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Just when you thought the public debate couldn't reach greater heights of superficiality, along came a new national steroid to give it an extra push. Though a perfectly legal - and, what many would argue, equally legitimate - recreational drug, it is clearly addictive. Indeed, all sectors of society seem to be showing signs of its influence in the mere two months since its arrival on the local scene.
The "uncontrolled" substance I'm referring to is the reality show Big Brother (Ha'ah Hagadol) - broadcast twice a week on Channel 2, in edited form, and round the clock, unedited, on the Internet and on Hot channel 20.
Those of you who have been spared the sight of a bunch of "regular" people competing for a cash prize by living in a house together and evicting other contestants had better get with the program, so to speak. If you don't, you're liable to find yourselves unable to keep up with current events and contribute to any discussion of them - two things concerned citizens in this country tend to want to do, particularly with general elections a hop, skip and a jump-out-of-one's-skin away.
Indeed, if you don't start familiarizing yourself with the eating, sleeping and other habits of Yossi Bublil from Ashkelon, and his daughter, Einav, you may not be eligible to vote altogether. (And no, I don't mean the ballot-casting that determines which of the residents of the house in Neveh Ilan get to remain in voluntary, fish-bowl-like captivity, and which have to pack their bags and return to the privacy of their own homes.)
How, otherwise, will you be able to judge, for instance, whether Shas leader, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai, was justified in accusing Kadima head, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, of racism, for attributing their failed coalition negotiations to his being an extortionist?
According to Yishai, when other parties - those with a more European flavor, that is - make demands as preconditions for joining governments, they are called "principled."
Hours of air time on Israel Radio were devoted this week to examining this claim, with politicians and pundits putting in their more-than-two cents about whether the "ethnic genie" had again reared its ugly head and slipped out of the bottle. Nothing you haven't been exposed to before, especially not in the immediate aftermath of a political impasse making early elections necessary.
But how will you fare in a parlor meeting or other social setting when someone bandies around the term "dead-beat Friedmanns" (Fridmanim metim) in the above context - and you have no idea what he's talking about?
Luckily for you, the talk-show hosts have been playing and replaying Einav Bublil's coining of a new slur for Ashkenazim - using the surname of former house denizen Naama Friedmann, a woman whose behavior she couldn't stand.
ARE YOU slightly perturbed that the stars of Big Brother are not only coming into our living rooms uninvited, but are suddenly shaping the discourse?
Recently retired "Mr. Television" Haim Yavin certainly is. A guest on Keren Neubach's radio show Seder Yom on Wednesday, Yavin asked rhetorically whether there are no limits to how low we can sink.
Journalist Association director-general Yossi Bar-Mocha - who said his wife is hooked on the show, by the way - answered by claiming that the contestants on Big Brother represent, and therefore reflect, a cross-section of our society.
Perhaps. But if so, it's not the cross-section that Israel Broadcasting Authority director-general Motti Sklar is targeting. In an interview with Ynet last week, while defending the need for a state-run channel, Sklar, too, used Big Brother as a point of reference - albeit a low one. And he said he's happy his own kids don't watch it. Given its rising impact, however, he might want to slip a peek or two behind their backs.
Something is going on here, and we all would do well to acknowledge it as a phenomenon.
REALITY TV is no novelty. In fact, decades before the likes of Survivor, The Real World, The Biggest Loser - and dozens of other real-life soap operas replaced fictitious portrayals of human hardship, Hollywood gave us a glimpse of what our viewing tastes would look like in the future.
In the 1976 multi-award-winning satire Network, when an about-to-be-ousted anchorman announces he's "mad as hell and not going to take it any more," and claims he's going to commit suicide on camera, the network's ratings soar. When they begin to slip again, after the public grows weary of his ranting, the producer plans to have him assassinated on the air by terrorists.
The movie was hailed by all who saw it as a brilliant critique of American culture in general, and of the world behind the small screen in particular. But no one took its sensationalist story line more literally than that of, say, an episode of Star Trek.
The same applied to the somewhat similar films, The Truman Show and EDtv, both of which came out in 1999. At the time, they seemed to be comedies exaggerating a similar kind of sick voyeurism on the part of the Peeping-Tom masses.
Little did we know how much life would come to imitate art's imitation of it.
WHICH BRINGS us to George Orwell and his 1949 classic 1984, a futuristic novel about the evils of totalitarianism. A harsh warning of the danger of regimes like Stalin's Soviet Union, this work of science fiction has been hailed as both perfectly crafted and prescient. So much so that 60 years later, its jargon is part of our daily lexicon - even in Hebrew. The term "Big Brother," the name of the book's all-powerful, unseen head of the oppressive state of Oceana, has come to be synonymous with the denial of freedom, achieved through strict surveillance.
How chillingly appropriate, then, is the name chosen for this particular reality show - originally created in 1997 for Dutch television by media tycoon John de Mol, and since copied in nearly 70 other countries.
Its appeal is understandable, when one takes into account an innate human curiosity about the lives of others as a basis for comparison to our own plight. This used to be what made novels - and gossip columns - so popular.
What is beyond comprehension, however, is the willingness of actual people to subject themselves voluntarily to the kind of "reality" that wars are still being fought to eradicate - the kind Orwell was warning us about.
Are these individuals - who, fortunately for them, have the freedom to engage in such exhibitionism - the ones we in the news media want to be quoting?
If so, it is we - not they - who are due for some serious scrutiny.
As for the increasingly shrinking population not yet swept up in Big Brother mania, the choice - thank God - is still yours to make.