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Popular Culture: The Salahis and the Great Gatsby

What do the Salahis and the Great Gatsby have in common?

Let me apologize in advance; I just can't help myself. The more I read about reality TV, the more it just gets under my skin and the less control I have over writing about it.

Reality TV is my whipping boy. It is, for me, the final indication of the end of civilization as we know it. Reality TV exemplifies and makes admirable some of the worst values that exist in our culture, running the gamut of the Seven Deadly Sins and adding plenty more to the list. It also encourages the most shameful behavior. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich suggests, reality-TV aspirants are victims of a culture that encourages people to grasp for the brass ring of fame and fortune without regard for the consequences of their actions.

Instead of honesty and hard work, there is deception and provocative attention. Rather than patience, there is imprudence and risk. Fame and fortune at any cost is the rule. What used to be considered shameful and humiliating behavior is now considered chutzpah and dogged determination. Golly gee, all of those reality-TV contestants are really epitomes of the indominable American spirit!

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Current events in the asylum known as reality TV (which is so far from actual reality that the use of the phrase should be banned) have set me off again, so here's another reality TV rant.

Recently, we were introduced to Michaele and Tareq Salahi, a seemingly upstanding Virginia couple who allegedly (innocent until proven guilty in the court of media opinion) crashed an official White House state dinner for what appears to be an effort to help the wife land a part on "The Real Housewives of DC," a new reality-TV spinoff of the highly successful franchise on the Bravo television network.

What is driving such outrageous behavior? For many reality-TV contestants, the motivation is money. But that doesn't appear to explain the possibly criminal actions of the Salahis gaining entry to the White House dinner uninvited. By all accounts, they are a well-to-do couple (though his family's wine business went bankrupt in 2007 and there are reports of up to 15 civil suits filed against them). So what was behind their chicanery?

According to her profile on Wikipedia, Mrs. Salahi was shall we say creative about her professional accomplishments (telling people that she had been a Washington Redskins cheerleader and a fashion model, all evidence to the contrary). Mr. Salahi, in turn, appears to have ridden the successful coattails of his father, who founded an award-winning winery, and enjoyed living the high life of the social elite in Virginia's horse country.

In reading about this couple, two words struck me: nouveau riche. From what I've gathered, they possess the least admirable qualities of that social group: vanity, narcissism, and entitlement. Only in possession of those attributes could a couple engage in such a fraud as occurred at the White House without any sense of guilt or contrition. To the contrary, despite the fact that their stated explanation is at odds with all actual accounts of the events that night, they continue to declare their innocence. Plus, and here is real chutzpah, reports indicate that the couple is trying milk their time in the spotlight for all its worth (which, in our scandal-hungry culture, is a great deal) by asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars for interviews (which they also emphatically deny).

The Salahis harkened me back to a college modern American literature class I took and my reading of the Great Gatsby. Maybe they are no different from its titular character, Jay Gatsby, one of literature's most famous social climbers. Having gained his wealth through misbegotten means (I'm not suggesting that the Salahis did), Gatsby gazed jealously at East Egg and, despite his wealth, wanted nothing more than to be accepted by the old money across the bay. Perhaps the only difference between the Salahis and Jay Gatsby is that he didn't have reality TV or Facebook.

How much farther will people go to gain their 15 minutes of fame? I don't think that we have even begun to plumb the depths of depravity to which people will lower themselves in the name of this Warholian American Dream. I can only hope that all of these wannabes quickly learn that, like Oz, this bizarro version of the American Dream is, as Dorothy learned, just a vivid nightmare from which they will all wake up back in Kansas (metaphorically speaking, of course, and no offense to Kansas).

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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