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    Monday, April 24, 2006

    Leaving the Fold

    That's the title of the episode of This American Life that I just finished listening to and I can't recommend it highly enough. Says Ira Glass:

    All of us have been in some situation where all we could think about was we couldn't wait for it to end: to get out of school, to move away from our parents, to leave the church or the job or the band or the city that we're in. We can't wait. And then, later, when we look back, there's something about that place that we hated that we just cannot get out of our system.

    What do I miss? Well, sometimes I miss my hometown. Not the town itself, but the way that it made me feel important. Or at least that, if I was insignificant, it was because of my misfortune of having been born, and of being stuck, in an insignificant place. I miss that feeling that I was better than everyone around me - a feeling I am now ashamed of and humbled out of, thankfully, but still a feeling that was somehow comforting in a way that my one-of-six-billion feeling isn't. I was a miserable person there, and wouldn't want to go back, and, frankly, it was probably less about the town than it was being a teenager, but living there gave me so much energy, made me so hardworking, so unstoppable, so unrufflable - because I had, had to get out.

    This particular TAL has three acts. The first is an in-depth look, by one of my favorite TAL personalities, Alex Blumberg, at the political and new career of Jerry Springer before he became associated with America's most-loathed class of people and their travails. I want you to listen to it, not to take my word for it, so I'll be a bit spare in my discussion, despite having loads to say.

    I thought, as probably many do who have an inkling of Springer's history as a politician, that he had been the Cincinatti mayor brought down by a prostitution scandal. It was not that simple, as Blumberg lays out. But the consensus seems to be, even including Springer himself, that there is something tragic about his "fall" from powerful and rising political star to the face of what Blumberg calls "trash television". When you hear his political speeches, he sounds the same notes as a lot of the politicians I like, especially when it comes to helping the poor, working, and middle classes. In that sense, yes, I wish we could have him back in the political game. Blumberg, on several occasions, says that there are "two Jerry Springers," one the politician, and the other the "trash tv talk show host".

    Springer makes the connection that the people that appear on his show are actually of the same constituency as those he helped as a politician and as an attorney. But what he doesn't say is how his show made visible a group of people that had previously been nearly completely hidden from view in our culture. Now, I haven't seen the show enough to know everything about it. I've probably seen it five times or so and found it fascinating, disturbing, scary, and sad. But, yes, it can be exploitative and I think that's sort of what it does. It shows how the least appreciated in our society are so easily recruited into our dirty work, not just illegal immigrants picking grapes for slave wages, but young poor folks performing their class (and gender rather heavy-handedly) for entertainment. I certainly don't mean to say that the only viewers of the show are middle class, probably not even close, but that's not the point either.

    I also don't think that people shouldn't be allowed to do things that are probably not in their interest. For example, most mainstream porn is kinda gross, but I don't think it should be illegal, nor should it be illegal for people to perform in it, if they so choose, even if it is often under some kind of (usually economic) duress. Kids may be flaunting their naked photos on MySpace and it may make it difficult for them in the future, but I don't think it should be illegal. I also don't think there's anything wrong with Springer and his producers having the Jerry Springer show and allowing these people to come on and express themselves - they have some agency. I'm not going to pretend I walk around without judgement: everytime I watch the Real Housewives of Orange County, I go "why did they agree to this?" but I don't think it makes sense to condemn the show.

    In fact, it reminds me of the time around Roseanne, the best television comedy in history to my mind, how (even before the queer stuff) it disturbed people.

    One of the things that most fascinated me about the Springer show was the incredible amount of defiant pride many of these people expressed. And it was completely and utterly unconvincing. This knee-jerk defensiveness, "Yeah, I [bleep] my little sister, [bleep] and I'm proud of it! That's right! [Flashes breasts at camera.] Is that a problem for you [bleep]?! Is it a problem, you [bleep]?! I am a goddess, you [bleep]!! [Moons audience and lunges at fellow guest.]" And it's this insistence, this disordered, compulsory, and suspicious self-assurance contrasted with the absolute lack thereof that would make it important to someone to manuever one's personal life on the show, "I'm here on Jerry to tell you that I don't love you, I've never loved you, and I'm [bleeping]ing your grandma!", that makes the show an amazing artifact of our culture. It is about class, and that, in a society that values money and class superiority so highly, a culture that measures your worth by your job (as Blumberg somewhat surreptitiously does with Springer on this episode) and your consumption, that sees beauty as a function of Botox, Tae Bo, Chanel, and veneers, that sees everything between NYC and LA as fly-over zones, these people with minimum wage jobs, missing teeth, Kmart clothes from Goodwater, AL or Rifle, CO or Ashby, NE, have to glorify the things that "upstanding" middle-class people most abhor. It's an incredible lashing out. It's also an amazing show of cruelty, most episodes, where guests tear each other up emotionally (and often physically) and do so with Gordon Gecko pride and smirk, distorted. They have seen the slick American beauty of (wealthy) cruelty and they wield it in ways those who are cruel to them cannot understand, in ways that twist it into what is perhaps its most vivid form, because its form is alien to our culture. Bill Clinton, even Jerry Springer, said "I'm so sorry," when they were caught cheating; Springers guests say "Gotcha, husband!"

    It's like the old argument about wife-beating and marital rape and street harassment: these working-class guys who get slammed all day and get very little power or respect anywhere else, feel the need to reign as terrors in their homes and neigh borhoods. Now, in my experience, street harassment is as likely to come from richies as working class guys, and, needless to my regular readers to say, I've never been married, but the argument is often made.

    Now let me be absolutely, completely, crystal clear. I have quite poor semi-rural white relatives who would rather die than appear on the Springer show. I don't think that what we see on Jerry Springer is some kind of adequate cross section of the poor in non-urban America. Okay? But I kind of wonder if some of it is not the whole "artist without an art form" thing. And there are so many influences. Religion, community, family, etc.

    Now, I'm not trying to say that Jerry Springer's show is somehow saving the world or making the world a better place. Not at all. I just think the idea that Springer would have to be "two different people" in order to go from being the populist mayor of Cincinnati to being "trash talk king" is bizarre. Especially when you see the way Springer handles his guests. While the audience cheers on the fights that break out, the "outrageous" behavior, the stripping, the swearing, the cruelty to each other, Jerry seems saddened by it and is always asking, "Why?" He is, to my eyes, genuinely concerned for his guests and their welfare, which much be an incredibly taxing place to be in his line of work. It is much like the politician who travels neighborhood to neighborhood, trying to see the worst of what his constituency endures, so that he can help them.

    So, all I'm saying is, I don't think that Jerry Springer is two people at all. And I'd love him to run, just to see. His 2003 campaign site is down now, domain name expired.

    Acts II and III of "Leaving the Fold" are also worth listening to and are about the loss of, the leaving of, religion. Another issue close to my once-and-still-not-over-it Catholic heart. Another fold I could never fully get over leaving.

    New York Magazine runs an article about TAL's move to the screen and the Big Apple- how I'd love to run into Ira on the street!!! Anyway, it's being done by the coolest channel in television, Showtime (No Limits!), which has featured My Amusement Park favorites, Queer as Folk, Sleeper Cell, and Weeds, as well as My Amusement Park love-hate L Word.


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