Yesterday I had one of those wake up calls that got me thinking and, worse than that, caused me physical disgust at the world we're in.
Late in the morning, I was at a medical clinic waiting for some check up exams' results and bored to death as is the case in these circumstances. Around me the elderly people that are the great health consumers of our society and some other younger people looking equally bored and stupified as I was. Old, used and torn magazines lay open and forgotten on a small glass coffee table. The younger people were all very much interested in their mobiles and frantically sending sms, looking dumb and alienated. The older people were either chatting (about their health miseries, what else?) or had their eyes glued to the TV set on the wall. Following their eyes I also stared at the TV.
TVI was on. Some idiotic, brainless morning talk show was on. I stopped to gaze in astonishment at what the masses are fed every morning and considering it an experience in life, since I never watch TV at that unusual hour.
Horror began then.
Certainly moved by some fake, hypocritical 21st century Christmas spirit, the producers, or whoever draws the programme's line up, had staged an episode in charity. In the audience a child and her grandmother would be the beneficiaries of such distinct and marvelous altruistic deed. They were poor, their lives difficult, the child had been abandoned by her mother and raised by that grandmother. The child wanted a computer for Christmas. A computer no one would offer her.
Surprise. As they were in the studio, TVI had sent a crew to their house: a naked house with just the basic furniture and no decoration (it looked cold too).
At this moment I thought things were getting despicable. So you go and show the world the inside of a private house? Worse, without the owners being there or consenting? And you make poverty a show? And you exploit the living conditions of obviously very humble people so that viewers can shed easy tears of compassion?
More surprise. While child and grandmother were at the studio, they had put a new bed, new curtains and new toys in the child's bedroom. Proudly, they were showing a very perplexed grandmother and child and thousands of viewers the innovations in the room. How lovely and colourful the new bed was, what fashionable orange curtains! The child was looking at all of that with blank eyes. Suddenly, a laptop on a new desk!
The silent child burst into loud, convulsive tears. She took her little hands to her eyes and just stayed there crying, crying so hard that all we could hear was that torrential cry.
I looked around. The viewers sharing the clinic's room with me showed no signs of emotion. Their faces were void of anything, their eyes still glued to the TV screen as if nothing had been showing.
Repulsive feelings criss-crossed my body. How was that possible? I was watching one of the most ignoble things I had ever seen in my life! I've seen a lot of bad stuff already. But this was too much! People were toying with a child, making audiences out of her frailty and suffering! How can you do such a thing? And for the public this was nothing special, nothing much, just another episode that I'm sure they get on a daily basis.
I knew morning TV is bad, but in my blond ignorance I thought they only showed recipes, beauty advice, interviews with common people, contests, astrology, couple's golden anniversaries, I don't know, stories of people that fight against diseases, survivors of accidents. But this?
With the girl still crying, the presenters ended the programme to the applause of the studio's audience. No commercial break and the 1 o'clock news was on. First news: European delegates were signing the Lisbon Treaty with special silver pens in an imposing, luxury setting that cost a fortune.
In less than five seconds we had gone from an extreme of human misery to the heights of spending. Poverty and prosperity and nothing in between. In less than five seconds we had contemplated the alpha and the omega of our strange civilization. And no one thought this was odd, difficult to digest.
Debt: I took the title for this text from a remark that Ramalho Ortigão did in John Bull (1887). One day, when he was walking in London, he saw a filthy and almost naked beggar go by. Later in that day he saw a carriage with His Highness, the Prince of Wales. Astonished at this coincidence he said: " E assim foi que eu tive a dita de ver quase ao mesmo tempo, o Alfa e o Ómega da espécie humana na grande civilização britânica, o primeiro e o último cavalheiro de Londres" (p. 136).
I saw that too, yesterday, in Portugal, in live and colour on national tv.