Last week the smut-peddlers at Gawker.com introduced us all to Pete and Alisha Arnold. Alisha Arnold is apparently 17 weeks pregnant, and the Arnolds have allegedly decided to let the Internet vote on whether Alisha will carry their son to full term or abort him. I say "allegedly" because I am fairly skeptical of whether the Arnolds intend to follow through with their plan. In fairness, the Arnolds have left themselves a pretty substantial loophole, declaring essentially that they have veto power over the Internet poll. This seems to be fairly transparent way of saying that the Arnolds will check the results of the poll and then do whatever their hearts desire.
To my mind, the question of whether this episode is a hoax or publicity stunt is quite beside the point. What ought to concern us more are the hordes of American citizens voting in the Arnolds' poll and publicly obsessing over their gratuitous display of moral vacillation.
In 1998, Peter Weir's eerily prescient move The Truman Show portrayed a world fascinated with a "reality" television show which followed every move of the show's protagonist, Truman Burbank. Of course, the crux of the movie was that almost everything about Truman's world was a complete sham; from the city he lived in (which was actually an elaborately constructed and carefully controlled set inside of a giant dome) to all his friends and family (played by actors). Everything about Truman's world was fake except for Truman, who was blissfully unaware (until the movie's end) that his whole life had been played out on live television. Eventually, when Truman discovered that his life was a sham, he determined to break out of the prison that held him, and came to a final confrontation with the show's creator, the reclusive "Christof," who attempted to convince Truman to stay on the set and continue his life as the star of the world's largest show. In anguish, Truman asked Christof, "Was any of it real?" To which Christof replied, "You were, Truman. That's what made you so great to watch."
The Truman Show hinted that the show tastefully hid the salacious and indecent moments of Truman's life by politely averting the camera to a window or the ceiling, to the chagrin of a large segment of the show's viewers. This, of course, is the principal difference between The Truman Show and today. Now, quite apart from the explosion of "reality" television ushered in by MTV's The Real World and brought to broadcast networks by Cops and Survivor, the interactive world of the Internet has made possible hitherto unfathomable levels of both instant personal access and celebrity, which exist in a symbiotic relationship. In a world where Girls Gone Wild has been left by the wayside as tame and boring, it seems indisputable that our voyeurism has destroyed our collective sense of shame.
And so we are treated to the spectacle of the Arnolds allowing their abortion drama to unfold before the entire Internet world. We are confidently assured by the good folks at Gawker who are covering this "story" that no one is really in favor of abortion, of course, notwithstanding the many thousands of people who (apparently for kicks) have voted in favor of the Arnolds having one. Whatever. We have constantly been assured for years by abortion advocates that abortion is a regrettable evil, and that it must remain legal because it is a decision undertaken somberly by desperate women (in consultation with their doctors). Apparently now instead it is an appropriate subject of Internet fame and celebrity. If you are tired of using your cell phone minutes voting for (or against) Bristol Palin, come, and click your mouse for (or against) the death of an unborn child! Regardless of how one feels about abortion per se, when the decision to have one has degraded to an internet circus show, the total dissolution of the social mores that hold our society together cannot be far behind.
Of course, abortion advocates are counting on this very fact. With the increasing sophistication and prevalence of sonogram technology, it is increasingly difficult for the average person to conclude that abortion is anything other than the killing of a small human being. In the last 20 years, abortion advocates have slowly but steadily lost important ground in the battle for the American public's hearts and minds about abortion.
In order to reverse the tide of the PR world, the smart abortion advocates know that they must desensitize the public to it any way they can. Counter intuitively, their last remaining hope is to shove a reality that naturally provokes a visceral reaction into the face of an unwilling public, in the hopes that the public will eventually lose their ability to care. Lest you think this an unfair characterization of their strategy, don't take my word for it, take theirs. This is why the genuineness or motivations of the Arnolds’ stunt does not matter; the story is not about them, it is about us.
Societies are not held together by arbitrary lines or founding documents. They are held together by invisible bonds of cohesion that create a shared sense of identity, duty and loyalty to the idea of the society itself. Without these bonds, a society will quickly disregard things like borders and founding documents and collapse upon itself, as history has consistently demonstrated.
Where we go from here is up to us. Television ratings will attest that we've made a collective decision that what is "real" is "great to watch." Is there a point where we still feel compelled to avert our eyes in shame, or does each new taboo only draw us closer to the monitor? The answer may yet determine whether our culture can maintain the cohesion it needs to survive.