10/06/2010 05:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Reality TV Is the Best Place to Reinvent Your Image

In an essay in The Washington Post about so-called "second acts" of disgraced public figures -- i.e. an appearance on Dancing with the Stars for Tom DeLay, a new CNN talk show for Eliot Spitzer -- Laura Kipnis bemoans the staying power of society's latter-day transgressors. "Scandals have always performed a necessary social function," she writes. "The community brands and expels transgressors in humiliating, sometimes grisly ways, purifying itself in the process." These days, though, those who've done wrong are allowed to use their transgressions as the leverage necessary to rejoin the public sphere. It is, to Kipnis, fake penitence. "[H]ow can we shun them," she asks rhetorically, "when they won't go away?"

Kipnis goes on to chastise the rest of us for enabling these public acts of quasi-contrition; that is, for maintaining a foundation-less morality that'll let anyone off the hook and forgive any kind of hypocrisy. If we really disapproved of whoring, there's no way we'd trust our punditry to Eliot Spitzer! Just like in Jeopardy!, this reasoning goes, you should lose money and status for answering (or behaving) "wrongly."

Kipnis also takes Americans to task for not being able to see the hollow minstrelsy of turning "our scandalizers into dancing fools and talking heads, forcing them to perform their contritions as mass entertainment." Atonement, she seems to imply, is about self-flagellation, sacrifice, and pain; how dare someone use his lemons to make lemonade! Perhaps, though, saving face isn't really the point. Making -- or at least trying to make -- an ass out of oneself on television, scandal in the rearview or otherwise, is an American tradition, and if it's merely fun and not purgative, why should we care about the scandalizer's motives?

I'm not so sure about Kipnis's criticism. The "moral consensus" that she thinks American society is lacking sounds an awful lot like, oh, a Roman Catholic catechism -- a set of rules to which everyone is expected to adhere. It may be rigid and statutory about what's right and what's wrong; it may be woefully out of touch with everyone who's not a dogmatic Catholic; and it may be remarkably bad at regulating the behavior of the faithful -- as evidenced by the Church's pedophilia scandal -- but at least it's a solid framework for morality, a response to the "shaky ground" that, according to Kipnis, our society's morality rests upon. But this is ludicrous. Admittedly, performance on reality/competition TV is shaky penitence at best, but why advance, as Kipnis does, the chauvinistic and dogmatic argument that while humiliating, a tango and a twirl on ABC don't sweep -- can't sweep -- the soul clean like ten Our Fathers and five Hail Mary's?

Which brings us to a further complaint -- that Hester Prynne would never have even been allowed to show up with Bristol Palin on Dancing with the Stars, so intent would society be on keeping her locked up in her ignominy. This is notably hard-hearted and short-sighted. Regarding Philadelphia Eagles quarterback -- and convicted dogfighter Michael Vick -- Kipnis spits, "Each new scandal winds up being a referendum on our shifting social norms, norms so in flux that even animal-torturers (Michael Vick) can win their way back into sports fans' hearts with nothing more than a brief, state-imposed exile and a better passing game." Never mind the fact that "brief, state-imposed exile" is a tin-eared and offensive euphemism for 21 months at USP Leavenworth.

Kipnis seems to suggest that, once bitten by a public figure, we must throw up concertina wire around our hearts so that he's never again allowed into our good graces. Hester ought to wear that 'A' in perpetuity. Vick should be made to stamp license plates forever, the better for a sinner like him to keep a job that's not held in such high public esteem. (There's also the unavoidable point that, if one is a professional football quarterback like Vick is, then a "better passing game" is a chief way for one who earns his money by passing a football, like Vick does, to bolster his monetary and moral self-worth.) But better, I suppose, that he skip practice and let his arm grow rusty so that with each incomplete pass and interception, we're reminded of his crimes.

Now, Kipnis is right that a lack of an "institutional" method of penitence allows for each scandalizer to move toward social reconciliation in his own way, and that this can sometimes -- as in the case of Spitzer -- preclude real atonement. Spitzer's position as talking head, for example, lets his "raging inner prosecutor" run rampant, letting the former governor tap into -- and then celebrate -- his self-destructive proclivities for confrontation and for pushing the envelope. This might remove some of a true bully's motivation to reform himself: if Spitzer can get busted and still be a resurrected jerk, then why can't I? Here's a guy, she suggests in Spizter, who hasn't changed his ways, hasn't examined his motives, and is still just Client 9 with a new job title and a new respectability.

Ultimately, regulating and moderating public penitence and public punishment is a passive job. It moves slowly and sweepingly, from Hester Prynne, ca. 1850, to Michael Vick, ca. 2010. As far as the modern stockades go, Dancing with the Stars is it. If you must, throw rotten fruit at your television and write angry letters to ABC.

But it says more about the contemporary political climate than it does about "info-tainment" that the public is more willing to turn to B-level entertainment for moral redress than it is to the A-level political sphere. If the seemingly serious and cerebral world of politics brought about these scandals, after all, then why shouldn't the fun and fatuous circus of popular media lay them to rest?