Posts from — April 2008
I grew up on 1970′s television. I can probably re-enact every Gilligan’s Island plot and can quote the Brady Bunch at will (I guess; no one’s asked me in a while).
I watched hours and hours and hours of television.
And here I am, 41 years old and a somewhat well-adjusted member of society. So what’s my deal with the endless rants about smashing the TV?
Here’s the thing: There was a difference between commercial entertainment then and the media monstrosity we’ve got now. A big difference. Spending hours at the mercy of mellow 70′s passive entertainment – on maybe five different channels, tops – is admittedly troubling, and may be the reason I never became a lawyer, let’s say. Ultimately not the best way to spend a childhood (God knows).
But: Spending hours and hours (and hours) with hyper-realistic, psychologically manipulative, adult-oriented, sexualized, super-violent, and emotionally intrusive material – across 500 channels or whatever – is a whole different thing. And that’s what we’ve got today. In the 70′s watching too much television was a troubling social concern. Today it really does threaten our democracy.
Of course, we can’t look back at newsreels from the 50s without cracking up at the horn-rimmed, slicked-hair squares bemoaning the “dangers of rock ‘n roll”. Turns out Elvis wasn’t the end of civilization as we knew it, after all.
But it’s a whole new ballgame today. Just consider the sneering, nasty tone of commercial entertainment, which alone is enough to make us want to toss the thing in the closet and run to the nearest library. That’s even before we consider the disinformation that passes for “news” (70% of Americans blamed Iraq for 9/11 – enough said) or the consumerist blatherings that spin us into thinking that a fulfilled life is defined by a pursuit for self-gratification. And I’m just getting started.
Popular culture can be – and has been – truly great, and even great art. But when it exists as part of a pre-conceived marketing plan, it’s manipulative junk. More and more of today’s commercial entertainment – which after all comes by way of a shrinking handful of media conglomerates – carries a “hidden agenda”. It’s getting harder to know what’s really being sold with the entertainment we’re getting, with viral videos of “amateurs” that turn out to be music label plants on YouTube, or “news” shows that do in-depth “features” of films produced by another department of the television network. Or military “experts” who appear objective but are planted, pro-war messengers instead.
Democracy remains the best form of social arrangement we’ve got. But just as businesses need well-defined property laws or a well-run postal system in order to operate best, democracies require a well-informed public that can make thoughtful, wise decisions. Otherwise, who knows what might happen? We could end up with a president we want to share a beer with instead of a well-qualified leader. Shudder. Just imagine what might happen in a world like that.
When I was a kid I thought “politics” was something that you shouted about on family holidays. And when I got to college, I’d sit on the Quad with my NY Times talking about political strategies with friends, and I never let a Sunday pass without “This Week with David Brinkley”. This was how important issues were debated in a free society. Or so I imagined.
When I got older and started to read progressive history books, I discovered a world that I hadn’t heard about before. This other place had labor struggles, anti-war movements, social responses to capitalism; it had poverty and racism and exploitation of a shocking order. These things were never discussed on TV or in newspapers or as part of my family arguments (although that changed in a hurry…). And I came to understand that the “game” of politics had nothing to do with the issues that impacted people’s lives.
Democracy assumes social involvement. So I’m not here to argue for disengaging with the world. What I am saying is that commercial media is like the Roman bread and circuses – it’s a diversion to keep people from contemplating real things that really matter; we’ll be a much healthier and fairer society if we simply tune it out. (Not to mention examples of outright media lies – check the NY Times for the most recent, chilling example...)
It’s not just FOX News that’s the problem. Sure, their paper tigers of “liberals” or “gays” or “islamofascists” are effective propaganda diversions, but in truth it’s the larger consumerist ideology (often wrapped up in sexual imagery) that keeps the folk in a kind of dazed stupor, chasing after quick gratifications.
Meantime few are paying attention as the US becomes a train wreck out of control. Enormous economic changes are underway as wealth rushes to the top 1% (or less) and away from everyone else. We’re becoming a “rich-poor” society. In every sense the system of checks and balances is failing. Why? Because the “people” aren’t paying attention and we’re getting robbed blind. Tyranny isn’t some quaint historical danger that we’ve safely overcome. It’s a threat at all times, even today. Especially today.
No one’s immune to the pull of commercial media, which exists not just to sell products, but to sell a way of living. And that way of living can be summed up as “happiness through purchasing”. This ideology puts lots of money into the pockets of executives but no longer into the pockets of you and me, because wages continue to tumble even as corporate profits reach record levels. Trickle-down theory may be the biggest joke of the last twenty-five years. Ask any family trying to make it these days; it’s getting damn near impossible. Check the Center for on Budget and Policy Priorities for some shocking stats. At the same time, defining one’s happiness through material acquisitions is a sure-fire way to become very disappointed, very quickly. It doesn’t work. But it certainly keeps us preoccupied.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If you want to change the world, you’ve got to shut the diversions off and start paying attention and that means everyone. Even the brightest dog will run into traffic to chase a bone…
That does it. This blog is officially, formally and specifically boycotting the Democratic election horse race. No more posts on “BitterGate” or “Bosnia Bullets” or “Obama’s Pastor”, and that’s a ChangeAny1thing guarantee.
I was already sick and tired of the nonsense but ABC’s “debate” has sealed the deal. And I only watched about fifteen minutes of it. I should have known better.
If you want an excellent overview of the utter inanity, check Jason Linkins over at the HuffPost who calls it the “worst debate. Ever.” It’s a great read.
It’s going to be a l – o – n – g summer with crap like this. I used to blame the media at failing to keep us informed. Now I blame it for making us MISINFORMED. It’s a repeated theme around here, but your best bet is to shut the damn thing off.
MoveOn.org has an outstanding collection of “lowlights” from the debate. Go visit, sign the petition and send your love letter to ABC.
One of the great impediments to progressive social change is the mainstream media. It’s ironic but the best way to become truly informed is to shut the corporate news off. It’s addition by subtraction: You’ll get less disinformation and can start thinking for yourself.
Try this sometime: Stop watching commercial television even for a few weeks. When you flip it on after an absence like that, everything you see will look absurd. It’s a great way to get a new perspective.
Still, if we’re to build a wide-scale progressive movement then deprogramming yourself is only half the battle if your neighbors are plugging into the propaganda stream every night. That’s why it’s great to see grassroots organizations like the National Conference for Media Reform gathering in Minneapolis June 6-8. As Amy Goodman from the fantastic (and top-notch journalist) from Democracy Now! says:
You can learn more about this group – including MP3′s and video backgrounders here.