As someone who believes it’s never too late to learn Life’s Lessons wherever one finds them, I have to admit I’ve learned a profound and surprising lesson from Survivor . I learned that my problem in life is that I’ve never formed alliances. For too long I’ve been a loner, gone my own way, walked the mean streets of the media realm with no posse to cover my back, relying on my own devices, thinking I could get by on my wits alone. I’m someone who never learned to network, have little talent or inclination for the schmoozing and sucking up that has served so many so well.
Not that I’m unhappy with my situation in life. I love my work, love my column and the new book I’m working on, feel enormously fulfilled by the publication of my most recent two books ( Explaining Hitler and The Secret Parts of Fortune ) and the following they’ve developed.
Still, after watching Survivor religiously from the third week on, after being mightily surprised–no, stunned –by the triumph of the Machiavellian Rich and his killing machine of an alliance, it suddenly occurred to me that I’d like to have an alliance like that of my own. That my life might have been easier for me in the past–less anxious, more rewarding in practical (as opposed to merely aesthetic and metaphysical) ways, if I’d made strategic alliances. And perhaps more rewarding in the future: Yes, I have a certain amount of power over my own life, but an alliance might give me–and the like-minded people I ally with, of course– more power and influence. The intimidating kind of influence I’ve never really sought before. And so I think the time has come to form an alliance, an alliance with the people I feel most artistically and spiritually attuned to, an alliance of like-minded edgy enthusiasts. An alliance with you , dear reader. Yes, I want you to become a Founding Member of The Edgy Alliance.
First, let me explain how Rich’s triumph in the final “tribal council” made me rethink my attitudes toward alliances. What got me was the way I completely misread the situation, completely failed to anticipate the way things went down in the final tribal council–this despite becoming an addicted student of the show. I loved the way that, beneath its crafty architecture of contrivance and artifice, Survivor seemed to give you a window into the sublime, ineradicable pettiness of human nature. The moments when some kind of bizarre Chekhovian glimpses of people under pressure would emerge. But as the show drew to a close, like everyone else I found myself focusing obsessively on the Tagi alliance, its manipulative leader Rich, and the ethical and practical questions about Life it raised.
For those of you who had better things to do on Wednesday nights this summer, or made a conscious decision to opt out of participation in this communal pop-culture drama (the national debate about Survivor , the
You know, of course, that the 16 game players on the Survivor island were initially divided into two tribes named Tagi and Pagong. That each week at a tribal council, one of the two tribes (the one that lost the so-called immunity challenge) had to vote off one of its members until the seventh week, when the 10 remaining members of the two tribes merged to form one tribe that then proceeded to eliminate one member a week. Until the final tribal council when there were only two survivors left, and the last seven people kicked off the island would return as a jury to pick the million-dollar winner.
Early on, whether by accident or design, the two tribes began to take on two personalities that mimicked those of the survivors in H.G. Wells’ futurist novel The Time Machine : the fun-loving but defenseless Eloi and the subterranean scheming meanies, the Morlocks. While the Eloi-like Pagong tribe idled away their days amiably, among the Morlock-like Tagi a sinister-seeming four-person alliance emerged, engineered by “corporate trainer” Richard Hatch. The four-person voting bloc (consisting of Rich, the septuagenarian Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch, the abrasive truck driver Susan Hawk, and the wavering but resourceful river guide Kelly Wiglesworth), first combined to eliminate most of the non-alliance members at the Tagi tribal councils, and then, when the tribes merged, began mowing down the hapless Pagong patsies who were like deer in the headlights before the Richard-driven alliance juggernaut. The Pagong were clueless Eloi, either unwilling or unable to form an alliance to defend themselves.
It seemed at first that what was being enacted was an eerie fulfillment of Yeats’ despairing maxim in “The Second Coming” about the birth of 20th-century horror: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with passionate intensity.” It was yet another instance in which passivity by dithering liberals like Sean and Greg–who used purported ethical rationales for making wussy choices–allowed the greater of two evils to triumph. Sean, you’ll recall, was the goofy neurologist who refrained from making choices in the tribal-council votes over who to expel, instead adhering to an ostensibly neutral, non-offensive alphabetical voting system: voting to expel not the one he disliked or wanted gone, but just whoever was the next one down in the alphabet. Sending poor Jenna to her metaphorical death at the one moment when the deviously scheming Rich was still vulnerable!
