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'Survivor' has it all wrong

By / February 1, 2001



CASTINE, MAINE

"Survivor" gives me an odd flashback, to the council fires at Camp Indian Name in the summer of 1966.

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Like "Survivor," camp was fueled by weekly challenges. We campers canoed, hiked, played team sports, built totem poles, and cleaned camp in competition with two other tribes. This was the "coin" for building character - no million-dollar reward for conniving or emotional sabotage. In fact, such tactics would be a good way to lose points or get sent home.

Team points were tallied at weekly council fires presided over by the Grand Shaman. I loved the hokum of those council fires: spooky woods, flaming torches, and totemic symbols, just like "Survivor," though I doubt that the Big Network uses the toilet-paper-roll-soaked-in-kerosene for torches that we pyromaniac adolescent boys thrived on.

Counselors dressed in war paint, feathers, and loincloths and used sign language as they ushered in the Grand Shaman to hear our reports of nature, unselfish commendations, and tales of derring-do. The counselors took pride in lighting the fire with increasingly extravagant pyrotechnics, or having the Grand Shaman conveyed on an increasingly elaborate flotilla of aluminum canoes across the waters of Lake Indian Name.

And then the campy ritual and an earnest message. The Grand Shaman noted our deeds and highlighted principled actions: bravery, kindness, cooperation, compassion, responsibility. And he always left us with a word for the week, a quality to work on, such as brotherhood, endurance, or respect.

The Grand Shaman brought wisdom and experience to the council fire, mentoring the circle of braves shivering in camp blankets and swatting mosquitoes. Values were invoked with sincerity, even if the ritual was a cheap knock-off.

And twice each summer the Grand Shaman awarded feathers for individual accomplishment. Though I knew that everyone got a feather, it still made me want to be a better brave.

"Survivor," like other contrived media spectacles we idolize in our culture, depends on a counterfeit idiom, misnamed "reality." Amid enough disturbing indicators that we should be raising the visibility of inclusiveness and collaboration, the "counselors" at network headquarters hold up the mirror to predatory individualism, sniping, and pettiness - even sponsoring seduction, if "Temptation Island" is included in the "Survivor" genre. The challenge for "Survivor" participants should be: How do we ensure survival for all of us? How do we make room for everyone in the "lifeboat?" How do we all earn our feather?

Instead, we acquiesce, finding entertainment in the following: How do we get rid of that girl with the accent? Whom can we do without? How do I ensure that I'm the last one standing? How do I get the million bucks - or at least thwart the other guy?

Back at Camp Indian Name, the Grand Shaman tried to elevate our response to problems of survival by getting us to ask better questions. His medium may have been hokum, but his medium wasn't the message.

"Survivor" has been compared to "Lord of the Flies." Fair enough, it is, insofar as it is a tribe acting out a certain adolescent nature. When magnified before the prurient, remote voyeurs in the media coliseum, we must admit to being participants, members of the tribe and not just an audience.

Are we not also the contestants, seated around the television - the ultimate council fire?

As I watch "Survivor," I feel seduced by the lowest common denominator of human nature. It even seems that we can rationalize our prurience by thinking: "It's happening in the Australian Outback." The situation and participants are remote. But I've come to feel that remoteness is a myth - an ironic facade of the reality TV format - because "the medium is the message," as the Grand Shaman of the media age put it.

The successes of "Survivor" are predictable: a rich audience harvest for advertisers and reinforcement of the culture of celebrity.

Survivor could be an inspiring social experiment, if it had a true, open-ended hypothesis.

Instead, it manipulatively anticipates pettiness. It's unsettling to realize that, given our acquiescence to the premise of such television shows, "Survivor" or "Temptation Island" may some day seem as quaint as Camp Indian Name.

"The Tribal Council has spoken," intones the television host, and someone gets kicked out of camp. But it's a hollow act.

The council needs the Grand Shaman to purify the language of the tribe.

Todd R. Nelson is a freelance writer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society