I have written extensively about indigenous initiation traditions in Chapter Five of my book. To understand what we modern people have lost, we need to know the differences between the old ways and what we have replaced them with.
Since tribal societies valued all their young men, their initiations were communal and usually mandatory. The dangers were real, but all were encouraged to complete the transition, because the village needed everyone’s unique contribution.
By contrast, the primary function of our advanced degrees, professional licensing exams and corporate promotion is to choose who will succeed, not to ensure that all will. In business, academics and sports, definitions of success and masculinity require the failure of others. Thus, money and consumer goods – rather than wisdom – mark successfully socialized American men.
Countless others, defined as losers, are excluded from the initiatory group. In 2004 (well before the current economic crisis), four million American eighteen to thirty-four-year old men were unemployed, were not in school and lacked a degree beyond high school. Some respond to the pseudo-rituals of hate groups, which accept them solely on the basis of race and offer both belonging and privilege – through identification in terms of the Other. Ironically, they “know” who they are because they are part of a tribe, even if that tribe defines itself exclusively in terms of who they are not.
Middle-class Americans learn, through dozens of subtle lessons in which they are pitted against others, that competition is America’s primary value, and that consumerism is the emblem of success. Television in particular offers images and therefore expectations, with no means of fulfillment other than the consumption of commodities. Hundreds of times a day, boys are told that they don’t have to die before being reborn as men. They only have to purchase a different set of products – or not be eliminated from the competition.
The important mythological insight for us to consider is that in American myth, there is only one alternative to the hero, and that is the victim. For twenty tears now, countless “Reality” TV shows have been enacting this truth for us every evening, in two ways:
1 – Like most competitive displays, they pervert the original meaning of the word competition (“petitioning the gods together”), in favor of exclusively celebrating the winner/hero.
2 – More importantly, they pervert the meaning of initiation itself. Indeed, they express its opposite. The judges on these shows are gatekeepers who must be satisfied before the initiate can be accepted among the elect. They hold all power, and they are not kind. These TV “elders” emphasize the slow, tension-filled process of winnowing out the losers. I call this ritual humiliation. Watch the sadism in Heidi Klum’s eyes as she symbolically eviscerates the losers on “Project Runway” or the cold efficiency and fake compassion with which Ted Allen informs the losing chef that he’s been “Chopped.”
Even when the elders of this perverted ritual do condescend to accept an “Other” into the ranks of the elect, the process involves carefully crafted (and scripted) reminders of exactly who remains in authority and what the initiate must sacrifice. The higher the initiation, the more costly the sacrifice – and the more humiliating the language. Do you remember how Republican senators patronized and mercilessly grilled Sonia Sotomayor before admitting her to the Supreme Court?
But why do we media consumers require constant repetition of this process? Perhaps it is because, at our core, we still retain our human values. Perhaps the media gatekeepers understand that only regular repetition of great lies can overcome our innate desire for real community, real ritual and real initiation.
In a capitalistic culture, the “bottom line” is that value depends on scarcity. If the gatekeepers can keep the number of functioning doctors, psychologists, lawyers, etc, down to the minimum by excluding most applicants – even many who are well qualified – they can keep up the average price of their services. As always: cui bono, follow the money.
And why do the Reality hosts go to such lengths to humiliate the losers? That is a mystery, but I will offer a guess. Perhaps they are encouraging the TV audience to vicariously share in the sadism. After all, it is primarily in rejecting the “Others” and in identifying with the “winners” that we Americans know who we are.