What Are We, a nation of rubbernecks?

by Will Baker...Kosavo


I dreamt strange dreams last night. They had texture and character, these dreams of mine. They lingered long after waking, violent, haunting specters that accompanied me through my morning. I am tired as I write. My sleep yielded no refreshment for me, only fuzzy-headedness. On many occasions I can remember my dreams in vivid detail, but not this time. I have fragments from my memory of that which I experienced while asleep, but other than to say that it involved the violence of war, I could not tell you much more. I do, however, know what brought this on. Last night I watched the film Saving Private Ryan. In my opinion the film deserved the handful of awards that it received. Any expression of art that can so attach itself to the viewer, and linger, clearly deserves that kind of recognition.

The film provided a disturbingly realistic example of the horrors of war. But for me, the film went beyond that. It is set during the D-Day invasion of World War II, and the days that directly followed. For my generation, the film provides a window into the experiences of many of our elders. It also serves as a reminder to us all of the horrors of war, and I think that that is a very good thing. Unlike World War II, we are currently involved in a television war. We can comfortably sit in our living rooms, and catch a quick update of what our tax dollars are providing by way of death, destruction and mayhem, much like we did during the Persian Gulf and Vietnam Wars. What a convenient situation this is.

So, with the images from the film fresh in my mind, I listened to this morning’s news broadcasts. Based upon what I heard, I understand that, in the near future, the Yugoslavian President will probably be indicted as a war criminal by the United Nations. In addition, it is my further understanding that our President has been implying that, if within three weeks, Yugoslavia does not comply with NATO’s demands, we may well send upwards of two hundred thousand troops to invade their country. What a mess this situation has become. Serious negotiations should occur to avoid this threatened invasion. However if the UN does in fact issue the indictment, NATO will be negotiating with a war criminal. I am interested to see how they will deal with this situation. I wonder if this indictment will hinder negotiations, and if others are wondering the same thing?

The news polls indicate that, since the Littleton Massacre, the attention of the American people has shifted away from the war in Yugoslavia. I suppose that, given the circumstances, this is not all that surprising. But it is alarming to me. I am alarmed because I believe that it is critically important that folks follow the prosecution of the war. So that in the event that something is occurring, which a large number of people reject as the wrong course of action, informed positions can be taken in order that the situation might be corrected. But I am wondering if, for most people, the lines between reality and entertainment have been so badly blurred that this is now impossible. For example, it has taken a recent Supreme Court decision to tell us that it is wrong for television film crews to accompany police while executing duly authorized searches of the private homes of citizens. With the plethora of "real" television shows featuring this type of footage, it is clear that there is a demand for this type of entertainment. But is this type of entertainment acceptable? The Supreme Court clearly thinks not.

But what is the connection between the film Saving Private Ryan, the war in Yugoslavia, and "reality based" television programs such as Cops, or Real TV? In my opinion, as disturbing as the film was to me, it remains a shining example of the visual arts. Perhaps the very fact that it was so disturbing adds to its greatness. The film is based on an actual historical event, the last "good war" fought, where good and evil were well defined. The objectives were clear; we knew exactly who the good and bad guys were. At its core, this film conveys the horrors of war, with all romantic notions stripped away. One is left with the feeling that as horrible as war is, it must surely be used only as a last resort. The film imparts upon the viewer the consequences of war, as it relates to the nations involved, and the individual soldiers and their families. The nations involved loose blood and treasure, not to mention the very bricks and mortar upon which their societies are constructed. The soldiers either perish, or survive as changed individuals, carrying the scars and trauma of their experiences. And many poor families are torn apart. I believe that this film can provide insight as to what some of the consequences might be, in human terms, should we decide to invade Yugoslavia. The film has as a basis, reality, and what is currently going on in Yugoslavia is as real as it gets...Kosavo

"Reality based" television programming, as the name implies, is supposedly based upon reality. There is nothing new about police officers being accompanied by film crews. But the film crews used to be members of the news media. I can recall, that in years past, this type of film coverage was used for legitimate news related purposes. However now the film is being used as fodder for a nation of rubbernecks. The same folks that watch these shows probably also slow down while driving past accident scenes so that they can get a better look. Please realize that I am not holding myself up as an example of thoughtful conduct. Like many people, I have a macabre fascination with this kind of material. However I try to avoid having my flaws exploited by the media. While a compelling argument can be made that the violence portrayed in the film Saving Private Ryan is subsumed by the artistic value inherent in the work, I strongly feel that the same can not be said for "reality based" television programming. In my opinion, these programs are the audio-visual equivalent of under-cooked tripe. I am not, incidentally, making an argument for censorship. In my opinion, so long as the producers are not violating the constitution, they have a right to give the people what they want, even if the people want under-cooked tripe. However folks like me also have a right, and perhaps an obligation, to point out exactly what folks happen to be eating...Kosavo

I am afraid that a nation of rubbernecks might not be able to distinguish, for example, between the war in Yugoslavia, and reality based television programs, in much the same way that a recent pay per view television audience could not distinguish between actual, real-life accidental death happening right before their very eyes, and the violently staged performances that constitute professional wrestling events. Is the war in Yugoslavia an unfortunate, yet interesting diversion for the masses? Are we being provided with the modern day equivalent of gladiatorial combat, where for the participants it is a real, life and death struggle, but for the viewing audience it is merely entertainment? If this is so, than we have much to learn from the Romans, who did not attempt to couch the provision of such entertainment in moral platitudes. Of course, I am taking this point to the absurd. However, sometimes the absurd is a productive place to be. And sometimes, the course of human events places us there, whether we like it or not.


(Essay Collection)