return to 2003

The Weakest Link

by Miles Mathis

Here's an angle that hasn't been covered in the press: democracy in action on new TV shows.  What really got me thinking about this is the new gameshow The Weakest Link.  Here you have a show being sold as a harsh Darwinian challenge—implying the survival of the fittest—and yet what is deciding each round is votes.  Not skill, but politics.  Does anyone think that a species ever went extinct because it was voted off the earth?  Ooh! Cockroaches, they're outta here.  Or,  Mr. Uppity Cro-Magnon, with his high brow and large cranial capacity—he'll get all the management positions if we don't vote him off. 

      Now I know the title of the show implies the "chain," not natural selection, but even the links of a chain may be supposed to work together.  In this gameshow, though, there is no chain.  Only links.  One of the first things you notice when you watch the show is that the best players tend to be voted off first.  They are seen as the greatest risks to the other players.  The goal is not to be the best player, the goal is to win the game, and the players have figured this out very quickly.  Ms. Robinson should say, "You are the strongest link.  Goodbye."  I don't think this makes for much of a show, frankly.   I am not interested in another popularity contest posing as a quiz show.  It's not even a popularity contest.  It's tyranny of the majority.  It's a crass expression of Nietzschean ressentiment—the revenge of the mediocre. 

      Survivor is the same premise, and the same problem.  The show poses as a contest of wits and ability, when it is simply a challenge to survive the stings of the majority.  The final show was tonight, and Alicia said it best when voting for Tina:  Tina should win because she got there not by winning eight or nine immunity challenges but by her wits.  And I thought, what exactly does this mean?  Wits.  Colby had just won the final immunity challenge that tested knowledge of the other players.  So he had greater physical skills and greater mental skills.  Still, Tina had "wits."  Meaning, I can only suppose, that she figured out how to win even though she was not the best player.   She had the better bottle of social tonic.  How to talk about giving to charities, how she was no better than anyone else.  How she was lucky.  How much her family meant to her.  If she had had an American flag, she would have wrapped herself in it.  She was a better politician.  And voters like Elisabeth bought it.  She voted her "heart."  Poor Elisabeth, who hasn't the "wits" to see through such transparent "strategy." 

      The most disingenuous thing was Colby's sudden recognition of this in the last tribal council.  He tried to switch gears and play the humble card.  He didn't deserve anything, all the sudden.  Tina was better than him.  He had nothing to say about himself.  He was quiet and ingratiating, even telling one of the voters that they should have been there, not him.  It didn't work.  It was too late.  He had won too many games—there was no getting past that.  He had bigger muscles than Alicia and he broke Elisabeth's plates with his little slingshot.  Unforgiveable.  Unforgiven. 

       These "reality" shows are right about one thing:  life is like that.  Social strategy does count more than ability.  The players of the game seem to be fine with that.  And I mean the players on TV as well as the "players" in real life.  But these players may want to rethink their strategy.  On the Weakest Link, the last player left has had to pay a very high price in order to see himself as the final link.  Out of a million-dollar purse, the winner usually takes home about $5,000.  You may be thinking, that's a price I would "pay" anyday.  But if you translate that game strategy to worldwide social strategy—as we have in the modern world—you have an incredibly debased society.  There is no real "chain" on the gameshow.   But in life there is.  The payoff goes not to just one link, but to the whole team.   If you vote off the best players because they intimidate you, you weaken the whole society.  You become the weakest link.  

      My argument here is not for Social Darwinism, or even for laissez-faire capitalism or Reaganite "let-them eat cake" trickle-down-ism.  I do not believe the question divides along the lines we have been given.  There is no necessary link between social spending for the disadvantaged and hating those who score higher than us on the GRE or who look better in a swimsuit or who are more charming.  That is, it is possible to be for all the equalizing policies of the left and still be against "normalization"—against pushing everyone toward the middle.  It makes sense to push the lower third toward the middle.  It makes no sense to push the upper third toward the middle, especially when you are defining the upper third in terms of ability (rather than in terms of wealth, say). 

     As they keep saying on Survivor, "we are all in this together."  Trite and cliche from overuse, it is still true.  It is not haves against have-nots.  This Malthusian idea is a holdover from the last century (the 19th) when all the political struggles really were class struggles or economic struggles.  We still have class and economic struggles here, but this us-against-them mentality has suffused all our social questions.  Elitism is no longer a term of abuse that denotes privilege of birth or wealth—it is now psychological abuse toward ability.  This is not a place we want to be. 

      To give a concrete example, is it necessary that art history be in the state it is now?  Is this a necessary outcome of the triumph of democracy?  Did the fall of the aristocracy imply the death of beauty and skill?  What about education?   Did opening the universities to a wider public imply a poorer education for the best students?  No.  There is no necessary connection in either of these cases.  We might have had the gain without the loss.  It does not cost any more to educate students at Harvard or Stanford well than it does to educate them poorly.  It is not one social policy that determines raising the disadvantaged and quashing the advantaged.  It is two.  We raise the disadvantaged from the idea of fairness.  We quash the advantaged from envy.  We can be fair without being envious.

    This is not a zero-sum game.  The cry from the lower rungs to the higher has been, "Hey, you do not need to step on us to get where you're going.  And please throw your garbage to the side."  The cry now needs to be echoed from above, "You do not need to cut the top of the ladder off to climb it.  Not everyone on a 'higher' rung is an enemy.  Those mentors you are always begging for are up here, too.  If you get rid of the 'elite,' your little ladder is going to look pretty pathetic.  Not to mention being an unfulfilling climb."

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.