Barbarians of the Gong Show

  • Posted: November 8, 2017
  • Category: Blog
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Perhaps some future Gibbon in his history describing the decline and fall of the American Empire will mark its beginning at the year 2000. It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a long held and widespread belief the world would end in 2000. To our dismay, death and taxes continue. But perhaps the world, at least the world we knew, did come to an end that year. The year 2000 marked the debut of Survivor on CBS television.

As we now know, the world continued its meandering path into the unknowable future after 2000, but the low costs and high ratings of Survivor marked the onset of reality-based television. Looking back on it now, the coming of Survivor also marked the collapse of American manners, with reality-based entertainment a herbicide proof weed running rampant through the fields of our culture. Choosing an easily remembered date like 2000 in this future Gibbon’s, I am sure, epochal work is something future students will well appreciate at exam time. Gibbon selected the year 484 to mark the beginning of Rome’s fall, a date much more difficult for students to remember.

Serious historians, such as myself, will not be taken in so easily by the big splash and commercial success of Survivor, but instead more precisely date the beginning of the decline and fall of the American Empire to another, equally easy to remember date, 1976. On June 14, 1976, ABC introduced the direct ancestor of Survivor and its ilk, a foreshadowing of the coming of the barbarians, The Gong Show. If only ABC had waited another three weeks, The Gong Show could have debuted on July 4, neatly bookending two centuries of the American Experiment. The Gong Show was created and emceed by Chuck Barris, an eerie doppelganger foreshadowing the quality of America’s future leaders from Al Sharpton through Bill Clinton to Donald Trump.

For those too young to remember its bizarre mix of buffoonery and pathos, The Gong Show featured a hodgepodge of clueless but ambitious people displaying their modest talents before a panel of D List celebrities. Many of the performers were chosen because they seriously – very seriously – overestimated their talent. At some point in their performance, Chuck Barris with bushy eyebrows and a manic grin would hit a large Chinese gong with his mallet and the hapless performer would be given a bum’s rush off the stage amid howls of laughter.

Of course future academics seeking tenure will quibble with the choice of The Gong Show as the mark of American decline, what other purpose do academics have? They will argue in learned journals that Allan Funt’s Candid Camera, Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darndest Things predated even The Gong Show. True enough, reality shows have always been with us, but tenure-seeking academics are known for missing the forest in their effort to count trees.

The difference between The Gong Show and what came before was a bit like the difference between irony and sarcasm. Just like Candid Camera, irony, with tongue in cheek humor, gentle in its touch, points out the contradictions involved in the human condition. Sarcasm highlights those very same contradictions, but does so in mean fashion, with cruel malice intended.

In 484 AD, or the Year of the Consulship of Venantius and Theodoricus as the calendars of the time marked it, the average Roman citizen just shrugged his shoulders. Politics was a mess, in fact in crisis. But then that was, and is, the normal condition of politics. Men such as Leontius, Zeno and Odoacer vied for the throne, playing at what seemed a familiar game of musical chairs in the politics of Empire. But it at least in Gibbon’s eyes, 484 was different. A nobleman of the German’s, Theodoric, forced himself into the game of musical chairs and life changed. Forty years later, in 524 that same Theodoric, chieftain of the German Ostrogoth peoples, ruled Rome. Most Roman citizens, of all classes, would have no difficulty recognizing Theodoric and his fellow Ostrogoth’s striding down the avenues of Rome as barbarians in their midst.

And so here we are in 2017, a similar forty years after the Gong Show provided a shadowed glimpse of our own future. Forty years after the debut of The Gong Show, our most popular politicians are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. One is our President and one is the figurehead of “The Resistance”. Either of them would have been at home on The Gong Show back in that more innocent time. In fact, one of them owes his celebrity in no small part to his own turn at a television reality show. I will let you draw your own conclusions about the Trump/Sanders resemblance to Theodoric.

But there is no doubt that future students of history, once freed from the strangling coils of multicultural orthodoxy, will find the stories of Rome and America eerily similar. Though this is no surprise, given the Founding Fathers of the United States reliance on Rome’s example.

In both Rome and the United States, a powerful vibrant culture loses faith in itself and is overrun by barbarians. It is not that the barbarians suddenly appear over the horizon and overwhelm civilization. The barbarians are always among us. Rome had first encountered the Germanic peoples, Theodoric’s people, in115 B.C. Rome had lived with these particular barbarians for over five centuries, civilizing them into good Roman citizens or driving those too primitive or belligerent back into the dark forests of Central Europe.

