Verbal Gladiators

by Geoffrey Clarfield (September 2011)

A specter is stalking America. It is not some foreign ideology that wants to destroy capitalism, nor is it yet a social form of radical Islam that would turn its back on science and individual liberty and have us all live according to Sharia law, nor is it the unrestrained hedonism of a world that has rejected religion. It is something else altogether.

When they receive their award they are at their emotionally most vulnerable. They often get choked up, break into tears or thank the organization in a way that would make you think that they had been liberated from prison or rescued from terrorists. They are allowed to address the audience for a minute or two (sometimes not) and for many of them, this will be the one and only time that they have the undivided attention of five hundred people. The spotlight is on them, their families are watching, the cameras click and the event is often caught on film or videotape.

The MC for the night, who is not the keynote speaker, is often a member of the media and so once again the honoree feels as if he or she is on TV and they are able to say whatever they want. But they do not, as they have been maneuvered into such an extreme feeling of gratitude that they are unable to look at the situation critically. They have become famous for one minute and they relish that fame for years to come.

The dress code is black tie. Men often wear tuxedos and women wear evening gowns. The men look like characters in the wedding scene from the Godfather, whereas the women tend to dress like the women of the royal family, with fantastic hats and fabrics that fold and shimmer in the well lit halls of the usually five star hotels where the gala is taking place.

You are ushered in by ushers and your name is on the plate having been told which table you are at. After cocktails there is a short introduction and welcome and soon after to the tones of Baroque music or Jazz you are treated to a fine dinner with fine wine. Then the MC begins, followed by the keynote speaker who then gives the awards. This can then be capped with a special address by the founder of the organization or her representative.

Desert is served and you are then thanked for all your support until the next year.

Sometimes there is a prayer.

Nowadays the entire ceremony or edited parts of it appear on the Internet, preferably on Youtube and, on the web site of the organization. Again, the people who send their ten or twenty dollars to the charity are not aware that a hundred thousand has been spent to raise twenty dollars from one donor, but if a two hundred thousand people all do the same, then it is a profitable venture and the charity survives for another year.

Over a hundred years ago the great French anthropologist of religion, Emil Durkheim explained that religion is society worshipping itself. Without the benefit of Freud, he was trying to say that each religion is an externalized expression or projection of the distinctive features of a particular society. Each society or social group has its boundaries and each society creates a ritual that binds its members together, celebrates their solidarity and does so in a way that makes each member feel purified, transformed or exalted, in direct communion with and blessed by his deity.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.

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