George Costanza once sold his “show about NOTHING” to a bunch of cold NBC execs, including his doomed fiancée Susan, by answering why the couch potatoes of America would watch a show without a purpose; “Because it’s on TV.” It’s on TV used to be a plausible reason to watch TV. When the show aired in 1992, before the limitless possibilities of DVR, DVD’s, podcasts, Kindle, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, HBOnow, and the endless variety of entertainment available via streaming internet channels, what was “on TV” was a good enough reason to watch it as any. We used to ask, “What’s on TV?” Now, we ask, “What should we watch?” The former reveals our passive helplessness to the TV gods; while the latter gives a power punctuated with the anxiety of too many options. We are the catalyst of our entertainment. We see the next two hours of our lives determined from algorithms selected to help us make the click. We stand astride the abundant mountain of mirth, murder or mystery. We sit in Plato’s cave with shadows so enjoyable, so personalized and so dynamic, there may never be any reason to turn around.
Yet within the immensity of amusement available to us, it appears some have sunk into a morass of moronic distraction. I’m aware of tastes and preferences. I’m aware of age differences, motivations and political affiliations. I’m aware that RuPaul’s Drag Race and Real Housewives are as (if not more) popular as what I’d consider quality programming like House of Cards or Game of Thrones. Reality TV finds the untamed characters from Rodeo Dr. to Main St. to MLK Blvd. and puts their faults and charms on display. They are, ostensibly, real people “acting” like themselves. The episodic shows mentioned above find actors acting. But the aims of all producers remain the same—make it watchable, make it interesting, make it dramatic. Whatever you choose to watch, there is a reason to watch—namely, some story or problem that must be solved in a predetermined amount of time. Thought was given, production values were managed, behavior was defined in a way to help the viewer enjoy their valuable time spent inside the magic screen.
Here, we find the younger generation who have come of age with closets full of plastic participation medals, teachers offering safe spaces for reflection on Mark Twain’s language and a siren calling smartphone in the pocket since 12 years old. James, my 14-year-old stepson, godson, protégé, mentee, ball of irrepressible energy and general frustration factory, has hipped me to the videos he likes these days. He likes watching people destroying iPhones, computers and electronics in various ways. He also likes watching people eat various foodstuffs, piano tutorials and the ever-present animal videos of the internet. The bulk of his YouTube time is watching videos of other people watching themselves playing video games, commenting and cursing profusely. I watched one where a guy with a heavy Cockney accent cursed an impressive nimbus cloud of ‘f’ words around his first-person shooter character. It was objectively unwatchable; however, 1,650,423 people disagree with me as that was his watched count. I asked James why he likes it. “Because it’s on, and it relaxes me.” He said as a giant robot was disintegrated in a hail of lightning fast bullets, action darting across the screen in a rapidly rotating dizzying display. Yeah, looks relaxing.
There may be quite a bit more that James doesn’t show me, doesn’t know about or doesn’t watch. The internet is like our hive mind buzzing with relentless diligence to satisfy the unique queen bees inside all our heads. Why produce a show when people will watch a cell phone crushed in a vice? Why work hard on a story when people will watch you curse while playing Bonestorm? Why create dialogue when millions will watch you putting on makeup? So, who am I to judge why one thing is quality and another is crap? Who am I? I’m not the universal judge. I’m from the generation between sit-com and webcam. I’m from the generation between pay-phones and smart phones. I am from the generation where the wave broke on the championship trophy, cascaded back in sullen pieces and reformed into those terrifying “awards” for participation.
I’m old enough to remember ribbons only for first, second, third and in the case of middling talent but above average achievement in effort, honorable mention. Hundreds of us plebs used to go home empty handed after elementary “field day.” I remember such enormous friggin’ pride when I finally won third place in the 50-yard dash in 5th grade. I was like, “Okay, I’m not Rich Luckowski, but I am third fastest and also not a jerk.” It was a bronze, but felt good. Everyone tried, but I tried better. It seems natural. Who wants to go home and show their parents a ribbon for existence?
