an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

US TV

I am sitting watching a morning television program on National American television, and the program is rather astonishing: a mother and daughter are arguing that their life-problems before television-studio viewers and millions of home viewers. The theme of the discussion is “I stole my 12 year old’s boyfriend!” Each weekday there are several such TV programs on several channels, where people expose their most private lives before millions.

The (prematurely-developed) daughter, with the acquiescence and knowledge of both mother and father, had a boyfriend who was 24 years old! They both, the “daughter” and her boyfriend, plus the girl’s estranged parents, are on TV, where they all admit that the 12 year old girl – who dresses and looks as if she is about 20 years old – had a sexual relationship with the man who is twice her age! But the mother stole her 12 year-old daughter’s boyfriend, with whom she now has a relationship, and wants to marry him.

These people – and many like them – agree to come on this five-times-weekly show based in Chicago, Illinois. They even speak, often without hesitation, foul language (which must be censored with a “bleep” sound, later, before the pre-recorded program is broadcast). In this particular show the “father” needed to be physically restrained by “strong men” who are sitting and waiting near the TV program stage in order to control fights and brawls by the people being interviewed. The daughter states that she will never forgive her mother for stealing her boyfriend, and that she hates her! It is incredible what these people will say to each other on TV before millions of strangers!

It is an unbelievable exposure of not only these people’s private lives – which is perhaps even beneath what Nietzsche meant or imagined by his famous critiques “all too human” – but also an exposure of humanity, of parts of the human condition. In the Bible it is said that man was created in God’s Image, but that man had fallen. Probably it is impossible without seeing these people exposing themselves, to believe how pitiful and primitive the human condition can indeed be. This is certainly a real part of the American scene, though not uniquely “American” – except perhaps in its coming on TV before millions of other people.

The people on these programs come from what is sometimes described as the “lower class”, of possibly some from the “lower middle class”. This is a portion of humanity in the USA – a brutish portion, with often brutish lives . . . and while they are aware that they have problems, they are hardly able to be much better, or more, that their social, cultural, economic, and even physiological condition allows them! It is impolite, perhaps even un-American to say this – considering the USA’s egalitarian ethos – but they are primitive and crude people. This is apparent in their dress, their manners, their poor English speech, grammar, pronunciation. It is uncommon to use the word “peasants” in the USA, whereas it is used in parts of Europe and Russia as an apparently merely descriptive word. In the USA if suggests a hierarchy of higher and lower, better and worse, which is contrary to the American social attitude – which is particularly strong and aggressive in our time – that “all men are created equal”. [Jefferson would certainly have been offended by this interpretation of his words, for he recognized the need in society for a “natural aristocracy”.] And though these people have probably never lived in a village or the countryside, their parents are from the lower classes.

Anyone who travels in the USA cam observe such people on TV daily. Perhaps when cities, towns and populations were smaller, these people would be observable on the roads, observable gossiping, etc.; now they appear on TV for their “fifteen minutes of fame”.

Un-American though it be, these people – and the program described above is not rare – are at the bottom of the hierarchy, of the pyramid of humanity. They are economically the poorest; culturally the most passive and simple, even crude; intellectually they are very poorly educated – many perhaps did not even finish high school. They are – in America – the bottom of the human condition.

In the USA today there is a tremendous social and moral crisis present, it is usually itemized by such categories as crime rates, murder and violent assault figures, “white-collar crime”, dishonesty, corruption, divorce, school violence, etc. Traditionally such social conditions had been attributed collectively to man’s fallen nature – the Bible’s “original sin”. But the divisions of even the Protestant wings of the Christian Church – which eventually led to far from any established Church such as once predominated over Europe, and from which the English tradition and the American preponderantly sprang, plus secularism, the growth of science and psychology, etc. led to the loss of the Biblical explanation as being broadly, collectively assumed in the USA. And while are many popularly-held religious “understandings” and “explanations” as the “evil” and “moral” corruption of US society, such religious language is increasingly excluded in the shared public society. If everyone, or the great majority, have an agree-upon collective moral ethos, then it is possible to hear and share, moral judgements. But when such agreement is lost, or excluded from socially legally, then it is no longer possible to make broad claims – at any rate in religious language – in society. The USA is in such a condition. If a society has an agreed-upon social structure, then it is possible to say who is upper and who is lower, who is better, who is worse. But the expression “all men are created equal” which has been made into part of an American Creed over time, contradicts any casual ability to claim who is better, or worse, so that the claim of this piece, that these people on TV are “brutish”, is really socially unacceptable. Each person may have, or not, their own private more or less clear and articulated view of who and what is good and high, and how is bad and low, and they may overtly voice this amidst people – within the USA’s “pluralism” – of the same world-view, but they will seldom so readily make such statements in the open public.

For at least a couple of decades it has been audible in the USA: “What right do you have to judge me?” – by which someone says that a person is free to have their own moral system (which people tend to treat as “equal”). So that there is in fact – in the USA’s moral pluralism, and secularity – no consensus of a world- or social-view such to allow me to make the claim that I have that such people are “brutish”, “crude”, “primitive”, etc.

The TV programs in the USA – somewhat like Dostoyevsky in The House of the Dead – give real, deep, insights into the inner life of humanity in these “lower portions”.


July 30, 1997 (unpublished)