Denunciations of television have become as routine as breathing: the programming is crass, stupid, propagandistic, so bad that only an idiot would watch it yet everybody does. Actually things are worse. They are much worse.
To see what is happening, start with what may be the crucial truth of our times: People will watch a screen. They will watch anything in preference to nothing, watch programs they don’t really like, comedies so unfunny that only the laugh track tells them when to respond. The bright know that the fare is witless, that it is directed at fools. The ads irritate them. Yet they too watch.
People cannot not watch television.
The flickering screen is everywhere. In millions of living rooms the lobotomy box rattles, often not consciously watched, hardly noticed, but always on. Every bar has at least one television, often several, sometimes with the sound turned off, but always there. Television is the national babysitter, more important than absentee parents in shaping the young. The chattering tube sits in the lobbies of hotels, the rooms of hotels, in barber shops, in restaurants and dorm rooms. In my gym in suburban Washington, rows of screens hung on pipes in front of the exercise bicycles. The box is everywhere, whispering, babbling, urging, suggesting.
Watch the eyes of a man quietly having a drink in a bar. Often his gaze wanders to the screen because it moves, it changes. Even if the sound is down and he cannot follow what is happening, even if he isn’t interested, he watches. People cannot not watch a screen.
No dictator has every enjoyed such a tool for social control, for near absolute power over what people see, over the news, over a culture. Like the bite of a leech, television is painless. Two decades later, the country is unrecognizable.
We underestimate the box. It is tasteless, dumbed-down, and commercial, yes, yes. All the adjectives apply. We have heard them. We agree with them. But we miss the point. We miss the point because the fare is so contemptible: Nothing that stupid can be dangerous.
Oh yes it can.
The lobotomy box gives to Hollywood and New York limitless sculpting access to the minds of our children, limitless power to condition all of us. For hours a day, week after month after year after decade, each generation sees what the two cities wants it to see. It sees nothing else. Because the programming does not come from the formal government, because it seems to counsel only the purchase of New! Improved! Whatever! because we hold it in contempt while spending our lives before it, we — many of us — do not see what it really is.
The content of television is neither merely banal nor merely commercial. This would not matter. Instead it is subliminally didactic, unendingly instructive. It has agendas unrelated to soap. Remember that the advertising and television industries are tightly entwined. Those commercials, seemingly almost invertebrate in their tiresomeness, in fact are the product of decades of manipulative experience by highly intelligent people who have studied the psychology of the audience.
If you want to change the behavior of an audience or a country, if you want to replace their deeply held values with your own, you don’t tell them what to do or what to believe. They might resist. We do not like getting orders. No, you show the things being done — over and over and over. In the beginning you only imply the desired behavior or point of view, leave it in the background so that it is hardly noticed. Over and over and over you imply it. Gradually you make it more explicit. It takes years, but people come to accept whatever they see, and then to imitate it.
They cannot resist any more than a paralyzed caterpillar can resist being eaten by a wasp’s larva. They cannot do without the electric babysitter, cannot toss the damned thing out the window.
They cannot not watch a screen.
What does Hollyork promote? Toleration of foul language and a concomitant coarsening of society; hostility between men and women; truculent illiteracy and the values of the black ghetto; the elevation of homosexuality and promiscuity; disdain for religion; use of drugs, interracial sex, destructive feminism, eradication of the remnants of Anglo-European Christian civilization. It is not accidental.
Do I exaggerate? Think. Every night you see blonde women reading the news. When did you last see a blond man on the screen? Do you think this a coincidence in an industry that calculates motivations to four decimal places? Consider the constant scenes in which women slap men around, kick them in the crotch, participate in gunfights while men cower. Can you believe that the sudden disappearance of the word "Christmas" from permissible discourse wasn’t deliberate? That the rigid exclusion of any but politically correct views from discussion is a coincidence?
My point is not that all these things are in all respects bad, but rather that they are being decided remotely and imposed without consent. American society is being carefully, calculatedly sculpted. A small group of unelected people, having no obvious qualifications of morality or taste, now control the culture of the United States. Our souls belong to Ted Turner and Jane Fonda.
But things are yet worse.
Television is infinitely scaleable. With satellites, Hollywood bathes the world in the same mire. In Mexico, where I live, television and cine are heavily American. A month ago I was in Chile for a couple of weeks. Television was heavily, heavily American — CNN in Spanish, for example. Crossing into Argentina at Bariloche, I found the same. In Thailand, things are little better.
In the living rooms of the whole world, Hollywood has a little window open to the minds of the people. Nobody can escape. In remote towns in the Bolivian altiplano, the values of Hollyork dance on screens. Children in India, in Iran and Uruguay, day after day gradually become what Barbra Streisand and Sylvester Stallone think they should be. Such people know and care nothing for civilizations that have existed for thousands of years.
Other nations know what is happening. The Thais are not happy at the slow, relentless imposition of the tastes of the slums of Brooklyn. But they can do nothing.
How perfectly incredible that a group of — what? A hundred producers, studio heads, and network CEOs? A thousand to be conservative? — can bypass governments, subvert ancient cultures, and make the world as unhappy and divided as they have made the United States.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.