And Greg, the goofy guy who called a coconut shell his “nature phone” and who apparently couldn’t close the deal with the fabulous Colleen when he had a chance (what’s up with that?), pulled a Sean-like move in the final jury vote: Instead of choosing between the final two, Rich and Kelly, on the basis of merit, friendship, anything , Greg chose a numerical rather than alphabetical cop-out, ostentatiously asking each of the two to pick a number, and gave Rich his (deciding) vote when it turned out Rich’s number was closest.
Typical liberal behavior: trying to be “nice” rather than principled. But still I was fairly certain, up until the very last ballot of the very last vote, that Rich’s strategy would ultimately backfire.
Yes, the alliance might work up until that moment, and yes, Rich did end up in the final two. Ended up there largely because Kelly must have been thinking the way I was: that when it came to that final round of voting by the jury of seven, most of them Rich’s victims, they’d naturally give him a taste of his own medicine and vote in favor of the nicer, more ambivalently (or ineptly) ambitious Kelly. And so when Kelly had the choice in the semi-final round to make her final rival Rich or Rudy, she knocked off Rudy because she figured she’d be better off staging a good-versus-evil showdown with Rich.
Was she wrong ! Was I wrong!
I figured it might even be 5-2 for Kelly over Rich, but it turned out 4-3 to make Rich the winner. No one voted against him because of his aggressive, Machiavellian, alliance-forming, game-playing behavior; in fact, some voted for him because they admired his aggressive, Machiavellian, alliance-forming, game-playing behavior.
And who’s to say they were wrong? It was a game, after all, and they were applauding and approving him not as a candidate for sainthood but as a game player. It began to dawn on me that there was a Life Lesson to be learned here. Look at the way it’s reflected in the game of American politics. Look at Bill Clinton. Is the source of his continuing high poll ratings admiration for his character? No, it’s admiration for his ability to keep his alliance together, for surviving the ultimate tribal council of impeachment. For being a survivor.
And it’s why I now think it’s no accident that the recent big shift to Al Gore coincided with the final episodes of Survivor . People haven’t come to like Al Gore any better, but I think they’ve begun to see him through the lens of Rich. Not an alpha male but a delta male . D for devious. They know he staged “the Kiss,” for instance. But they don’t resent the staging; they admire him not for the sincerity but for the staging.
And when George W. gets all whiny and defensive and trembly-lipped about something and asks America to think about what’s “in my heart,” I think from now on they’re going to be thinking: Kelly. Or maybe even crybaby Jenna, if not goofball Greg.
And so, in the aftermath of the Survivor finale, with this further evidence of the power of its Life Lesson, I began to rethink my attitude toward Rich, toward the concept of alliances. It was in the aftermath of Survivor that I began to think it was time to form my own alliance. And where better to seek like-minded allies than in the readers and fans of this column?
After all, looking back on it, over the years I’ve called upon readers of this column to form a number of temporary, ad hoc alliances for noble causes. Alliances to support the late, lamented Books & Co., the illustrious independent mecca for readers and writers, as it struggled to survive the shameful squeeze put on it by the real estate speculators in charge of its Whitney Museum landlord.
And then there was the equally noble but more successful ad hoc alliance formed to save Mystery Science Theater 3000 , the brilliant movie satire show. The president of the network that picked the show up when the Comedy Channel was about to dump it credited this column and its readers for clinching her decision–which kept the show alive for three more years. (You can still see reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturday mornings. Don’t miss it!)
An even more lasting and visible victory achieved by this column and its readers can be glimpsed every night in Manhattan: An alliance of this column and its readers convinced the new owner of the Chrysler Building to reverse previous policy and keep the lights of the building’s beautiful spire (once extinguished at 2 a.m.) lit all night long. A triumph–perhaps my most lasting legacy–that was, I’ll admit, predicated on a previous, rather more selfish ad hoc alliance. That was the time when I had an apartment crisis and called upon readers of this column to help find me a new place (and accompanied that plea with a plaintive-looking picture of my legendary charismatic cat Stumpy above the caption “Please find a home for us”). It was when I moved into the new place that one of my readers had tipped me off to, and it turned out to have a view of the Chrysler Building and I discovered the lights went out at 2 a.m., that I was prompted to call for an alliance to keep it lit.
Still, more often than not I’ve used this column’s power for strictly unselfish reasons. There was the alliance in support of Charles Portis, the brilliant, reclusive author of The Dog of the South , most of whose novels had gone out of print, an alliance that helped prompt a smart publisher (Overlook Press) to bring them back again. (You must read The Dog of the South .)
