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Kevin O'Leary Has Us Under (Remote) Control

06/15/2012 12:08 EDT | Updated 08/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Several years ago, when we first moved East, we disconnected from cable TV. The reasons were pretty simple: I was addicted, we wanted to keep all that advertising out of our kids' heads, and well, to be honest, most of the programming was repetitive junk.

But now some of that TV programming has come to Netflix, which we do have, so my wife is now watching past seasons of Dragon's Den. I try not to watch. But, I can't quite not. The show, like all reality shows, triggers a kind of compulsive voyeur reflex. Maybe it's all the goofy business ideas, or the often harsh and predatory behaviour of the regular panelists -- who are big, successful moguls, we're told.

And apparently Dragon's Den has been a big hit for CBC. But what I didn't know was there are 24 versions of the Sony-franchised show around the world, from Afghanistan to the Ukraine. To say that the show is universally popular, even influential, is an understatement.

For example, now-famous star Dragon, Kevin O'Leary, has his own spinoff show on CBC: The Lang and O'Leary Exchange, a bit of which I caught on a YouTube video a few months ago. It was the one where he got flattened by American documentary journalist and now social activist, Chris Hedges. No doubt you've seen the clip. In a prejudicial volley, O'Leary quickly branded the Occupy Movement a "nothing burger" and "very low budget" and referred to Hedges as a "nutbar."

Well, Chris Hedges may be a lot of things, including overly serious and a harbinger of doom, but he's no nutbar. What he is, is frighteningly rational. Ironically, Hedges has written about men like O'Leary and the apparently socially-destabilizing phenomenon of fame, power and money in his 2009 book, Empire of Illusion, with the telling subtitle: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, which is a direct aim at our new "reality TV" lives.

But back for a moment to actual reality. Now that summer is approaching, I'm watching less on Netflix and moving back into my library of old books, searching for a good re-read. Ralston Saul's epic Voltaire's Bastards is the current favourite in the light reading category, and I'm already deep into the Surviving in Fantasyland chapter in which Saul writes (in 1993):

"This is an age of great conformity. It is difficult to find another period of such absolute conformism in the history of Western civilization. The citizens are so completely locked inside their boxes of expertise that they are effectively excluded from public debate. We have disguised this truth by redefining individualism as an agreeable devotion to style and personal emotions. We project ourselves, as if in a romantic dream, against a backdrop of martyred existential outsiders. And in the absence of practical levers of power, we have convinced ourselves that these images are real. Film, television, magazines have given these outsiders concrete form. We know them. We know them well..."

O'Leary, though, is no mythologized martyr like John Lennon or James Dean. But still he plays the role. In a little video clip we watch him standing in the bathroom shaving, getting ready for to record a two-minute Skype promo for CBC (which, we assume will be shot somewhere in his home in front of his computer). As the camera pans down his bare torso to the white towel over his lower half, he brags about the fact that he will not be wearing any pants for the talking head promo and in fact goes on to say, he never does. In a media savvy moment O'Leary has more or less successfully managed to transform himself into the image of a lovable rebel.

But O'Leary is no rebel or outsider operating at the edges of society. He, in fact, operates at the top, much as a parasite does on its host. And competitive one at that, as in his classic on-air line: "where's the mu-NEY? Mu-NEY," he repeats, knowing as the audience does, that money inevitably rises to the top.

But competition, not money, is the fascinating point of the show. In true gladiator spirit, contestants, er, business people, compete with the Dragons for a piece of their money. The audience waits for the businessperson to be ritually slaughtered, or, if the idea and the hard luck story is compelling enough, succeed to become a full partner with one of more of the Dragons; that is, to become a junior Dragon themselves.

What got me was the episode with the dude who'd invented a hydrogen-powered motorcycle. The Dragons dumped the idea because there was currently no network of hydrogen fuel stations, even though the inventor observed that hydrogen could be purchased at any welding supply shop.

In other words, the guy was too far ahead of the mass distribution market. He couldn't compete.

Competition, it turns out, at least on Dragon's Den and possibly the real world of business, is not tied to future public good. But competition is definitely one of the ways to personally make mu-NEY.

Does that make O'Leary a bad man? Not if we see him as merely a symptom of who we are. O'Leary, after all, has an Honours BA in environmental studies and psychology. He's clearly aware of both the environment and the effects we humans have on it. So why would his life's work be directed at material acquisition rather than working as an environmentalist?

There are all kinds of reasons. Who knows, or who cares?

The basic case comes down to the fundamentals of capitalism. Like any idea that's reached the status of religion, in order to function it has to detach the individual from reality and replace it with an ideology, in this case the ideological belief that the acquisition of money, power and fame equals success, which will equal happiness.

The problem is, with a daily media diet of this kind of tripe, we and our society overlook the real issues that face us collectively, such as how we might transition off fossil fuel sooner rather than later, or migrate toward collaborative, sustainable economies rather than endlessly pursuing competitive growth strategies.

As for O'Leary as a model of social success, one might take another look at the hairball of software he sold to Mattel for $3.8 billion in stock, a deal that brought nothing but grief to Mattel and the other companies that bought the wreckage of the deal -- and one of O'Leary's current successes, Stream Global Services, a company that specializes in outsourcing, that is, shipping North American jobs overseas.

But that's OK with O'Leary, who, in a recent interview that included the fatal impact of his career on his marriage of 21 years, said: "The troubling thing is, I would do it again. You only live once."