Judge Shows (part 2) - Cultural Masochism and Performed Poverty, by Tom McAllister

NOTE: This post is part 13 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows by Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister

Yesterday, I was walking through Center City Philadelphia on the way to teach a summer class. The course runs in the evenings, and I tend to get there a little early so I can walk through the city: to exercise a little, to eavesdrop on weirdos, to see the summer break crowd spilling drunkenly out of bars and the post-work crowd flowing right back in for happy hour. I walk through the city to authenticate myself as a Philadelphian, an identity with which I’m inextricably linked even though my grasp on it is tenuous, now that I’ve spent the past eight years living in the New Jersey suburbs and I really only know my around certain pockets of the city now.

The walk was unpleasant yesterday, because it was ninety degrees and the humidity was approximately five thousand percent. And also because the Center City homeless population seemed to have exploded over the weekend. Despite diminishing numbers of homeless, there are still plenty of people living on the city’s streets. But they tend not to be concentrated in heavily populated areas the way the young hobos on the west coast congregate in downtown areas. They’re almost always by themselves and most have been pushed out to the fringes of the city, to those blighted areas no one cares about, the collateral damage of gentrification.

There’s another difference between the homeless panhandlers here and those I’ve seen on the west coast (in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland): the Philadelphia homeless, in general, look really homeless and hopeless. There are no clever, wry signs like “Who am I kidding? I just want some pot” or “Family kidnapped by ninjas, need ransom money” and there aren’t smirky teens carrying battered Kerouac paperbacks and pooling their resources to live some beatnik fantasy life. Sometimes on the west coast, you can feel like the homelessness is an affectation by teens who have selected poverty as a fashion choice. That does not happen here. Here, they look beaten down and miserable and rarely make eye contact, and they certainly do not aggressively approach pedestrians to demand donations. I’m certain that some of the more aggressive tactics of west coast homeless, mostly tolerated in those places, would result in an incredible beating in Philadelphia.

But yesterday, it seemed that every homeless person in the city had descended on the area around City Hall, and a number of them were more assertive than usual. Normally on my half-mile walk, I’ll pass three to four panhandlers; yesterday, I passed fifteen (maybe sixteen, depending how you categorize this one guy who looked pretty chewed up but may just have a home and a bad life). I passed an empty bottle of port wine, and ten feet later I found the man who had presumably just finished drinking it; he was lolling around in the middle of the sidewalk and 15th & Chestnut, and his feet were cracked and purple and his face was gray and he made a strangled sound like he was being crushed. I stepped over his outstretched arm, and I took a flyer from a marketing street team promoting something called Frankenfood. They showed no awareness of the man in their path. Others stepped over him too, and someone else posed in front of him for a picture like he was just some authentic gritty scenery, and I went to find a police officer because I was pretty sure that man was dying.

I ended up calling 911, and even though the dispatcher was efficient and the ambulance arrived within five minutes, the dying man had somehow disappeared while I had my back turned. So when the ambulance arrived, they were looking for a white male in his late 40s and ended up talking to a different homeless man on the corner, whose sign said something about falling from a cell tower and being screwed out of worker’s comp, and then I started to worry that I’d set into motion a chain of events that would end up making this guy’s terrible life even worse (what if he was carrying narcotics and this visit ended up with him incarcerated? What if the accumulation of indignities makes him lose hope entirely?), and also I worried that maybe the dying man hadn’t really been there in the first place and he was some sort of terrible apparition.

*          *          *

During this walk—during the past two weeks, really—I’d been thinking about money and poverty and unfairness because I’ve been immersed in daytime TV for so long now that I’ve developed a deep unease the class dynamics on display. Specifically, I’ve been exclusively watching court shows lately and it’s impossible to watch these shows without thinking about class.

A question people always ask about the trashier elements of daytime TV: who goes on these shows? Why would you subject yourself to the embarrassment of being on Maury for a paternity test? Why would you let Judge Judy yell at you on TV?

The answer is simple: poor people go on these shows. Without access to traditional means of justice—probably without any particular faith in a justice system that transparently values them less than the rich—the recourse for the plaintiffs on these shows is to hope that a daytime TV production can somehow help.

Which means the subtext of every court show is that you are watching people who have been forced by their circumstances to debase themselves on TV for the sake of rectifying some wrong, agreeing to abide by a judgment that is almost certainly not based in a legal rationale, and essentially becoming props for a comedy show starring some asshole judge and a chuckling bailiff.

