If we were men, as men we are in show, we would not use a gentle lady so. On TV, there was this woman tied up in a clear box. And some bully-boys dumped a few hundred tarantulas onto her.
It’s expected that the tarantulas, a species of arachnid not known as vicious biters, are going to do so anyway, because they’re squeezed between the quaking woman and the box. And when there are hundreds of tarantulas, statistically, it is common sense that a few stand to be naturally irritable, ready to deliver a scene formerly reserved for an old Vincent Price movie.
The young woman is pierced and pricked; you can’t see it because the camera isn’t close enough, but you can hear the screaming and crying from her and witnesses. Some guy is vomiting. This is critical, because emptying the contents of the stomach is great TV. Everyone else is laughing and smirking, just like our good old boys and girls at Abu Ghraib.
The segment was from Fear Factor, rebroadcast on VH1 as part of a rehash of reality TV, the goal as far as one could tell, to condense pain, humiliation, and regurgitation into an even more torturous and indigestible series of specials on reality TV.
What would be the general reaction if the unschooled clodhoppers of Abu Ghraib had used a tarantula interrogation unit on prisoners, snapping pics of quivering naked men covered with arachnids? The Red Cross would lodge complaints and be ignored. The New Yorker and The Washington Post would secure pictures and distribute them on the Net, along with the shrinking-violet warning that the imagery was disturbing. “Atrocious!” a thousand commentators would write.
What’s worse? Being menaced and bitten by a military German shepherd? Or being bitten while being compelled to eat a couple of struggling palm-sized spiders in front of a Las Vegas casino of sneering observers?
If you can answer without intellectually rupturing yourself, you may be right for a career in the military or in entertainment, contingent on how you wish to be compensated for your labor. You’ll get almost nothing if you go the way of the enlisted man, a lot more if you’re a private Pentagon contractor. However, the highest remuneration will be yours if you make it into televised entertainment.
We now know that for the sake of the war on terror, military leaders developed the idea that Muslims dread sexual humiliation and nakedness in front of superior women above all things. Supposedly this was seized from an egghead’s book purporting to authoritatively explain the issue, not from watching family-hour TV.
It’s proof the military man is not the fountainhead of Yankee innovation, for if one contrasts nudity, masturbation, dog collars, attachment to fake electrical sockets, handcuffing, and humiliation with what’s normally on television, the generals and advisers should all be fired for not employing the state of the art from the private sector. The entertainment industry has come up with a variety of arachnids, showers of offal (SciFi’s Mad Mad House), emesis through the consumption of the revolting (the larva of filth flies, worms, bull testicles, blood, spiders, stink beetles, etc.), and a stabbing (Cheaters).
Furthermore, it’s far more developed in its taste for casual cruelty toward others in the name of a cause or a commercial application. VH1 advertises “fun facts” about Fear Factor, an assortment of stupid lies meant to jolly up the viewer like “All ‘food’ eaten on Fear Factor is USDA approved” and “[Fist-sized spiders] were sent to [a university] to be tested before being consumed . . . ” This runs up the flagpole assertions that experts have certified nastiness as goodness, always important in America, where citizens will salute or adopt anything as long as it’s approved by superiors. The average ninny consoles him or herself with the fancy that the USDA deems stinkbugs and maggots to be good eating or that Ph.D.’d shitbags from somewhere have judged an arthropod selected for its nauseating quality to be safe and wholesome.
Although not nearly as well publicized, it’s certainly as clever as the retention of a slippery lawyer, relabeled as a scholar from UC Berkeley, commissioned to write national op-ed pieces on “what is the meaning of torture.”
Long before Abu Ghraib, reality TV sold repellence as a virtue in everyone’s living rooms. It’s all in your mind—face your fears, coos the host every night into the ears of his victims. None of it can really hurt you, any more than being bitten by a dog or piled in a pyramid, balls out, with a hood over your head. Gagging down bull testicles or crickets made me a stronger person, insist dolts who’ve done it on TV.
Yes, indeed, would it not be good if all Americans had a torture life coach, conditioning us to persevere? After being doused with gallons of animal entrails, anyone and everyone will be resilient when their job is outsourced or a family member dies.
Watch this for a while and you’re thoroughly deadened. It is not just enough that someone be induced to vomit from eating a glass full of worms or a plate of maggots. If that were the only objective, simply telling someone to chug a quart or two of mineral oil and Fletcher’s Castoria would suffice. The aim is to transmute horrification into pleasure. After viewing people lovingly caught on camera not only sicking up, but also gulping down the sick again and again simply to remain in a contest, seeing a still shot of some stupid gentle lady dancing gaily in front of unclothed Iraqis alleged to be sporting boners is weak tea. Is that all there is?
“Donald Rumsfeld,” wrote some cretin for a big newspaper a few weeks ago, “told American forces in Baghdad that Abu Ghraib ‘doesn’t represent America. It doesn’t represent American values.’ . . . Western morality, embodied in its highest contemporary form in America, is [fill in your favorite besotted-with-ourselves platitude here] . . . ”
How much time does anyone think it would take to recruit reality-show contestants in any town in America willing to disrobe, wear a hood, and put their head in the crotch of another contestant for a prime-time audience? To be wired to an electrical outlet? Or to even volunteer for a beating from some goons if there was a 1-in-20 chance it would kill them and they would be displayed on camera swaddled in Saran Wrap?
That prisoners in Abu Ghraib didn’t have a choice in humiliating punishments meted out by Americans is only a trifling distinction. We will routinely torture each other and even consent to the same for any number of reasons, quickly dispensing with common sense and basic decency as long as we can assure ourselves it’s for money, entertainment, job, love of country, or because someone in authority told us it was a capital character-building thing to do.
Where I grew up, being a vile wretch was hoisted to the level of civic duty for over half a century. It came in the form of a Labor Day pigeon shoot in Pennsylvania’s Hegins Valley, an event billed as family-friendly entertainment that earned money for the local community. Gunners shot thousands of pigeons, loaded into boxes and ejected at point-blank range over the course of a day. Boys rushed onto the shooting range to gather up the dead birds, wringing their necks or ripping off their heads if they were still half alive, and tossing them into garbage bins. With so many birds, there were many partial kills. The bleeding animals would fly into the trees, raining blood and feathers on the crowd. All day, dead or near-dead birds would fall from the branches, to be set upon by members of the crowd who would dispatch them in a variety of ways: stomping, kicking, or even playing Hacky Sack with them.
The festival reached its zenith in the last 10 years of its existence, when animal-cruelty protesters began storming it. Although it was finally put down by decree in 1999, during its run crowds became bigger and more boisterous, the behavior more abominable. During one a band called Crimson Country played dance music, including “Red River Rock.” Much additional local attraction came from joy over the revulsion of the protesters, along with the opportunity to dish out beatings and trouble to them.
Why it never made it to DVD or just held on long enough for TV to catch up to it is beyond me. Getting a trio of young competitors to spend a few hours ripping the heads off birds that are dying anyway would only be natural.
George Smith has written frequently about national security and rock music.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 27, 2004