Friday, January 19, 2007

Racism to the Bottom

There is a ludicrous row, as the British would say, going on in the U.K. and India over, of all things, a reality television show. It is called Celebrity Big Brother, and it involves what the British press are charitably calling B-list celebrities sharing a house and being voted out one at a time. Now, thanks to remarks by several of the British indigene, a dispute has arisen that has actually become a diplomatic incident between Britain India.

The trouble all started when an Indian actress named Shilpa Shetty was insulted by several other contestants. Such insults are standard fare for the genre, but these insults were of a low-grade racial variety – charges that she lightened her skin, making fun of her accent, assuming that she never washed her hands, asking whether she lived in a shack, etc. But once word got out, complaints that the show represented an insult to Indian dignity sprung up in both countries and, incredibly, the British PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown actually had to waste scarce diplomatic time while in India responding to press inquiries. (Remember the next someone complains about trash American pop culture that the Euros invented reality TV.)

I recently wrote about why we should always be wary, even as people who believe in freedom, about a “cultural race to the bottom” in which the culture becomes ever more vulgar as people compete to be outrageous. Of course, if the last singer or movie director or reality show pushed the boundaries of good taste, the only thing the next "artist" can do is push them even further. Hence, race to the bottom.

That, I think, is what we have here. The uproar has caused lots of British people to wonder how racist they are, as if the worst excesses of a reality show had any kind of relation at all to broader British culture. But all of the contestants, because of their background, have some notion of how pop culture works. And their goal is to both win the show and to set themselves up for further success in celebritude. And so if they are serious they must do things that shock.

The tragedy is that, just like ever-more explicit depictions of sex and violence, ever-more explicit expressions of prejudice – deeply felt or not – become margins on which to compete for audiences, who expect more and more shocking material each time. As on these other margins, the social taboo against expressing racist views is steadily eroded, making it more likely that others will express – and hold to begin with – these views. The problem is not that the British as a whole are racist. The problem is that a show like this rewards racist behavior, and lowbrow racist behavior at that. (Richard Pryor was valuable because of the way he uses race. Celebrity Big Brother is costly for the same reason.) If the British are fortunate, and disciplined, they will ignore each new provocation until producers realize that it doesn't pay. If not, Britain becomes progressively more coarse on matters of race, and perhaps even more racist.

I tell my students that the material race to the bottom allegedly promoted by globalization – corporations with the power to move around the planet forcing countries to lower their wages and working conditions if they wish to retain those corporations – is a myth, because in every country where it is said to happen laborers quickly become scarce, and their wages and working conditions are bid up. There is no country in history that has ever raced down in this way, and a casual glance at global economic statistics reveals how much more prosperous we are compared to thirty or forty years ago. So, if the "race to the bottom" argument is false in this context, how can it be true with respect to culture?

The reason is the absence of scarcity in the latter case. While workers see their standards of living rise because labor is scarce (and becomes more so as an economy grows rapidly), vulgarity is not. It is always possible (required, even) to make this year's movie more "daring" and explicit than the one before it, and so the cultural sinks unstoppably, absent the manning of the ramparts of civilization by an outraged an active public. We are watching as surely as the crowds in the Colosseum were. Only it is we, not the emperor, who point "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to the gore and vulgarity and, now, prejudice in front of us. Alas, in this contest, the nobler contestant seldom wins.

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