Truth and consequences on 'survivor'

Posted: Aug 29, 2000 12:00 AM
So kick me, cut me dead at the grocery store for want of taste and civilized sensibility. I deserve it. With TV having gone straight to the hot place since "You Are There" and "Perry Mason," what excuse had I for watching every grimy detail of the last grimy episode of "Survivor"? Cultural homework -- that was the answer. And what fun, because I learned something. What I learned was the shock value of hearing Rudy tell Bryant Gumbel why he had voted for Rich -- because "I gave my word, and my word is good." Just a second here. Because you promise something, you have to keep that promise? Have to do what you said all along you would do? That was the essence of what Rudy asserted so baldly and matter-of-factly: the conviction that if you're any kind of human being, you'll do what you said you would do. Nor will fashionable selfishness and game playing sway you. The declaration sounded just right in the mouth of a 72-year-old retired Navy petty officer: 72 reminding us he grew up back when such sentiments were more current than they have since become; ex-Navy suggesting the seriousness of the armed forces' commitment to moral performance. (What if, in combat, you told your buddy, "Go ahead, I'm right behind you" -- then you ran the other way?) Now, spread it on the record that, even though I watched "Survivor" intently, I did not come to the big city seated atop a cotton bale. Did Rich, on TV, invent deceit, knavery and back stabbing? Not the way I read history and literature. Honor, as an idea, has always set off alarms in wary minds. Falstaff summed up the matter with precision, in Henry IV: Part 1: "What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. (...) Therefore I'll none of it." So, what's the big deal here, if we're not constituted so differently from our ancestors? Here's what is different: the cultural support that promise-keeping seems no longer to enjoy. This guy declines to exact revenge? Lets Rich the Conniver, rather than little Kelly, walk off with the swag? You want to say: Huh? Huh, nothing! We hear just fine. We're not used to such words, that's all. We don't expect them. When they come -- ringing like crystal, not thunking like plastic -- they can knock us over -- approximately the way I recall seeing Jon Voight, a pretty good actor himself, knocked almost to his knees some years back by Laurence Olivier's trained and knowing eloquence at the Academy Awards microphone. Oh, baby! You don't hear stuff like that these days! Or stuff about honor, though in Rudy's case, we do. Once it was commonly said that "A man's word is his bond" -- pretty much Rudy's point. Nobody expected to be honored for keeping his word. You did it because you were supposed to. The assumption was that we couldn't have much of a society if everybody spoke with crossed fingers, interpreted truth in a personal and selective way, and played mischievously with the meaning of "is." The marriage vows were predicated on a sense of responsibility regarding the word of honor. "And thereto I plight thee my troth." Checked the divorce rate lately? There appears to have been some falloff in "troth" -- meaning good faith. Not that there ever existed a society of saints, with hands folded piously and eyes cast to the heavens. What existed here, for ordinary purposes, was a society that valued, more than devalued -- that honored, more than dishonored -- the keeping of pledged word. A society demanding of particular things -- honor, racial tolerance, whatever -- ends up with some semblance of them. The old-fashioned virtues, such as faithfulness and dignity, are too much identified with Dead White Males to receive much of a hearing from our relaxed culture, but then, a still-living white male unexpectedly displays one of those virtues, and, what do you know, the culture goes: Wow! Maybe I'll have to reassess TV. It has its subversive uses.