Thursday, January 25, 2007
Part I: "I Can Do Anything I Want -- And So Can You."
"Sammy Davis wrote a book called 'Yes I Can.' The other day I saw his first television show and I sent him a wire that said, 'No you can't.'"
-- Frank Sinatra
Quite possibly the biggest lie that America has ever been willing to swallow whole is the seemingly benign assertion that anyone is capable of anything. From our first grade teachers, to our coaches, to Will Smith's uber-motivated Dad-of-the-Year in The Pursuit of Sappyness, the message that you, yes you, can do whatever you set your mind to is practically encoded into our country's collective DNA. By the time Tony Robbins has screamed in your face that Christ-like ascendancy is within your reach and television commercials have proclaimed that there's no need for you to tolerate even the most minor of inconveniences ever, you'll truly be convinced that there isn't a force in the universe powerful enough to stop you from making your most outlandish desires come true.
Except that there is; it's of course called reality.
If you watch American Idol -- and judging by the ratings, you'd rather have elective eye surgery than miss it -- you know that reality occasionally goes by a more specific name: Simon. With several seasons under its belt and presumably all of its potential talent pool now well-aware of the basics of how the show works, you'd think that only the most delusional of legitimate contestants wouldn't understand what it takes to get past the first round (translation: what it takes to avoid having their egos pummeled into paste at the hands of TV's snottiest British stereotype). Yet once again this year, thousands have lined-up and waited and hoped and dreamed and prayed -- only to have a figurative bucket of ice water thrown on their lofty aspirations by Simon and company (nee, by reality) who inform them in no uncertain terms that they suck. The reaction to hearing this "news" is typically as predictable as an episode of Three's Company*: denial; outrage; more denial; denial coupled with the contestant's insistence that he or she does in fact know how to sing; psychosis; bitter proclamations that the contestant will make it as a singer despite having a voice that sounds like a hyena being put into a wood-chipper; defiant overconfidence; more psychosis; crying.
And all the while anyone with two ears and three IQ points watches the unnecessary drama unfold and asks him or herself: "Wow, did you really think you were gonna make it? Have you ever seen the goddamned show?"
The reality of course is that reality is simply ignored or discarded in favor of the age-old affirmation that anything is possible if you just follow those dreams and believe hard enough. Understand, there are certainly cases in which -- after no small amount of hard work and intense training -- a person or group can achieve seemingly impossible goals; this is known as the human spirit. Unfortunately, there are just as many cases in which the facts of a given situation -- the regrettable truth and undeniable limitations -- are completely disregarded in favor of wishful thinking and grandiose aspirations; this is known as human folly.
When the latter rears its head on American Idol -- as it so often does -- it's usually just good for a laugh.
When it becomes the foundation on which far more significant endeavors are based, it's dangerous as all hell.
We're all well aware by now that those deciding truly important issues -- the judges not of American Idol, but of our nation's courts -- occasionally find themselves burdened by obstinate men who claim that it's their God-given right to become waitresses at Hooters; or thirty-three-year-old white women who insist that they're entitled to a place in the Harlem Boys Choir; or quadriplegics determined to "break the intolerance barrier" by joining a professional hockey team. At the core of ridiculous efforts like these is one common misconception: that because America was founded on the principle that all are created equal, all actually turn out equal. It doesn't quite work that way. Each person is equal in human dignity; human abilities are another subject altogether. Whether by an act of nature, a particular circumstance, or the overall intrusion of reality, one person may be forced to confront limitations which another doesn't. Using the legal system to try to overcome these limitations -- to level the playing field -- is just crap. I'm never going to play power forward for the Knicks; I've come to terms with that and I'm damn sure not going to go to court to demand that I be allowed to. There are some things I need to just shut the hell up and accept that I can't do.
Not long ago, I was talking to a friend of mine at a bar. She works with the blind, helping them to conquer various obstacles and lead better, more fulfilling lives -- obviously, a very noble vocation. After awhile though, she mentioned the core belief at the center of her efforts: she wholeheartedly insisted that there's nothing people with sight can do that their blind counterparts can't. I gave her a slightly bemused look, then said, "Sure there is -- they can see." After dodging a glass-full of gin and tonic, I proceeded to get a protracted lecture on what a closed-minded, right-wing bigot I am -- but as far as I was concerned, it didn't change the facts: a blind person can't do anything -- at this moment in time and at this stage of technology -- that absolutely relies on the ability to see, and any effort based on an assumption to the contrary is a disaster waiting to happen. "The first time I get into a car accident and I see a blind guy get out of the other car -- I'm kicking somebody's ass," I told my friend.
Her reaction, as it turns out, looked a hell of a lot like those rejected singers on American Idol -- minus the part about the hyena in the wood chipper.
Tomorrow, Part II -- "I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing": The Most Hilarious/Terrifying Interview in Television History
(*There's a misunderstanding of some kind. Hijinks ensue.)