingly includes home theatre.) But safety does not come automatically from self-isolation. It comes from adult understanding of and good information about the world beyond one’s own hometown, from real engagement with people who are not yourself, from a realistic understanding of the world that will then let you make decisions about how to interact with it. As someone who has traveled quite a bit, nationally and internationally, in the last five years, I know very well that the world is dangerous. But hunkering down in your own house – literally or figuratively, even as home and school also get more dangerous – just doesn’t work.
Significantly, idios also contains id, Sigmund Freud’s word for that chamber in each of us where our most primitive, selfish, and basic impulses live. I want what I want, the id constantly sneers, and all the rest of y’all can go to hell. If this is the worst impulse within a person (think about the times when you’ve hurt yourself or others, and you’ll see what I mean) how much worse is it within a whole country? And how are our habits of being thoughtlessly “entertained,” seeking only pleasure with no challenge or discomfort, feeding what is worse about ourselves and our society?
Think about it. When you’re slumped in front of a screen, surrendering to the flow of images and words, are you really your best self? Are you really “spending time” with your family and other people in the house with you, or letting the fact that your bodies are all in the same room be your excuse? (More than one of my students has told me, sadly, “My parents always say ‘I can’t wait till you get home at Christmas!,’ but then when I get there, they still just spend all their time at night watching TV or on their phones – they don’t really talk to me.”) Are you active or passive? Generous or selfish? Out there living your life or just waiting to be twitched by the next marketer (or politician) who wants something from you? Being challenged by difference or just ready to switch the channel if you see something you don’t like? And the big question to ask about everything in society or spirit: Is this life-affirming or death-dealing?
The rise of a reality-TV star to within striking distance of the American presidency represents a disastrous collision between two things. One is reality as adults who engage with other adults out in the real world know it, who are reminded by our contact with others that we are not the only beings on earth, especially if we have ever traveled beyond our own home towns. The other is the kind of blinkered credulity, naivete, and arrogance that blooms in our brains when we are alone just a little too long in our cavelike rooms with our televisions and their ads and programs and “celebrities” tailored with merciless marketing precision to entertain us by telling us exactly what we want to hear — that we, our prejudices and desires and egos, are all there is and all with which we need concern ourselves. One is truth. The other is a lie. And, disastrously, we — as the best-entertained and least-informed and most powerful nation on earth — are losing the ability to distinguish between the two.
TV shapes our imaginations around itself – even our vague dreams of liberation from the forces of conformity and corporate slavery we (still half-) sense it represents take only the form of another metal box with a screen. Check out this famous Apple ad from 1984, brilliantly co-opting George Orwell’s novel of the same name.
But even when The Screen pretends to be deep, it’s really not. It is ultimately interested only in itself. It crowds out generosity and nuance and imagination. It thrives on rote gestures of obeisance to “objectivity” (Everybody knows the world is round, but here’s a flat-earther to show some “equal time!”) and mimes of real emotion (mother and daughter connect across the miles with their AT&T phone!) It loves spectacle and noise and brute force. It’s childish. And we need adults to lead our country and our world.
So that red face and stiff rooster-comb (-over) of hair and bluster and insult and expensive suits and self-made mythology is not just a person. He’s the TV-fed and TV-bred id, bristling with buzzwords (Socialist! Muslim!) and jumping from one emotional hot button to the next. He’s riding on misappropriated images (migrants in deserts, anyone?) and the myth that money is the greatest possible good of human life. He’s the illusion that all of this is just a game. That we will have plenty of time in the future to fix mistakes, even his. But we don’t. We are reaching and passing the threshold of 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, beyond which life on earth as we know it will not be possible. This is fact. Our next president — and we — will have to deal with it, honestly.
This is not funny anymore. Reality TV is not reality. TV is not real life. A TV star is not a viable presidential candidate. And this is not a game.