Unlike Rome however, America has never needed to build and fortify the lines of frontier necessary to protect our own civilization from barbaric peoples, at least before the age of Survivor. Oceans and inhospitable stretches of desert masquerading as prairie have isolated us from the common run of barbarian. But America must guard its borders against a different kind of barbarian. Instead of Rome, the city of seven hills, America has been the city on a hill, a beacon of light in a dark world. America is more idea than physical place. It is for this reason that America must defend itself from the culture of the barbarian.

If only it were easier to recognize the barbarians among us. But barbarians come in many shapes, sizes and forms. Sometimes our minds fail to see the barbarians for what they are. Our minds are clouded by bias, by prejudice, by whatever emotional baggage our upbringing has saddled us with. Emotion blinds us to the truth of what we see. Perhaps an excursion into logic, the dismal science of Economics, might allow us to see past the noise obscuring the emotions clouding our view of reality.

There is in Economics a “Law”, known as Gresham’s Law. Thomas Gresham had the bad fortune to be both European and a white male, so his thoughts and achievements are now viewed with an appropriate level of suspicion and disdain in the United States. One might picture Thomas Gresham a Wall Street banker in the court of Elizabeth I, imagine him if you will a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs occasionally serving as an Undersecretary in the Department of the Treasury.

Thomas Gresham worked with money in 16th Century England. In those days, money was in the form of coins minted from silver or gold. But sometimes the governments minting those coins needed more money than they had gold or silver, a common problem of governments to be sure. When this happened, the government would mix a bit of lead, or sometimes a great lot of lead, into the precious metals used to mint the coins. Sometimes the coin might be made a bit smaller than it was supposed to be. All this was done for the good of the people of course.

Mr. Gresham observed that when these tainted coins were put into circulation, the full size coins and the coins made from pure gold or silver would gradually disappear from circulation. Just as in our present day, the smart people in London, the Adorables of the 16th Century, were amazed that the rubes out in the countryside didn’t always buy into that “good of the realm” business. Even more amazing to the good people at court was that the villeins and shopkeepers in flyover country could recognize the differences between coins.

Gresham’s pithy observation about the financial workings of 16th Century England has become a tenet of modern Economic thought. Known commonly as Gresham’s Law, it is simply stated as:

“Bad money drives out good”.

Venturing onto thin ice, I would speculate that Gresham’s Law applies much more broadly than only the narrow niche of economics. Stretching Gresham’s Law over a great expanse of thin ice might lead it to be said, “Bad entertainment drives out good.” Or looking over my shoulder at the angels only faintly visible on the now distant shore, venturing even further onto the thin ice beloved by fools, I would argue, “Bad culture drives out good.” It seems that once bad culture competes with good culture, a race to the bottom begins.

Even so, “So What”? Updating the insight of that patron saint of the Adorables nearly two centuries now past, entertainment, even culture, is simply “the opiate of the masses”. Those old Romans in whose footsteps we follow, at least the ones running the show, had their own saying, “panem et circuses”. The straightforward English translation of the Latin is “Bread and circuses”. Successful elites become successful elites by understanding that filling the stomachs and heads of the urban masses as cheaply as possible is a necessary prerequisite to getting on with the business of running an empire.

Again, “So What”? Of what moment is our entertainment? Ever seeking to consort with fools, I would point out that the average adult American watches 5 hours of live television every day, with the average pre-teen child averaging over 3 hours per day. Of course these are statistics from Nielsen’s and must be taken with a grain of salt. But then, we would be remiss in not counting the hours spent with YouTube or Facebook or that podcast during our commute.

Human history proves beyond any reasonable doubt that human beings will believe nearly anything if it is only repeated often enough. It was V.I. Lenin (yes that Lenin) who said, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Whatever other charge might be laid at the feet of those old Bolsheviks, they were astute observers of human nature. Even the strongest foundations will be eroded by the constant washing of a stream against them, and the foundations of America have been eroding for a long time.

