Is TV Destroying U.S.?
by Mike D’Virgilio
Issue 204 – May 23, 2012
Consider this piece by a Christopher Orlet at The American Spectator. You may be familiar with the practice in some Christian traditions of giving up something of value for Lent. Christopher gave up TV. But it’s not so much because he values it, but because he loathes it. I should have known something was amiss when he said he’s one of the few middle-aged men who do not “give a rip” about sports. Of course, those of us who do give a rip are kind of fond of the TVs that bring us our favorite teams.
The title of his piece is “Life After Television.” During Lent he found it “a remarkably pain-free sacrifice,” so that’s why he decided to live TV Free! Well, turns out it was not really much of a sacrifice. First there is the sports thing. Then he says he’s never “felt the need” to subscribe to cable. I’ve never quite looked at my cable service (which gives me phone and internet as well) as satisfying a felt need. I just like the entertainment and learning opportunities it provides. So he only ever saw broadcast channels; giving up a handful I’m sure is a lot easier than giving up 500. He also never purchased a large high-def TV; I don’t think I’d want to watch TV on one of those old fashioned incredibly heavy and bulky 30 some odd inch models either.
Then we get to the heart of the matter, which I am sure appeals to many a conservative:
If you ask me, abstaining from television is no radical step at all, but a reactionary imperative. I consider it a very conservative act, as in, conserving my time and my cultural values. I am sympathetic to those conservatives who maintain that we are living in a New Dark Age (only this time we are the barbarians) and it is our duty to separate ourselves from the present culture of barbarism to the utmost extent possible, and perhaps by doing so conserve a few shreds of civilization, to pass on to future generations.
Of course, television’s raunchy and largely puerile content is only its most obvious offense. The late social critic Neil Postman nailed it when he wrote that modern technologies don’t just distract us from Higher Things, they shape (distort?) who we are and change how we think, and not for the better. Television doesn’t just shrink our attention span, it teaches us to prize sham emotion, deviant stimulation and quick resolution over logical and abstract thought. Former TV critic Rod Dreher says television is by its very nature a force against tradition, against continuity, against permanence and stability. Who can argue with that?
Well, I can. What is it that they say about toothpaste once it comes out of the tube? Christians have had an ambivalent relationship with culture from the very beginning. (A great read about this history is H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture.”)
Television is no different than any other technological innovation in the history of the world, but reactionaries tend not to think logically, because they are too busy reacting. Television is not very much different than previous communication mediums that changed the world. Human beings are story telling creatures; they also long to know. Before the advent of writing instruments, verbal story tellers were the most important mediums to convey information in a culture. When all of a sudden stories and information could be actually written down, that ruined everything!
Of course, that pales in comparison to the tragedies wrought by Johannes Gutenberg. Just ask the Catholic Church. If not for movable type there would have been no Reformation, which destroyed tradition, continuity, permanence and stability. Of course there also probably would have been no Renaissance, or much of a scientific revolution, capitalism and thus wealth creation, and thus the growing life spans and health for huge portions of the human race. But oh well, that’s the price one pays for tradition, continuity, permanence and stability.
The point? Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. There is no “permanence.” Human beings are created in the image of God, and as such they are creators; within the human heart there is a desire to know, to learn, to grow, to change. That is part of the genius of the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman Western heritage. Many have fought against inexorable change since the beginning of time. Look what the Athenians did to Socrates; the guy asks too damn many questions! He’s corrupting the youth! Kill him! The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem didn’t much like Jesus either. Too much change!
People like Mr. Orlet, who I’m sure is a nice fellow, tend toward the Manichean: “Of or relating to a dualistic view of the world, dividing things into either good or evil, light or dark, black or white, involving no shades of gray.” How else to read the statement, “Television doesn’t just shrink our attention span, it teaches us to prize sham emotion, deviant stimulation and quick resolution over logical and abstract thought.” Can television do such things? Of course it can. But it can also elevate, focus our attention, induce real emotion, stimulate good things, and help us to think logically about things we may not have ever thought about. They are also are a type of Utopian; someone who believes that some time in the past all was well with the world, before television ruined everything!
Back to Socrates; one of his famous sayings gets to the heart of the matter: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” A technology, like TV or the internet, can distort the mind and emotions of those who choose not to think about life. But for those who do, it can be a great benefit. But that’s the point, isn’t it. TV exists, and all the reactionary imperatives in the world won’t change that. There is no conserving apart from TV. There are no islands where technology does not touch and influence, whether that technology is a typewriter or a TV. Those who live the examined life will learn to examine wisely, and hopefully help the unexamined masses. What other choice do we have?
Mike D’Virligio blogs at The American Culture, stkarnick.com/culture, where this first appeared.