What is entertainment? Is it anything that is not work, sleep, sex or eating? If I climb on my roof to watch a meteor shower, do I have a healthy curiosity about the universe… or do I just want to see the free “show”? If we slow down to look at a freeway accident, are we giving thanks for our own safety… or hoping for a prurient peep that will blend Transformers with a slasher movie?
I ask because last week in Dekalb, Illinois, nine people, including a mother and child, were injured when a “monster” truck plowed into a crowd of spectators. The spectators were there to watch the monster truck plow into four cars and crush them. That activity apparently had entertainment value, since the entire thing was staged as a promotion in front of a Napa auto parts store. All nine people were hospitalized.
According to witnesses, after a third or fourth attempt to drive over and crush the cars, the driver of the monster truck appeared to lose control of the monster vehicle and the monster careened toward the monster-watching crowd. In earlier passes, the truck had, according to one source, come as close as three feet to the crowd, prompting Napa employees to ask observers to stand back.
Let’s never mind the grab bag of possible psychological explanations for why adults bring their kids to watch the Barry Bonds of pick-up trucks crush cars. In fairness, it may have something to do with facing fears. A shrink might ask, “What is the monster truck? Is it the government? Your boss? Your mother? What are the crushed cars… your hopes and dreams?” A nine-year-old boy might simply say, “It’s cool!”
Let’s go with that nine-year-old reaction. We’re at a moment when the entire nation is baking under record temperatures because, as we all know now, we’ve damaged the protective layers of our atmosphere with fossil fuel exhaust. Yet we still have a thriving culture of internal combustion orgies that includes trucks eating cars, cars chasing other cars around in circles, snowmobiles chasing snowmobiles around in circles (or through national parks), boats chasing boats and drag racing, which has also of late gone badly for observing crowds.
I accept the history and role of the internal combustion engine in modern life. I’m asking about these obvious excesses, these events of entertainment that appear to celebrate the very instinct of staying drunk on gasoline that we all know is endangering the planet. At this point, even hypocritical “green” events are better for shaping thought than “Viagra Presents Shamu the Killer Four by Four!”
I love the throaty sound of a Harley Davidson cruising down Main Street as much as the next guy, unless the next guy is covered with body ink and answers to the name “Grendel.” Nobody is looking to replace the Indy 500 with go-karts that run on hummus, although faster development of chick pea-based fuels might get us out of Iraq. What I think we might be looking at is some overdue evolution in our selection of distractions and entertainments. When it was revealed recently that a talented football player was deeply involved with watching dogs destroy other dogs, we didn’t just feel disgust. We also wondered why modern civilization wasn’t done with barbaric entertainments.
A monster truck crushing automobiles doesn’t qualify as “barbaric,” but it has an aspect of appealing to something that we need to move past if we ever hope to build consensus regarding the environment. Of course you could have “green” auto racing… just ask Al Gore, Jr. But we have to recognize that in some areas we’re hanging on to vestiges of a world and time that has turned. It’s going to be difficult enjoying the sights, sounds and spent fuel aroma of a monster truck rally if it’s held outdoors in 130-degree sunshine.
A recent comedy film about the future represented a monster truck event in which the featured giant vehicle was so oversized it couldn’t fit through the opening to enter the arena. It was stuck, helpless, and thus appeared ludicrous and funny rather than thrilling and exciting. Not like the monster truck that veered into the crowds in Dekalb. That looked painfully foolish and wrong.