One of the puzzles in modern day America is the volatility of our long settled beliefs. Consider our views on the very basics of what it means to be human, i.e. race, sex, gender norms, etc. The settled beliefs of centuries are overturned in barely a blink in time. Homosexuality is no longer the criminal offense of sodomy but hipster cool, with a sympathetic married homosexual couple de rigueur on any television series. Mind altering drugs are no longer “Reefer Madness”, but an important revenue source for Colorado schools. Animal Rights is a now a growing and important legal specialty. Every culture is equally worthy, with even implied criticism prosecuted by the legal system as “hate speech”. It is the considered opinion in our courts that God regularly makes mistakes when assigning gender and it is the duty of the state to make the necessary corrections. The list goes on.

The question that puzzles is not the right or wrong about the underlying reality of our politically correct thinking. After all, human beings believed the Earth to be flat, as well as the center of the Universe, for millennia. Human beings have a long history of getting it wrong, of mistaken beliefs. Centuries of belief do not ensure the truth of old beliefs. What is breathtaking about our present time, begging for explanation, is the speed with which we change our deepest beliefs.

A lifetime spent in the dark and dirty recesses of engineering, rather than in the salons of Science, has left me with a great appreciation of inertia. Inertia, as I think of it anyway, is shorthand for the difficulty in introducing change. Academics scoff, mass is the key thing they say, pointing out that it is easier to move a box of goose feathers than one of gold bricks. They have a point of course, once more counting trees, missing the delicious opportunity to indulge in metaphor. But mass is not the only thing or even the most important thing when actually tasked with making a change in the real world.

Imagine steering a flat bottomed boat with a crosswind on a lake and then imagine a sailboat of equal mass on that same lake in that same crosswind. The deep keel makes the sailboat resistant to the wind’s volatile effect. The sailboat continues on its course while the flat-bottomed boat is driven hither and yon.

Having succumbed to the vice of metaphor, I have no choice but to continue even as I hear the sharp crack of splintering ice. The keel of a culture is its belief about itself, its history and its imagined future. Without that keel of belief in itself, just like the flat-bottomed boat a culture is blown in the direction of every passing breeze of fashionable thought. Without a past, how can one imagine a future? There is only the eternal now. Our beliefs about who we are as people, about gender, race and morality, have changed radically in a handful of years. What is to prevent them from changing again in another handful?

We have been teaching a history of victimhood in our schools for decades now. While victimology is useful in allocating political spoils and marking out boundaries to create plantations of reliable votes for hypocritical politicians, it has no ability to create a useful common cultural identity. We are left adrift from our past, disconnected from our history and left with nothing more useful than a need to signal our virtue by celebrating the search for new victims.

At the same time we have taught victimology in our schools, we have replaced our faith in God with trust in Science. We have rebuilt our culture on the shifting sands that are the foundation stones of Science. With no remembered past and a future that has no continuity with anything that came before, we have only the eternal present. In the eternal present, is there any reason that each generation should not fashion its own culture for itself, much like a prom theme?

It is the conceit of every place and every time that they possess the truth. In the America of 2017, progressive thought smiles indulgently at that truth knowing that they are, in fact, right. We in the America of 2017 have finally arrived at truth. Those who came before are all wrong. But just suppose for the sake of argument, future generations “discover” new truths. Perhaps new truths might be mysteriously found in the cloistered groves of academic thinkers, facilitated by advantage seeking politicians. Twenty or thirty years from now it might be engineers in the energy business are required to cover their heads and remain silent in public places. Perhaps the winds of conceit will continue to blow unabated and the death penalty will regain favor – in the arena for hate speech. Urban singles might marry their Dalmachshund, ensuring that their pet dog has a right to a premium health care plan provided by their employer, rather than the substandard health care available to pets off the street in government run Emergency Rooms. The possibilities are endless.

Who can say what we will believe in some future day? The barbarians have truly crossed the Rhine and are among us.



One Response to “Barbarians of the Gong Show”

  1. jeff esbenshade says:

    Bad news reporting drives out good media reporting. It was always understood

    media was left of center, one poll showed media people as 92% registered Dems.

    With Mr Trump media true colors come out. The nation is mad at each other

    one reason, media.The Wall Street Journal only fair balanced reporting that remains.

    No one can have a public opinion any more. I was drafted to protect that right.

    I spend 10 hours on and airplane after being in Europe for two weeks Just wanted some news, sports stocks info. I had two seats to myself. Watch movie on one scren
    CNN was on the other. I would plug my ear phones into CNN when I was thinking it was news. For 10 hours they only talked about Trump! No fair and balanced
    reporting here.We need God in everyones every day life.We need to get back to the
    middle some how.

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