One morning last Fall I witnessed a mass-cultural war crime in the
comfort of my own living room: The Maury Povich Show.
It was an engrossing episode. A married couple was waiting for Povich’s
paternity testers to come in with the verdict on whether or not the husband
was the father of his pregnant wife's baby.
The judgment came in a sealed envelope. Povich held the results in the air
and proclaimed that the husband “had nothing to worry about. It's your
“Stewart” issued a victorious war whoop and punched the air with
his fist. He gave Maury a big hug.
Stewart's wife rolled her eyes. “I told you you were the daddy,”
she said with a distinctly southern accent, “you big [bleep].”
The audience roared.
Maury likes to build his shows around paternity tests.
The last time I saw him do one of these, things turned out differently. A cuckolded
husband collapsed in tears. As he lay sobbing on a couch, a winking Maury pretended
to console him. His wife wept as the crowd howled.
This kind of atrocity has been commonplace on American daytime corporate television
for some time.
Povich is neither the first nor the last daytime television host to construct
a broadcast around the employment of marginal and poor people as tragic sociological
circus freaks. This was how “Jenny Jones” and Sally Jesse Raphael
made their talk-who names and how Montel Williams got his start.
The worst is probably Jerry Springer, who loves to pit cheating lower-class
couples and their lovers against one another. On a typical Springer episode,
audience members leap “Jerry, Jerry” while the freaks chase each
other around the stage. Security personnel are carefully positioned to prevent
Then there’s the real-life judicial shows, wherein small-claims and divorce
justices likes “Judge Judy” and “Judge Joe Brown” preside
over dysfunctional poor people who can’t stop bitterly arguing with each
other. These television judges lace their proceedings and judgments with lectures
on proper behavior and values, accompanying their legal verdicts with cutting
comments about the rabble’s insufficiently middle-class comportment and
conduct and instructing them in the virtues of work, fidelity, family responsibility,
and the respect for authority.
What’s going on here? Beyond their profitable (for broadcasters)
appeal to the public’s most base and voyeuristic instincts, these and
other “real—life” television shows play a neglected ideological
role in the corporate-crafted “popular culture” of parasitic late
capitalism. They are part of an elitist thought control project: the cultural
engineering and enforcement of mass consent to social hierarchy.
Along with numerous other corporate television productions they propagate at
least two central authoritarian ideas. The first such idea maintains that poor
people –--- it is practically always working- and lower-class people who
get held up for ridicule in the human cockfights staged by Maury, Jerry, and
the rest –--- deserve their own poverty and related isolation and criminalization
in America. A college student who has been mass culturally weaned on Jerry (Springer),
Jenny (Jones), Sally (Jesse-Raphael), Judy (the judge), and Maury et al. is
not a good candidate to follow his left-liberal sociology, history, or English
professor’s discourse on the role that structural forces and elite agents
of class, race, and/or gender oppression play in creating mass inequality and
misery in the United States. The endless army of stupid, hateful, alienated,
and hopeless poor people paraded across her television screen by Maury and his
friends strike the student as being oppressed by nobody or nothing so much as
Of course, Maury and Jerry don’t do shows about the rampant social injustice
that produces the people who show up on their stages. Judges Judy and Joe Brown
and the authorities on Divorce Court don’t adjudicate on the political-economic
abandonment of the inner city or the corporate globalization that destroys jobs,
families, and communities.
They all profit, however, from the personal and group crises and the desperate
and self-destructive behaviors that are so naturally endemic among the “dysfunctional”
people stuck on the wrong sides of these forces and processes.
The second richly authoritarian idea “taught” by Maury and Jerry
et al. holds that the ordinary populace is too stupid, vile, savage, selfish,
atavistic, and ignorant to be trusted with the possession of any particular
power in “democratic” America.
The prolific left intellectual and media critic Noam Chomsky probably wouldn’t
be caught dead watching Maury Povich if he could help it. Like most left intellectuals
(myself included), he engages dominant media primarily through its upper-end
news and commentary outlets: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the
Financial Times, and the Washington Post etc. Interestingly enough, however,
Maury, Jerry, and the rest are excellent disseminators of a notion that Chomsky
rightly places at the heart of the venerable thought-control project of the
corporate master class: “the people who are supposed to run the show”
(the society’s power elite) must “do so without any interference
from the mass of the population, who have no business in the public arena”
(Noam Chomsky, Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World [New
York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2005], p. 21).
“No business in the public arena”…except as angry and tragic
circus-freaks who deserve their position at the bottom of America’s steep
The mass populace that appears on Maury and Jerry (both on stage and in the
audience) is more than merely unfit to rule. It is a modern-day embodiment of
the wretched, unruly, and childish “mob” – the dangerous and
all-too “masterless” and “many-headed monster” –
that aristocrats have always claimed to see when they describe the common people.
It is proof of the classic authoritarian and self-interested ruling-class idea
that the ordinary citizenry is unqualified for freedom and must always be checked,
coerced, and manipulated from above. It is evidence for the venerable bourgeois
thesis that “human nature” is essentially nasty, violent, disagreeable,
and brutish. Especially at the bottom of the supposedly merit-based socioeconomic
pyramid, this thesis maintains, civilization’s majority is composed of
ignorant and boorish louts. That thankless rabble must be controlled for their
own good and the good of society by benevolent, far-seeing masters, who are
supposedly less tainted with humanity’s inherent inner savagery.
To be sure, it’s hardly just on the daytime freak-shows that these viciously
hierarchical ideas find modern media expression. These oppressive notions are
ubiquitous in various forms (especially in crime dramas) across the spectrum
of America’s corporate-crafted “popular culture,” with authoritarian
consequences that deserve serious consideration by progressive media critics
and activists. They color the content of numerous situational dramas and comedies
as well as pseudo-documentarian law-enforcement shows like the dangerously repression-friendly
Specific shows aside, the “manufacture of [mass] consent” to the
shocking concentration of American wealth and power takes place just as significantly
in the entertainment media as well as in the news and public affairs media that
preoccupies most left media critics and activists.
Paul Street (email@example.com)
is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11
and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era
(New York, NY: Routledge, 2005).