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The People Are Unfit to Rule: The Ideological Meaning of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer


One morning last Fall I witnessed a mass-cultural war crime in the comfort of my own living room: The Maury Povich Show. 

It was an engrossing episode. A married couple was waiting for Povich’s paternity testers to come in with the verdict on whether or not the husband was the father of his pregnant wife’s baby.

The judgment came in a sealed envelope. Povich held the results in the air and proclaimed that the husband “had nothing to worry about. It’s your child, Stewart!.”

“Stewart” issued a victorious war whoop and punched the air with his fist. He gave Maury a big hug.

Stewart’s wife rolled her eyes. “I told you you were the daddy,” she said with a distinctly southern accent, “you big [bleep].”

The audience roared. 

Maury likes to build his shows around paternity tests. 

The last time I saw him do one of these, things turned out differently. A cuckolded husband collapsed in tears. As he lay sobbing on a couch, a winking Maury pretended to console him. His wife wept as the crowd howled. 

This kind of atrocity has been commonplace on American daytime corporate television for some time.

Povich is neither the first nor the last daytime television host to construct a broadcast around the employment of marginal and poor people as tragic sociological circus freaks. This was how “Jenny Jones” and Sally Jesse Raphael made their talk-who names and how Montel Williams got his start.

The worst is probably Jerry Springer, who loves to pit cheating lower-class couples and their lovers against one another. On a typical Springer episode, audience members leap “Jerry, Jerry” while the freaks chase each other around the stage. Security personnel are carefully positioned to prevent excessive violence.

Then there’s the real-life judicial shows, wherein small-claims and divorce justices likes “Judge Judy” and “Judge Joe Brown” preside over dysfunctional poor people who can’t stop bitterly arguing with each other. These television judges lace their proceedings and judgments with lectures on proper behavior and values, accompanying their legal verdicts with cutting comments about the rabble’s insufficiently middle-class comportment and conduct and instructing them in the virtues of work, fidelity, family responsibility, and the respect for authority.

What’s going on here? Beyond their profitable (for broadcasters) appeal to the public’s most base and voyeuristic instincts, these and other “real—life” television shows play a neglected ideological role in the corporate-crafted “popular culture” of parasitic late capitalism. They are part of an elitist thought control project: the cultural engineering and enforcement of mass consent to social hierarchy.

Along with numerous other corporate television productions they propagate at least two central authoritarian ideas. The first such idea maintains that poor people –— it is practically always working- and lower-class people who get held up for ridicule in the human cockfights staged by Maury, Jerry, and the rest –— deserve their own poverty and related isolation and criminalization in America. A college student who has been mass culturally weaned on Jerry (Springer), Jenny (Jones), Sally (Jesse-Raphael), Judy (the judge), and Maury et al. is not a good candidate to follow his left-liberal sociology, history, or English professor’s discourse on the role that structural forces and elite agents of class, race, and/or gender oppression play in creating mass inequality and misery in the United States. The endless army of stupid, hateful, alienated, and hopeless poor people paraded across her television screen by Maury and his friends strike the student as being oppressed by nobody or nothing so much as themselves.

Of course, Maury and Jerry don’t do shows about the rampant social injustice that produces the people who show up on their stages. Judges Judy and Joe Brown and the authorities on Divorce Court don’t adjudicate on the political-economic abandonment of the inner city or the corporate globalization that destroys jobs, families, and communities.
 
They all profit, however, from the personal and group crises and the desperate and self-destructive behaviors that are so naturally endemic among the “dysfunctional” people stuck on the wrong sides of these forces and processes. 

The second richly authoritarian idea “taught” by Maury and Jerry et al. holds that the ordinary populace is too stupid, vile, savage, selfish, atavistic, and ignorant to be trusted with the possession of any particular power in “democratic” America.

The prolific left intellectual and media critic Noam Chomsky probably wouldn’t be caught dead watching Maury Povich if he could help it. Like most left intellectuals (myself included), he engages dominant media primarily through its upper-end news and commentary outlets: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and the Washington Post etc. Interestingly enough, however, Maury, Jerry, and the rest are excellent disseminators of a notion that Chomsky rightly places at the heart of the venerable thought-control project of the corporate master class: “the people who are supposed to run the show” (the society’s power elite) must “do so without any interference from the mass of the population, who have no business in the public arena” (Noam Chomsky, Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World [New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2005], p. 21).

“No business in the public arena”…except as angry and tragic circus-freaks who deserve their position at the bottom of America’s steep socioeconomic pyramids.

The mass populace that appears on Maury and Jerry (both on stage and in the audience) is more than merely unfit to rule. It is a modern-day embodiment of the wretched, unruly, and childish “mob” – the dangerous and all-too “masterless” and “many-headed monster” – that aristocrats have always claimed to see when they describe the common people. It is proof of the classic authoritarian and self-interested ruling-class idea that the ordinary citizenry is unqualified for freedom and must always be checked, coerced, and manipulated from above. It is evidence for the venerable bourgeois thesis that “human nature” is essentially nasty, violent, disagreeable, and brutish. Especially at the bottom of the supposedly merit-based socioeconomic pyramid, this thesis maintains, civilization’s majority is composed of ignorant and boorish louts.  That thankless rabble must be controlled for their own good and the good of society by benevolent, far-seeing masters, who are supposedly less tainted with humanity’s inherent inner savagery. 

To be sure, it’s hardly just on the daytime freak-shows that these viciously hierarchical ideas find modern media expression. These oppressive notions are ubiquitous in various forms (especially in crime dramas) across the spectrum of America’s corporate-crafted “popular culture,” with authoritarian consequences that deserve serious consideration by progressive media critics and activists. They color the content of numerous situational dramas and comedies as well as pseudo-documentarian law-enforcement shows like the dangerously repression-friendly broadcast “COPS.”

Specific shows aside, the “manufacture of [mass] consent” to the shocking concentration of American wealth and power takes place just as significantly in the entertainment media as well as in the news and public affairs media that preoccupies most left media critics and activists.

Paul Street (pstreet@niu.edu) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (www.paradigmpublishers.com) and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005).

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