Wednesday, November 19, 2008

LUDDITE RANT: 21st Century Gladiators

I’ve been reading a book called THE TWELVE CEASARS and it’s not only a reminder of how impressive the ancient Roman empire was, but also how messed up it was. Rome has often served as an extended commentary on our own current “empire.” We dwell on interesting parallels.

For quite a stretch of time, the immorality of Rome would have made even Hollywood blush—or at least smirk. The progressive decadence of our own times is eerily similar.

To a certain extent the U.S. is the most powerful empire in existence, just as Rome was during its time. Regardless of the declining dollar and relative ignorance that many Americans pride themselves on, this nation is indeed powerful, much like the majestic Roman Empire.

But what often comes to mind is our Roman taste for violence. Movies and video games are the usual suspects, but that’s more of a knee-jerk accusation. Boys will always pretend to “kill” whether it be with an XBOX 360 or a stick. (However, the recent trend of torture-horror films might be worth exploring some other time.) Football and other sports are often held up with some derision as the modern gladiators. But I think we should look somewhere else.

The Roman coliseum was a place of entertainment. Those doing the “performing” we’re often fighting for their lives, whether they were gladiators pitted against each other or victims of Roman “justice” condemned to face wild animals or other horrible means of death.

In video games and movies, no one is really hurt. In football and other sports, no one is really hurt (not intentionally, for the most part). The true arena where America nurtures a lack of empathy is the slew of reality shows and talk shows. Real people go on the air and are figuratively “destroyed” in front of our eyes. With weapons such as jealousy, arrogance and deception, the contestants and guests are methodically undone. We don’t watch gladiators tear each other apart. On Jerry Springer, we watch families tear each other apart. In the early sessions of each season of American Idol we watch people crash and burn trying to aspire with minimal talent. And we laugh at them.

There’s no blood. There’s no death. But there’s also no compassion.

One could argue that no one has forced these people to go into the arena. They are willingly feeding themselves to the lions. But I’m wary. Television is our coliseum—and we are learning to be amused by everything we see, regardless of its true context in the real world.

It’s unnerving to remember that the Roman Empire decayed from the inside out. It’s even more disturbing to realize that they were laughing while it happened.


Abbie said...

Yeah, I agree. Pleasure in watching others' emotional pain is creepy. I think we feel like it's okay to watch since we're not actually "there" and they can't see us since it's television. It's just like how we get inside our vehicles and will rant and rave, but it's okay because we don't have to look anyone in the eye. Never mind our own hearts.

David said...

ooh, touche... you know, i've been trying to think for weeks about what the appropriate american parallel for the gladiators would be, and i kept coming up dry. i think you've hit it on the head. i feel slow for not thinking of reality shows as the comparative american component...

an interesting weakness our country has that the romans lacked, however, is that through various means (including blogging and web-videos) even the very slow or lame of speech, or the unfortunately lowly of birth, can voice their thoughts or opinions to, theoretically, the entire world, and the only ones that do indeed go viral and get millions of hits are almost all because of their amusing imbecility. how tragic...

Jarud said...

I have read much of The Twelve Caesars myself. It reads much like a soap opera or a gossip magazine.

I do think that sports can play a role in our modern day imitation of Rome. How often do we cheer the bone-crushing tackle or only slightly avert our eyes from the continuous replay of a player's injury. I do agree that the intent of the "game" is different. We are not really hoping our team will annihilate the enemy. Go Cowboys!!! :)

I think you have it right on the reality shows though. For some, the draw is identity. People are searching for someone like them. Others are out to build themselves up while watching someone else implode. I would call it exploitation except that people willingly offer themselves as sacrifices to the false god of Fame. The sad thing is that most people do not realize that the 15 minutes of fame can lead to a lifetime of embarrassment or pain.

And the finger points back to me of course because I help keep the ratings up, at least for the Amazing Race.