The transferred disappointment can lead losers to greatness through determination (as well as the possibility of mental turmoil, lifelong anxiety, personality disorders, or unstable relationships). Contrasted with the current crop of kids who attain an award for participation or certificate of achievement by not crying and kicking the winner and taking his blue ribbon (which in less moral, less evolved days might have been the Darwinian winner) it appears we merely switched one undesirable result for another.
From the age of four, when personality is established, humans know winning is everything. It is the basis of evolution, conflict and survival. Our enlightened minds may try to jam inclusion into the equation of a solo victory, but that just skews the results, creating a domino effect that leads to confusing trophy ceremonies, such as the one I saw in my kindergarten spelling bee yesterday.
We passed out 24 Spelling Bee Champion certificates to all 24 participants. Not everyone acted like a Champion. The kids who won jumped for joy. The losers hung their heads in discontent. This is as it should be. The teachers cheer the winners, console the losers and assure everyone that life goes on and we will all enjoy the pizza party. The feeling of, and getting over loss, without hostility, is as important as being a congratulatory and appreciative winner.
I was in 3rd or 4th grade when they piled all the kids into our tiny auditorium for a spelling bee. I was a great speller and stile 😉 am. Earlier in the year, the teacher asked me how to spell school, and I flubbed it. The children all laughed at me, and eager to explain how I could misspell something that hangs above the entrance of which I see every day, I exclaimed, “I had a fun summer!” I guess the carefree memories of a ten-year old’s summer vacation of night swimming and ice cream had pushed out all the practical knowledge of addition and grammar. So, I was hyped up to prove my spelling acumen to my class of ball-breaking chums. I made it through round after round with easy words until I got a stumper: cushion. I’m pretty sure I spelled it with a ‘u’. I finished in 9th place, which is decent, but there can be only one winner, only one champion; lest we engage in “excellence bias.” In the never-ending lesson of “Simpsons Did It!” This season The Simpsons tackled the issue…”with sexy results.” Lisa won and got the smallest trophy. When she complained, poor Ralph Wiggum cried that she was “loser shaming” him.
That idea, a zero-sum game of a winner and a loser is usually applied to sports or contests, not to modern politics. Our president, who dominates headlines with his special brand of idiosyncratic vulgarity, conforms to the zero-sum idea. “So much winning.” “[Other countries] won’t be laughing at us anymore.” The “Benito Cheeto” (thanks @GregProops) shows his commitment to America first by making the world last. Pulling out of a voluntary agreement to decrease carbon emissions (which might not even be enough to stop the destructive forces of climate change) leaves U.S.A. alone, but “winning” by being the first to quit. The global embarrassment that “Sweet Potato Stalin” (@GregProops) has become, won’t result in a natural win or loss scenario, because 21st century political ideas are blended; Trump’s are welded shut. Personality is formed at a young age, and we must ask ourselves, was Trump a habitual winner, timid loser or a cautious participator? What made him Trump? Did he love to win or hate to lose more? Would a participation trophy from his 2nd grade science fair stopped the cackling monsters in his head from laughing at him and insulting his smallish inept hands? If his mother had shared the vanilla ice cream (because of course the Trumps ate vanilla) evenly when he was a boy, would he still be proving triumph over others with a second scoop at dessert?
It’s admirable that our society has tried to find a place for everyone on the victory platform. But, there’s simply no room for seven billion people on the podium. For millennia, there have been evolutionary winners and losers. Homo sapiens are the indisputable winners. We live on all seven continents and in space. We are the apex predator and the pinnacle of organic creativity. Couldn’t we all be participants, equal parts winning (birth) and loss (death) in this experiment of being? As humans cultivate our android world of Google blood cells, gene editing, neural uploads and artificial organs, will we worry about rewards, equality and doing our best if everyone thinks on the same software program? Perhaps, “Who is the best ______” will be an irrelevant concept as we become a singular mind—a non-competitive human union.