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Tomarken.com > Ambivilen > “This is the American Dream” (03-08-04)
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"This is the American Dream"

Richie Zevin
02.20.04-San Francisco, CA

Two nights ago I watched satellite television for the first time in months. The first station I watched showed an evangelical preacher testifying to the evils of temptation in the modern world. The second showed an interview with Jim Caviezel, the Christ figure in Mel Gibson’s new movie The Passion of the Christ. Caviezel, dressed in a designer button-down/sweater ensemble, responded to statements like, "People in the theater turned away in disgust when they saw Christ tortured in the film," with statements like, "They turn away because they can’t face the horrible things within themselves." The third channel was the Home Shopping Network, and the program was about knives. There was a 142-piece knife set for $196, $1,222.84 off the original retail price. The two gentlemen hawking the knives had sold 3,465 by the end of the segment, and at one point referred to the 86% discount as the "American Dream," directly after discussing the Brazilian rosewood handle attached to a particularly dangerous-looking blade. "This is truly remarkable," the charismatic salesman with the eyeglasses and potbelly and hair weave said. I flipped back to the evangelist: "This is truly remarkable," he said. This is truly remarkable.

"Look at that magnificent bird of freedom!" exclaimed the knife salesman with the dyed-dark mullet and handlebar mustache, pointing to the bald eagle carved into a knife handle.

"And this one," the first salesman said, referring to a gilded and ornate knife, "looks like it could belong to some high-ranking official in the military."

My favorite knife had a survival kit hiding within the detachable handle. If someone chose to "succumb to temptation" and face and act upon "the horrible things within" him/herself, but subsequently "turned away in disgust," this knife would be an appropriate choice to do both horrifying amounts of damage and then clean up the mess afterwards. There was a natural fluidity between the three channels, as if they’d been calculatingly placed in a row like the Mini Coopers in "The Italian Job." Religion, commercialism, and reality television merged together to form the essential television program-a show that had suspense, drama, plot, conflict, character development, back story, climax, and ultimately resolution, all unscripted and immediately accessible to any lonely viewer with a remote control.

Satellite television implies a loneliness that is far more pervasive than having no friends or living in a new city. It implies a shared loneliness that has been studied, commodified, disguised, and packaged by media analysts and producers, and in the end, returned to the viewing audience in material forms. The 3,465 people who bought the 142-piece knife set bought the set for various reasons, but had any of them had a place to be other than in front of their television sets at 9pm on a Wednesday night, they would have missed the opportunity to complete their purchases. Presumably there were some who watched the knife program because they are genuinely interested in knives, and presumably others watched to relax after a long day at work. But you do not buy 142 hunting/killing knives (not cooking knives, mind you) unless you believe that they will change your life for the better. Resist the temptation. Turn away. The Home Shopping Network will not change your life for the better. You will not become less lonely; you will have more knives.

The three channels all suggested that they could end loneliness, while paradoxically enabling it. The preacher was certain that he was reaching out to those in need. The actor was sure that if we all took a moment to look-to actually look-at God in ourselves, we would be saved (from what, exactly? Why, loneliness, of course). The salesmen were vehement that a vaguely-described, unnamed mutual friend would have been stranded alone at sea in his boat during a storm had he not had one of the trusty knives from their 142-piece set. Yet the 1950’s ideal that television would bring us together has long since dispersed, much like the pixels on the screen that vanish when you press the *power* button and step outside and see all the people living their lives and looking to share them.


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