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Unreality T.V.

“I can’t wait to go home and watch this all night,” a friend told me his middle-school teacher said on September 11, 2001. 

On the page these words seem crass. But few people saw the news of the attack and returned to gardening or to work. We all turned on the television to see what was happening, and what would happen next. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we knew even then that it was exhilarating.

The reasons are obvious. These extraordinary events make us feel like we’re part of History again: They allow us to imagine our lives in a grander context, to experience fear and vitality. After a decade of the end of history, four airplanes punctured America’s imperviousness to the rest of the world’s problems and brought an end to the very successful charade of a permanent Pax Americana. The events of last Wednesday, while far less destructive, pierced another façade: that of American institutions’ imperviousness to our own demons.

Like many Americans, especially among the huge number who work from home, I called it a day around two thirty, moved from my office to the living room, and watched the Capitol siege (those words even now hardly make sense together) unfold. It was at once amusing, humiliating, electrifying, horrifying, and deeply unsettling. While last summer’s protests and riots were larger in every way, with the possible exception of the burning of the Minneapolis police precinct and one Seattle neighborhood’s attempt at anarcho-syndicalism, they failed to expand the horizons of the possible. They might have been extraordinary as far as riots go, but they were still recognizable as riots. Last Wednesday’s actions, on the other hand, possessed a dreamlike quality that oscillated between absurd and nightmarish, and made them transfixing.

Ross Douthat put it like this: “We can describe this definitively as a moment when the virtual dreamscape, the online backdrop to our sclerotic real-world politics, tore down the curtain and capered in Viking furs in the world outside our screens.” Nowhere was this collision between the very online and the very real more intense than in the shooting of Ashli Babbitt, when dozens of smartphone-wielding content-creators, ensconced in the fantasy, taunted officers pointing guns at their heads—until the gunshot tore through the fantasy and into real flesh. And yet the spell was still not broken: Most of the streamers kept filming.

Wednesday should have broken the spell for all of us: the splashing of real blood on the mat of what many of us had convinced ourselves were kayfabe politics. And it was much less violent than it might have been, had the mob entered the legislative chambers minutes sooner. But, judging from the ramping up of rhetoric from the left and the right in the days since, trained by so-called reality television, we’re still not yet convinced that this show is really real. As the rioters keep streaming, we’ll keep tuning in, waiting for the next act—more outrageous, more dangerous, more frightening, more exhilarating.

This, as much as anything else, is why I expect our country’s public life to continue to deteriorate: as with everything that thrills by transgressing—pornography, for example—the next iteration must go further in order to produce the same high. If the inauguration is only mildly unruly, it will be a disappointing sequel. If the next spasm of left-wing unrest doesn’t break new ground in violence or target choice, it will fail to attract eyes and demonstrate seriousness. To capture the attention of subscribers (for the grifters) and the general population (for the true believers), the content must become increasingly barbaric.

This gets at another difference between September 11 and January 6: the latter was self-inflicted. Previously we had to rely on others to create our national snuff films; now we’ve brought production in-house. (Remember how the networks would replay the September 11 footage every anniversary as if it were live? I admit: I watched.) Today, what we’re doing resembles nothing so much as the self-harm an alarming number of Americans engage in out of self-hatred or to assert control over arbitrary oblivion—or to feel anything at all in a world of constant stimulation and minimal socialization.

Johnny Cash’s final masterpiece was his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”: “I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel. / I focus on the pain / The only thing that’s real.” It’s looking like a fitting epitaph for a people who don’t know what their country is or why it matters; who don’t recognize one another as having anything meaningful in common; who can’t even parse the distinction between fantasy and reality. We can agree, at least, that pain feels like something, even if we can’t agree exactly what it means. And we agree, implicitly, that we must feel more of it to keep feeling anything at all. At some point the damage we inflict will be irreversible. 

The only way out is to remember and to nurture the good that is real and that, if we let ourselves appreciate it, feels better than pain feels bad: trust, charity, solidarity, love. This will not begin online or certainly on cable news, but in bars and churches and community centers and parks and gyms and libraries and living rooms—the places where we can be together where the stakes are low and the spirits high, the places that take us away from our screens. Unless we rebuild those places and those affections, ours will be reduced to an empire of dirt far sooner than I ever expected.