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N. 60, April 2005

Useless feats

I may be going out on a limb here, but I just don't get it. I have just watched the ABC News coverage of millionaire Steve Fosset's solo flight around the world without refueling a plane. To put it bluntly: who cares? In the past few years we have seen people getting to the North Pole, around the world, on top of Mount Everest (all for the nth time), while abiding to a variety of artificial restrictions, just to make it a little bit interesting.

While these actions are billed by the media as stunts of human ingenuity, endurance, and courage, they are largely entertainment. Dangerous entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless. What really made history and made us feel part of a species that could achieve incredible feats was the first time that somebody – against all odds – reached the peak of the Himalaya, the Moon, and what not. But doing it again equipped with sophisticated electronic gadgets, under continuous satellite surveillance, with a bunch of sponsor's logos while hopping on a single foot? That's entertainment.

Not that there is anything wrong with entertainment, of course. Leisure is a fundamental element of what makes our lives interesting and lively – if we live in a part of the world where we can afford to maintain a class of professional entertainers (or academics such as myself, for that matter!). But as conservative social commentator Neil Postman aptly put it in the title of one of his books, we are turning into a society that is entertaining itself to death. Moreover, such entertainment is more and more based on blurring the distinction between reality and fiction, witness for example the infamous “reality shows” that keep afflicting our airwaves.

Take the Martha Stewart case. The Queen of Proper Manners who was convicted of lying to federal prosecutors about a stock sale is about to leave prison at the time of this writing. Now ABC's Good Morning America promises “to be there” for us, to cover every minute of the “event” and give us a glimpse of how Martha survived a few months of relatively cozy confinement, and of course to get the exclusive on her plans for prime time TV and the taking back of her financial empire. Moreover, a few days ago Newsweek run a cover story on Martha entitled “Martha's Last Laugh,” in which they were suggesting that the time spent in prison may actually end up having a positive effect on the celebrity's career outlook. That may be true, but what wasn't quite true was the photo of Martha featured on Newsweek's cover. You see, it wasn't really Martha, not entirely. The face was hers, but the body was somebody else's, an anonymous woman whose body was presumably chosen to highlight the subtitle of the story: “After prison she's thinner, wealthier and ready for prime time.” When asked about what should have been a big embarrassment for her weekly (which, after all, ain't no National Enquirer), assistant managing editor Lynn Stanley shamelessly pointed out that Newsweek clearly stated in the credits (in tiny font) that the cover “photo” was actually a “photo illustration.” Whatever.

The point is that we keep spending more and more time in a fantasy world constructed by the mass entertainment media for the sole purpose of selling us merchandise and make money in countless other ways. We actually think that Michael Jackson's trial is worthy of daily attention, to the point that the E! Channel is going so far as broadcasting a daily reenactment of the court proceedings, featuring a Jackson impersonator. Our dream vacations are to be spent at Disney World or Las Vegas, the quintessential realms of tackiness and fake. A frequent commercial for a well known hotel chain keeps telling us “I've been everywhere,” while showing us shots of a couple visiting replicas of famous places or monuments, from Paris, Texas to the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. And so it endlessly goes.

This, unfortunately, isn't just happening in the United States of America. Thanks to the US's aggressive export of its own cultural icons, Disney World can be found outside of Paris (France), of all places. Japanese consumers (have you noticed how rarely we use the word “citizen” anymore?) are legendary for soaking up everything American, and now even Egypt, with its culturally and religiously conservative community, has seen the appearance of Western-style comic books and super-heroes (though apparently the Middle Eastern variety fights Zionists, rather than communists or terrorists).

Back to the US: have you had the stomach lately of watching one of the major morning “news” shows that pride themselves in bringing you what you really ought to know about the world? No matter whether your favorite hosts work for ABC, CBS, NBC or even CNN (I will not consider Fox News, which is quite simply an insult to human reason), you will find only shallow entertainment dressed up as news. Ironically, in fact, a recent survey found that viewers of Comedy Central's The Daily Show with John Stewart are more informed about events and national news than people who watch the “serious” news outlets. Ouch!

In The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri has Odysseus defend his choice of life by saying “Fatti non foste per viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza” (You were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge), a calling for which the mythical Greek hero paid the high price of wandering for ten years away from home, hopping from one dangerous adventure to another. The thing is, Odysseus didn't have CNN to follow his escape from the Cyclops, nor was his ship emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo while perilously avoiding the two monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Of course, Odysseus himself was the child of Homer's (not Simpson) imagination, and hence a form of entertainment. But do you really think that Michael Jackson's exploits will be remembered for thousands of years to come? Let's hope not.