A woman on America’s Court with Judge Ross is suing a man she blamed for losing her job working a fried chicken chain. “It was a good job,” she says, “I was making $312 every two weeks.” She had gotten fired for giving free chicken to a customer, who she later learned had “a great job” working the register at AutoZone. On Supreme Justice with Judge Karen, a woman is suing a man for $390 for doing a bad job as a costumed bird at her son’s birthday party (the $390 includes the cost of the bird-man’s services and “emotional distress”). On Judge Alex, a hair stylist is being sued for giving bad loc extensions. On People’s Court, a disheveled man is being sued for $260 he didn’t pay to an even-more-disheveled woman for driving him around or something, it’s not all that clear based on their convoluted explanations. AnotherPeople’s Court case concerns a man who wants his ex-girlfriend to pay back a loan he gave her when she was evicted from her apartment. Yet another People’s Court case focuses on two terrible people who are terrible neighbors to each other and intentionally damaging each other’s property, and also maybe the guy killed his female neighbor’s pig (“I didn’t get one of them necropsies,” the woman says when asked if she knows how the pig died, “for me, when a pig dies, that’s a big event. It’s traumatic”).

I feel at once like I’ve given too many examples and not enough. I want to stress that in almost every case, it’s obvious that the people in front of the judge are down-and-out, either poor or on the verge of poverty. There is no reason you would spend two full years pursuing $216 from a bad event promoter unless you really need that $216; it’s just not worth the time or money or effort. In that sense, even the low-stakes cases are high-stakes. But they’re not really treated that way. They are interchangeable parts fed into the system in order to make money for the producers, for the stars. They are another opportunity for the wealthy to make money off the problems of the poor.

*          *          *

After encountering the drunken apparition in center city, I went to Starbucks. Because I was hot and because I like to drink a coffee to start my class. Because I wanted to be in a place where I was less likely to see a dying person on the ground. I passed three more panhandlers on the way, one outside the door of the Starbucks. I stood in line behind a group of five guys (hereafter referred to as The Dicks) who dressed and talked and acted like recent MBA grads who make three times my salary and almost definitely pound Red Bull and vodka in their condos four nights a week before going out to a soulless Old City bar and keep using the word epic, sometimes in conjunction with comma-bro. The Dicks ordered $143 worth of drinks at Starbucks.

Why did The Dicks order $143 worth of caffeinated drinks, all of which came with multiple modifiers (i.e., not one of the drinks was just coffee but instead each was something like tall mocha with soy and two sugars)? Because they can and because they wanted to have a drink-sampling party on the premises. So The Dicks ordered and they leaned on the counter talking to the barista and correcting her and guiding her through the mixing of their specialty bullshit drinks, and they made her call out their names when the drinks were ready even though they knew the drinks were ready and could see them. They needed to have their wastefulness validated by a public announcment. Then they stood in the middle of the room sipping on their drinks and trash-talking (“I’m telling you, you gotta get extra sugar in that shit, bro!”). It was as if they’d just learned the term “conspicuous consumption” but didn’t understand the definition.

Outside, poor people were dying in the heat.

*          *          *

Daytime TV, I’m increasingly realizing, alternates between two poles: exaltation of celebrity and poverty-as-entertainment. As I watched countless small-claims trials, I could see only that these shows are a product of a culture that prizes the possession of wealth over all other traits.

Despite extensive evidence of rampant corruption among politicians, banks, and other power-brokers, despite untenable levels of income inequality, despite a fundamentally broken school system at all levels, there is not nearly enough rage toward the people who deserve to be the targets of unceasing righteous anger.

Everyone knows the system is broken and nobody knows how to fix it. Or they know how and they’re not allowed to. Or they don’t think it’s ever possible so they don’t try. And so there’s a weird, fatalistic, masochistic streak in our culture that invites us to further degrade the already degraded working class, to instinctively side with upper management, to assume that the CEOs and owners are probably right because they happen to be in power. There’s a steady push to demean the poor as deserving of their status, to blame them, and only them, for their struggles, to deride all nuance as excuse-making and enabling.

The audience of daytime TV is largely comprised of the elderly, stay-at-home parents, shift workers, the unemployed and the infirm. With the exception of stay-at-home parents, this is an economically suppressed community. This is a group that should sympathize with the poverty of the participants, but instead they are tuning in to laugh at them. This seems like a defense mechanism, a way to feel things may not be great here, but at least I’m better than that. It feels like a way to stratify and divide a group of people that should be united in fighting for a society that places more value on actual humans than it does on profit margins.

Most of the disputes on these shows could be solved within ninety seconds—there is usually clear evidence, or a complete dearth of evidence. So in order to fill out the airtime, the judges need to pry into the personal lives of the litigants, to ask questions any decent lawyer would refuse to allow (“so, are you jealous of your mom for having a boyfriend?” Judge Alex asks in a dispute about a financial transaction), and then to act as common-sense life counselors. Primarily, this counseling manifests itself as paternalistic lectures telling the defendant what a bad person he or she is, and then telling the plaintiff they’re stupid to have ever gotten into this mess in the first place. Someone wins and someone loses, but everyone gets judged.

