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'Survivor' has it all wrong

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"Survivor" gives me an odd flashback, to the council fires at Camp Indian Name in the summer of 1966.

Like "Survivor," camp was fueled by weekly challenges. We campers canoed, hiked, played team sports, built totem poles, and cleaned camp in competition with two other tribes. This was the "coin" for building character - no million-dollar reward for conniving or emotional sabotage. In fact, such tactics would be a good way to lose points or get sent home.

Team points were tallied at weekly council fires presided over by the Grand Shaman. I loved the hokum of those council fires: spooky woods, flaming torches, and totemic symbols, just like "Survivor," though I doubt that the Big Network uses the toilet-paper-roll-soaked-in-kerosene for torches that we pyromaniac adolescent boys thrived on.

Counselors dressed in war paint, feathers, and loincloths and used sign language as they ushered in the Grand Shaman to hear our reports of nature, unselfish commendations, and tales of derring-do. The counselors took pride in lighting the fire with increasingly extravagant pyrotechnics, or having the Grand Shaman conveyed on an increasingly elaborate flotilla of aluminum canoes across the waters of Lake Indian Name.

And then the campy ritual and an earnest message. The Grand Shaman noted our deeds and highlighted principled actions: bravery, kindness, cooperation, compassion, responsibility. And he always left us with a word for the week, a quality to work on, such as brotherhood, endurance, or respect.

The Grand Shaman brought wisdom and experience to the council fire, mentoring the circle of braves shivering in camp blankets and swatting mosquitoes. Values were invoked with sincerity, even if the ritual was a cheap knock-off.

And twice each summer the Grand Shaman awarded feathers for individual accomplishment. Though I knew that everyone got a feather, it still made me want to be a better brave.

"Survivor," like other contrived media spectacles we idolize in our culture, depends on a counterfeit idiom, misnamed "reality." Amid enough disturbing indicators that we should be raising the visibility of inclusiveness and collaboration, the "counselors" at network headquarters hold up the mirror to predatory individualism, sniping, and pettiness - even sponsoring seduction, if "Temptation Island" is included in the "Survivor" genre. The challenge for "Survivor" participants should be: How do we ensure survival for all of us? How do we make room for everyone in the "lifeboat?" How do we all earn our feather?

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