A Real Survivor

May 29, 2005

A new “Survivor” season will begin soon, this time in Guatemala, a country still recovering from the ravages of a decades-long civil war.

The game is a stain on its genre, reality TV.

It’s an adult version of musical chairs with the savagery of “Lord of the Flies” thrown in. Today’s television set is Rome’s Coliseum, blinking and blasting grotesque images to entertain distracted Romans.

Previous “Survivor” venues have included the Brazilian rain forest, the Australian Outback and Kenya’s Shaba National Reserve.

CBS will present the 11th incarnation of the reality show in a few weeks, to be called, “Survivor: Guatemala – The Mayan Empire.”

The new crop of contestants will live among the Mayan ruins and in the course of several weeks, betray and humiliate each other in a mad, internecine dash for the $1 million prize. The network has a Web site dedicated to the show, with a link to a store where you can buy colorful necklace beads, dog tags and hats.

What locations will CBS think of next? Rwanda? Auschwitz? Or Springfield, where 24 people have been shot, stabbed and beaten to death in less than 24 months?

Why did the line that separates good-natured fun from cruelty sink out of sight? Is this part of Sept. 11 posttraumatic stress disorder?

Idelia Diaz, a 29-year-old Guatemalan who walked 48 hours through the Mexican desert into Arizona when she was 16 to escape hunger, was incredulous that her country was chosen as an entertainment spot.

She left behind family to cross the desert and now lives in the ruins of her American Dream.

“Guatemala gave them permission? I don’t know what to think,” is her initial reaction.

I’m explaining to a woman who lives at the mercy of Springfield slum lords the way the “Survivor” game works.

It’s a bunch of people in Banana Republic gear from here who will go over there for a few weeks and play at what it’s like to be hungry, scared, unsure, defeated. The winner, the survivor, gets $1 million, I tell her, with apprehension.

“Maybe they want to know what it was like to live like Mayans, to die like Mayans,” she says. “How can they be paid? They don’t care what people there have suffered.”

Guatemala is the birthplace of the wondrous Mayan civilization. It is also a country of 14 million people who have lived through bloody regimes that, all told, spurred 36 years of civil war. Unspeakable atrocities were committed against men, women and children.

President Bill Clinton apologized for the U.S. support of its repressive right-wing governments.

Just last year, more than 2000 homicides were reported in the beleaguered Central American nation. Because peace doesn’t just happen after generations of war.

President Abraham Lincoln once said of another battleground: “. . . We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have hallowed it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Are we Ancient Rome?

And where is Idelia’s cool million? She survived Guatemala.