And then there was the great outpouring of communal solidarity prompted by my formation of the Can’t Stand Seinfeld Society, an informal alliance of people who felt left out by the torrent of hype for the insipid, overrated sitcom. Many people who sent in the “membership coupons” I printed for the C.S.S. Society expressed gratitude at being able to bond with others in that lonely crowd through the medium of this column. (Just trying to do my part to bring people together.)
It was the Can’t Stand Seinfeld Society coupon that clinched my decision to form what I’ve decided to call The Edgy Alliance. I love designing coupons, particularly that little scissors icon.
A couple questions might occur here. Like, what is the purpose of the Alliance? Hey, what is the purpose of the Elks Club, the Crips and the Bloods, Skull and Bones, the Hellfire Club? An excuse for like-minded people to freely associate. A vehicle to reward friends and punish enemies. In this case, a mobile cultural strike force to galvanize support for deserving books, movies, CD’s and TV shows. A more coordinated way of engaging in cultural activism with people of similar tastes in high and low culture. I might even expand it to interactive cyber activism if I could find one or more people to volunteer to act as Web master.
Now, dear reader, it’s time to make a searching personal inventory to see if you qualify for The Edgy Alliance. Not everyone will. There’s no entrance fee–well, no monetary fee is required, but rather what you might call intellectual currency, a shared aesthetic sensibility. Those who qualify and supply their address on the coupon will receive a free personalized membership card signed by me and witnessed by Official Alliance Mascot (and Power Behind the Throne), Stumpy. (When I say “witnessed” by Stumpy, I mean Stumpy will witness me signing it; his agent and attorney have advised Stumpy not to co-sign anything with me.)
So: If you are a subscriber or regular reader of The Observer , you qualify ! You can call yourself a Founding Member.
If you are one of the many people who tell me they turn to my column first, you qualify ! And you will receive the designation Exalted Founding Member.
If you have written letters of support for previous cultural campaigns advanced by this column, you qualify ! Consider yourself a Knight of The Edgy Alliance. (The Can’t Stand Seinfeld Society is hereby merged with The Edgy Alliance, and all members automatically qualify as Knights.)
If you have purchased a copy of The Secret Parts of Fortune , you qualify ! Congratulations, you are Supreme Commander of The Edgy Alliance.
Finally, if you’re a new reader of the column or you’re not sure whether you qualify, or even whether you have an affinity for the enthusiasms of The Edgy Alliance, consider the following randomly organized list of works and people praised in previous columns and see if one or more resonates with you. If so, you qualify !
All the King’s Men , the Cowboy Junkies, Dead Souls, Mystery Science Theater 3000 , The Long Goodbye , Peter Brook, Badlands , Smokey Robinson, Chimes at Midnight , Don DeLillo’s Libra , Chrissie Hynde, Murray Kempton, Larry Sanders , the Dixie Chicks, De Rerum Natura (Lucretius), Persuasion , Doo Wop, Pale Fire , Brian Kulick, Sandra Bernhardt, David Berlinski, “Shipping Out” (David Foster Wallace), Tom Petty, The Third Man , Julie Taymor’s Titus , Lingua Franca , Willie Nelson, Tom Frank, the Shirelles, Eric Ambler, Blade Runner , The Anatomy of Melancholy , Charles Portis, Blood on the Tracks , James M. Cain, Bruce Wagner, Rickie Lee Jones, Sam Cooke, Errol Morris, Ann Magnuson, Seven Types of Ambiguity , The Woman in White , The Simpsons , “Losing My Religion,” Christopher Ricks, Renaldo and Clara , the dream of Clarence (in Richard III ), Edith Wharton, Jon Stewart, George Herbert, The Pat Hobby Stories , Nicholson Baker, The Crying of Lot 49 , Other Inquisitions (Borges), Chinatown , Bill Murray, Rosanne Cash, Hart Crane, Bruce Cutler, John Gotti’s lawyer (no official Gotti endorsement implied) … to name a few. (By the way, if you are reading this online you can apply at Box #105, 577 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10016.)
Oh, one last word. In case anyone wonders why the membership coupon (and the free membership card you receive if your application is accepted) is adorned with a headshot of Rich from Survivor , as well as one of me and Stumpy … well, one of the first official acts of The Edgy Alliance will be to formally attempt to make an alliance with Rich. Are you kidding? I want to stay on his good side. That dude is scary.