The New Democracy

by Gary Gordon
(published in the Santa Monica Mirror, Aug. 2000)

     Yuppie--Young Urban Professional, was derived from Yippie--Youth International Party, a put-on political party formed in 1968 by anti-war activists Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner, and others. It was great sleight of hand on the part of the originators of Yuppie, wonderfully subversive, undermining the initial thrust of the word and all itís intent, a masterful stroke of co-optation, turning an anti-capitalist concept and slogan into a quasi-acronym celebrating capitalism.
     Big Brother was the whispered nickname for the police state in George Orwellís novel 1984. Big Brother meant the police, through a variety of surveillance techniques, were watching you. You were not free, you were not to maintain originality or individuality, you were not to stray in mind and deed from what the State required. If you did, you would be punished severely. Maybe youíd be executed.
     Now Big Brother is the name of a TV show in which people voluntarily surrender their privacy in the chase for bucks.
     Whereas Yippies rejected capitalism and embraced collectivism and Yuppies worked hard in the capitalist system to earn money, Big Brotherites compete for the big dough by doing neither; they adopt the absence of a political position, and they reject work.
     What is at work here?
     Well, the New Democracy is at work.
     In Survivor, a group of people are placed on an island. They are placed into tribes, for they have no real identity or background. They are given rituals, for they have none. They are instructed to compete in games, for they have no real conflicts. And periodically there is a vote over who should stay and who should be thrown out.
     They are without history or culture. They are totally manufactured. Their lives are based on the premise of "a programming genius".
     And this is sold successfully as reality.
     The old democracy, even though it was flawed and incomplete, was generally about inclusion. The abolitionists fought slavery in an effort to have all people included in the society, embracing and using the words of the document of first principles of our nation, the Declaration of Independence.
     "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
     Argue about whether or not it was meant to include Blacks or women or Native Americans or gays, the point is it was broad enough language to use to eventually include everyone. It carries such moral authority that, ultimately, eventually it includes or will include everyone regardless of the founding fathersí intentions.
     Is there a document of first principles on Survivor?
     What allows people, as a majority, to throw out someone?
     Is this what we want? Is this now our noble goal? Have we descended from declaring that there should be justice for all and freedom from want to accepting the notion that itís alright, even preferred, that exclusion be practiced?
     It is the goal of some. Toss out the gays, the lesbians, the blacks, the Jews, the immigrants who canít speak English and have the audacity to demand workerís rights and health care.
     But why on Earth is this celebrated?
     There is, for many, an absence of meaning in life. Without meaning, people accept empty rituals, they follow hypocritical and self-defeating rules, they compete in hollow games, and inch by inch their esteem is lowered. Their worth is lowered. Zealous Bible-thumpers have said as much and have concluded this absence of meaning is the result of the absence of prayer in school. But the absence of critical thought is never a replacement for the absence of critical thought.
     In a healthy society, there are checks against this devaluation of humans, but the checks are never automatic or secure. One check is the appreciation of the human mind, with its ability to think, and the human endeavor, celebrating those who help others, affirming throughout the institutions of society that generosity and sacrifice and devotion to help is of high worth in the spiritual plane.      Another check against human devaluation is drama. Works of art that explore the human emotion and action, the human dilemmas, the complexities and challenges of life; works that sometimes inspire and sometimes confound, but always provoke. Drama, sometimes dressed as literature, sometimes dressed as religion, is something we crave; it helps us understand who we are, have been, and could be.
     It is no coincidence and no surprise that along with the New Democracy, we are experiencing the death of drama, the death of the emotional celebration of individuals and groups, their histories, their desires, their fears, their values, their meaning. Most movies, following self-imposed formulaic storytelling, entrapped by special effects and box office demands, are thoroughly predictable and void of any real, dramatic, profound moments. People may pay for the eye candy but they hunger for more. For the most part, TV shows have followed a similar predictable path. And with predictability comes a desire on the part of the hungry, viewing public that intrinsically craves drama to absorb so-called reality shows. Sporting events become more meaningful because, up to a point, theyíre less predictable. Slow speed chases captivate audiences because even though you know how itíll probably turn out, you donít know for sure, and itís happening right now!
     And now "reality" programming is the rage. Excessively stupid quiz shows; hokey staged and over-produced ďrealityĒ challenges, all are effectively replacing drama. And with their success the void will deepen. The survivors have survived nothing. The Big Brotherites have accomplished nothing. The quiz show winners have earned nothing.
     And in a world where nothing is celebrated as something, itís easy to embrace Big Brother, forgetting the origin of the phrase, and itís easy to twist democracy into a form of decision-making that allows for the expulsion of the unwanted.
     Does it have to be this way? Is this New Democracy and the death of drama inevitable? Are there lessons of survival, real survival, to be learned from the Yippies and their beatnik poet predecessors, from the Yuppies and their grey flannel suit ancestors, that could turn around this descent into what Garry Trudeau has aptly termed "Compassionate Fascism"?
     Will we flourish, or suffer one co-optation after another?
     Stay tuned.
     Weíll be back after this word from our sponsor.