Judge Judy, of course, is the standard-bearer in this department, becoming a household name by acting like a huge asshole to people all the time, but doing so in the name of some outdated sense of Greatest Generation tough love. But her many imitators have done a fine job of following the formula.

The hair stylist on trial in Judge Alex is a poor communicator  (“I did a well job,” she says, and later confusingly adds “I think this was all an unruly”) and Alex takes every opportunity to snicker at her limited vocabulary. She can’t articulate her case well, and when she tries to explain the process of loc extensions, he blows her off. “You understand, this all just sounds like algebra to me?” he says, indicating his own discomfort with 9th grade math.

Judge Karen repeatedly insults the man in the bird suit, asking him why any normal 31-year old man would want to work at children’s parties. He’s awkward and he has a lisp and he has a funny side job, so this is all it takes to condemn him in the court of Supreme Justice. When he confesses to the great crime of being a childless, unmarried 31 year-old, she first makes a “this guy is a little funny” face, then tells the mother she should have run his criminal record before allowing him anywhere near any children. The man is a full-time social worker who makes extra cash working children’s parties. This is not okay with Judge Karen who finally just says “you are weird” and it’s clear that when she says “weird” she means that she thinks he is a sexual deviant. She adds that she would never let a child near him and tells him he ought to go get a wife. Attempts by the bird-man to explain that there’s nothing deviant about entertaining children lead to more condescension. Then she yells at the mother, “you’re not doing a very good job of raising your child.”

Judge Marilyn Milian, of People’s Court, is the worst offender here. She steamrolls people during their comments, willfully misunderstands obvious points, and interrupts them before they have a chance to answer her questions.  Over the course of three episodes, she called four people bad mothers, told a woman she ought to find a way to stop being dependent on men, and asked a man if he had any connected brain cells. After dismissing litigants from her court, she sends them to the court reporter who asks hard-hitting questions like, “Really? Were you serious in there?” and “If you’re so smart, why did you lose?” And then the show doubles down on its awfulness by throwing to Harvey Levin, the TMZ guy, on the street, where he can make a snarky comment or two.

When Levin, whose extraordinary wealth is derived from a job in which he literally digs through celebrity trash and pays hundreds of thousands of dollars for voyeur photos of babies, calls another person creepy, I spike my remote to the floor and walk out of the house and don’t come back for a half hour, muttering the whole way and sort of hoping to get into a fight.

*          *          *

I’m trying to figure something out here, and I don’t think I’m really getting there. The judge shows upset me more than any other daytime TV I’ve watched because it was the opposite end of the spectrum; while the cheery happy programs are mainly about how to look and feel beautiful like celebrities, these shows are about the reality: life is hard and it’s mostly bad and even when you try to reach out for help most of them time you’ll be mocked for trying.

I thought my experience yesterday had helped me to crystallize my thinking, but as I write this I realize that instead everything is just messier. My class warrior impulses and rhetoric are weakened by my reluctance to take any meaningful action in rectifying any of these problems. I didn’t give money to the panhandlers I saw, or talk to them, or treat them like something besides obstacles. I’ve cultivated that straight-ahead deaf stare you need to avoid the requests for spare change. I'm far from rich, but also I'm comfortable enough that I don't have to think about money most days. I’ve turned these people into anecdotes in my judge show review, not to use them as entertainment, exactly, but to pick at something I don’t know how to process: the unease I feel when I pass a homeless person, the narcissistic thought I always have that that could very well be me with one run of really bad luck, the way I stupidly romanticized homeless as a teenager, the low-level guilt I feel about the various way I’m profiting from and perpetuating a system that treats them as disposable.

*          *          *

When I left my class in the evening, most of the panhandlers were gone, but a few were still there. As I put my head down and pushed past them, I passed a large bank building and saw a line of liquid human shit—diarrhea—streaking down the side of the wall to the sidewalk. It was positioned high enough and in an open enough area that it seemed like the placement was not an accident—to even hit that spot would require an impressive athletic feat of defecation. I wanted it to be a metaphor for something, the first step in an actual war on the rich, but more likely it was a metaphor for the futile efforts we make at fighting the system. The shit is there and then it rains and then the shit is not there and the bank never notices while you’re still left out on the street wishing you could afford toilet paper. 

Next week: I wrap this thing up because, man, I am done. I'm done. 

Tom McAllister is the Barrelhouse Non-fiction Editor. His memoir, "Bury Me in My Jersey," was published in 2010, and his shorter work has appeared in FiveChapters, Black Warrior Review, elimae, and some other places. He has a novel forthcoming from Algonquin in Spring 2016. He co-hosts the Book Fight podcast and you can find him on twitter @t_mcallister.