One "Housewives" episode at a time, the soul of America is dying

Watching reality luxury TV is killing the America's economic drive and, maybe, its soul

Published August 6, 2018 2:00PM (EDT)

"Real Housewives of Beverly Hills;" "Real Housewives of Atlanta;" "Real Housewives of New Jersey;" "Real Housewives of New York" (Getty/Bravo/Photo Montage by Salon)
"Real Housewives of Beverly Hills;" "Real Housewives of Atlanta;" "Real Housewives of New Jersey;" "Real Housewives of New York" (Getty/Bravo/Photo Montage by Salon)

In both Britain and the United States conservative lawmakers are trying to radically reduce the social safety net for the poor by adding conditions and requirements to programs like Food Stamps and Medicaid. Proposals include adding work requirements and drug testing. 

Their voting base is loving it: "Finally, something is getting done. . . ."

A lot has been written about how the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump reflected the ascendancy of anti-immigrant sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic. Both votes, coming in the first quarter of the 21st century, illustrate that there is a psychology of scarcity that has made deep inroads into our political bloodstream.

Of course there’s a surreal irony here when we see Apple reach the trillion dollar mark in value and the personal wealth of the planet’s top .01 percent on an ever upward trajectory to "infinity and beyond." 

Abundance is not the problem. Sharing it is.

For down here on earth, the squeeze play is really on social welfare budgets because it simultaneously pulls out the welcome mat for that alien other while also taking a whack at the native born poor who have been "mollycoddled long enough." In this world view the poor are to be viewed with suspicion, like the criminals they likely are. 
READ MORE: How “public” is New York’s flagship public radio station? WNYC’s transition to corporate behemoth
And like the YouTube video that went viral of the white New York City lawyer berating Latino workers in a Manhattan eatery by threatening to call ICE on them, this emerging xenophobic zeitgeist has a kind of passionate self-righteousness edge to it. 

That kind of Trumpian self-indulging tirade is rooted in the conviction that the subject of your derision is actually not a human being at all, but an object worthy of your total contempt. It is the kind of discourse we hear on talk radio when people are described as “vermin” — wild mammals and birds that are harmful to crops and carry disease. 

As any person with any background in agriculture  knows, there’s only one thing to do with vermin, call the exterminator.

It would appear from the current tenor of political discourse that the biblical instructions to raise up the poor and the immigrant stranger might as well be prehistoric cave drawings.

There’s just no place in our Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous reality TV world  for Matthew’s instruction (19:21): “Jesus said to him, 'If you want to be perfect, go, sell what  you have  and give  to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.'”

We know that for decades now in both countries church attendance has been on the decline. And just what has risen up in its place? Based on ratings for reality television, it would appear to be our actual worship of wealth itself. 

Add in our lust for wealth and high-end luxury goods stroked by the corporate media and  voila — we have Donald Trump sitting in the White House atop the Golden Calf (That’s the idol the Israelites built to kill time waiting for Mosses to return from Mt. Sinai).   

According to a recently released study from the London School of Economics there is psycho-social link between regularly watching reality based shows like the “The Apprentice” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and being in favor of draconian cuts to social welfare benefit.  

Dr. Rodolfo Leyva, with LSE’s Department of Media and Communications "studied the responses of 487 British adults aged 18-49 to a randomized-control web-survey experiment that was masked as a memory and attention test,” according to an LSE press release. “The treatment group was exposed to 4 adverts for luxury products, 4 tabloid photos of famous celebrities showing off expensive goods, and 4 newspaper headlines of rags to riches stories.”

LSE continued, “The control group was exposed to neutral stimuli such as adverts about the London underground, images of natural scenery and newspaper headlines about dinosaurs. In total, each group was intermittently shown 12 separate images — each for 5 seconds.”

The results showed that even just  an “intermittent minute of attention to common and typical materialistic media messages caused a significant increase in anti-welfare sentiments” with results showing  that “those who also regularly watched shows such as “The Apprentice” and “X-Factor”  were much more likely to hold “stronger materialistic and anti-welfare attitudes than lighter consumers of these shows.” 

Dr. Leyva studies political participation, media psychology, neuroscience as well as quantitative and experimental methods in media and communications research.

“”The Apprentice”, “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” and “X-Factor” are replete with MMMs [materialists media messages] that are engineered to absorb audiences into the glamorous world of wealth and celebrities and thus have a strong potential to function as cultivators of materialistic values and attitudes,” wrote Dr. Leyva.

"Humans are inherently materialistic but also very social and communal. The way this is expressed depends on our culture. If there is more emphasis on materialism as a way to be happy, this makes us more inclined to be selfish and anti-social, and therefore unsympathetic to people less fortunate.

He continued, “This study can contribute to explanations for why the UK public’s support for welfare to aid the impoverished and unemployed has been decreasing during a time of rapidly growing wealth disparities, living costs, and rates of precarious [employment] and underemployment.”

As we look to 2018 and beyond, our real problem is not so much Donald Trump, but the part of our national character he personifies, that believes prosperity is achieved through greed and selfishness.

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By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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