19 November 2010

The New Rome: the factions of the arena and an Idiot of the Week

History tells us that fans of chariot racing in the Byzantine Empire divided into color-coded factions to support the matching-colored racing teams, and that the arena factions became comparable to political parties, loudly and sometimes violently articulating social demands in the presence of the Emperor while battling among themselves. While there were several racing teams, an ancient bipolarchy of Blues and Greens eventually formed to dominate the Hippodrome. I don't know enough about the place and the period to say whether fans grew more politically assertive as they recognized their numerical strength or spectator sports was politicized by pre-existing factions or interest groups otherwise shut out from power by the imperial system. Whatever the cause, the rise and riot of the arena factions were another stage in the decadence of Rome after Rome itself had fallen.

The controversy over Bristol Palin's participation in the Dancing With the Stars game show has gotten me wondering about how close we are to that Byzantine decadence. Arguably, it was already a sign of decadence for the former governor of a state and candidate for the second-highest office in the land to allow her daughter to compete on such a ghastly program, but it was not surprising given that the governor is now a TV star in her own right, and it was not as if precedents had not already been sent. A former member of Congress and a legitimate American hero of the moon landing have debased themselves by playing the same game. It was certainly a further sign of decadence, albeit a predictable one, that Governor Palin's political followers would at least be accused of seeking a symbolic victory, a show of their own strength, by casting votes for Palin's daughter. It will be yet a further sign of decadence if Palin's enemies take the bait, which was probably cast quite consciously by ABC, and boost the show's ratings or revenues by pooling their numbers behind one of Palin's remaining opponents in order to deny the Palinites their symbolic victory and deliver an entirely symbolic rebuke to the former governor. I'm no fan of Sarah Palin or her party, but I don't give a damn whether her daughter wins a TV dance contest or not, and I refuse to interpret the result as any kind of referendum on Miss Palin's mother. If Palinites want to waste their time on such a project, that's their prerogative. Anyone who feels threatened by the prospect of Bristol Palin's victory should find a new hobby or simply get out more often. It takes two to tango before this country goes the way of Rome in this regard, and Democrats and liberals can perform a recognizable duty to their nation by letting this matter drop.

In this context, I can't help but view the deed of Steve Cowan of Vermont, Wisconsin, as possibly the first step on a slippery slope. Cowan reportedly shot his TV set because he was so incensed by Bristol Palin's performance on the most recent episode of the game show. That may sound funny on the first reading, but the fact that Dancing With the Stars can incite such rage, even in a single individual, and probably because of the alleged politicization of the contest, may be cause for modest alarm. Ironically, my understanding is that Dancing is one of the most popular programs on television because, despite the dancers' somewhat risque costumes, it's widely regarded as "clean" entertainment because it lacks violence and sexual subject matter. The irony would be greater if this proved to be the one TV show that directly and indisputably provoked acts of violence among viewers. On this occasion, I think we could do without irony.

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