IN DEFENSE OF TELEVISION—-If It’s Making You Dumber…You’ve Only Yourself To Blame

March 31, 2011

Whatever your problem...it's not the TV's fault.

Got a problem?  Surely, there’s someone you can blame.  Americans love to point their fingers at anything that will help explain, rationalize or otherwise dismiss any of their own faults and shortcomings.  Unfortunately, most seem to forget that old playground proverb that says, “whenever you point a finger, there’s always three pointed right back at you”.  Nonetheless, everyone still seems to have an excuse for everything.  Too fat?  It’s genetics.  Your kids do poorly in school?  It’s ADHD.  Fed up with politics?  It’s the Republicans.  No matter what ails you or what predicament you face, there’s someone other than yourself to blame.  And nothing shoulders more of that unwarranted blame than Television.

Pick a problem plaguing our world today and you’ll surely find someone saying that TV is at fault.  Violence, laziness, ignorance, corruption and moral decay all have their bony fingers pointed directly at the glowing black box that sets innocently in every one of our homes.  But just as with all of our other problems, affixing blame onto television is ensuring that the blame is misplaced.  Viewers shoulder the blame.  We shoulder it not only for our viewing decisions, but also because of the ways that we relate to the content of the programming choices we make.  Television will give back exactly what we seek to get out of it.  The way in which we engage with television will determine the results.  So if your TV is making you dumber, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

I’m sure you’ve heard all this before.  Many have already made the argument that if we would just pick up our remotes and change the channel from MTV to C-SPAN, the world would be a better place.  If only we could just see fit to watch “Masterpiece Theater” rather than “Jersey Shore” our culture could arise from its cesspool of iniquity and once again thrive.  This is not my argument.  Television doesn’t need to be ‘high-minded’ to have a positive influence.  What matters is how we respond.  Even the simplest or tawdriest of programs can be meaningful depending on if and how we seek to derive meaning from them.  My argument deals more with the way we process information and less with the substance of the information that is provided.  TV programming of all varieties can prove to be enlightening if we as viewers make the choice to put our minds to work.  As soon as we make the choice to allow TV to merely serve as a mindless daily sedative, then that is exactly what it will become.

For instance, ABC’s “The Bachelor” is one of the most inane shows ever conceived.  It is a show that promotes narcissism, materialism and shallow relationships and stars a group of irrational, young bubbleheads who share the word “amazing” as the only adjective in their collective vocabulary.  At first glance, this show possesses no redeeming qualities and quite possibly makes anyone who watches it not only stupider, but also a little more cynical and shallow as well.  But is that really true?  We all watch TV from a subjective vantage point, so depending on the viewer’s attitude and disposition, perhaps even this monstrosity could reap positive results.  For those who watch analytically and make sure their brain remains working even while the TV is on, doesn’t “The Bachelor” have plenty to say about the flaws of modern relationships?  Personally, when I watch, I’m often wondering to myself what makes it possible for a young woman to honestly believe she’s in love with a man who is simultaneously sharing intimate moments with other potential suitors.  “The Bachelor” may not be an accurate reflection of relationships in 2011, but that doesn’t mean that when its layers are peeled away there isn’t still something valuable to learn about human nature.  By resisting the temptation to get caught up by the choreographed drama and emotion that the show’s producers try to create, you’re left with the chance to ponder the motivations and desires of good-looking, seemingly successful young people and how they approach finding a mate.  As shallow as “The Bachelor” is, it still allows you the chance to think deeper, if you’re so inclined.

When we put our brains to work, lose our passivity and become actively engaged in our programming, almost any show can escape its seemingly narrow confines and provide us with something worthwhile.  Take MTV’s “Teen Mom” for instance.  On its surface, and similarly to a whole host of other ‘reality’ shows, “Teen Mom” is nothing more than basic voyeurism.  It is providing the viewer a simple opportunity to gawk in amazement at the sorry state of those who are less fortunate than themselves.  But this is a show that, if viewed with a curious rather than judgmental mind, can provide an immense amount of information and insight into a phenomenon that affects countless people across the country.  “Teen Mom” is not just about the poor parenting techniques of 16 year-olds, it’s about incredibly important issues such as abortion, adoption, domestic violence, the value of education and the role that healthy families play in sustaining a productive society.  If it is viewed merely as a shocking spectacle, it loses its potential to teach.  But if we go beyond just ‘watching’ and seek to understand how it reflects the world around us, following a show like this can be an enlightening experience.

The same is true for a whole host of shows.  We watch “Hoarders” and “Biggest Loser” and “American Idol”.  It can be entertaining and emotionally engaging, but at the same time, can’t it also be educational?  We’re fascinated by their situations, their addictions and their ambitions, but can’t we also be stimulated by the lessons they provide about materialism, consumption and our quest for fame?  “The Biggest Loser” should not be seen as a show about weigh-ins and silly competitions.  It’s a show about our culture’s relationship to food, our declining active lifestyles and our search for fulfillment in all the wrong places.  But in order for those lessons to sink in, we have to actively seek them out.  It’s analogous to going to the zoo or a museum.  We can walk through and be fascinated by the animals and the displays and be on our way, or we can stop and examine the details, read the presentations and absorb their broader purpose.  If we want television to be more than just an attraction, then the responsibility is ours to make that happen.

However, that responsibility also includes a caveat.  Active thinking is not the only requirement necessary to make watching television educational or meaningful.  Unfortunately, it also matters “what” we’re thinking about.  If you watch a national cable news broadcast and through its false presentations it compels you to ponder whether or not our President was actually born in America, then you’re probably not accomplishing anything positive.  If you watch endless hours of sports commentary and it leads you to waste your mind contemplating which team should win Friday’s big game, then you’re also on a fool’s errand.  Following the nightly parade of police blotter details on your local news may get your mind whirling, but chances are all that thinking won’t bring about many worthwhile results.  It’s great for a viewer to be captivated by a show, but if all the show is doing is causing them to reflect on a certain celebrity’s dancing ability, then perhaps it’s not the most effective use of their mind.  We should all be able to recognize for ourselves if the programs we’re watching have the capability to provoke constructive thought.  In all of the previously mentioned examples, constructive thought is indeed a possibility.  Making our television watching meaningful requires the viewer to not only make wise choices, but to also then be conscious of the reaction those choices will most likely to draw out.

If what I’ve just described seems to require too much effort, don’t worry.  There is an unprecedented amount of television programming out there that by its very nature is enlightening and doesn’t require any mental discipline to achieve its beneficial results.  Grab your remote and everywhere you turn you’ll find a show about remodeling your kitchen, the lifestyles of ancient Mayan civilizations or how to cook delicious bbq brisket.  You can learn about swordfishing and wilderness survival in the afternoon and catch up on genetic science and American history later that evening.  Anyone who wants to bemoan the value and educational capabilities of television is certainly not paying close enough attention.  Stimulating, thought-provoking television is available for even the most discerning of tastes.  And the networks that broadcast these shows are not just relegated to the periphery.  Channels like HGTV, Discovery and The Food Network are some of the most-watched cable channels on the air.  Whatever topic interests you, whatever subject stimulates your brain, you’re sure to find a presentation of it somewhere on your television dial.  If a viewer was so-inclined, they could focus their viewing exclusively on educational programming and still never run out of options.

But how many of us are quite that dedicated about their TV viewing habits?  Even though we may aspire to make television-watching a worthwhile endeavor, the intelligent, high-minded programming often loses out.  We watch TV because we want to laugh, because we want to be entertained and because we want to root for our favorite teams.  Television serves as an escape, so naturally people are going to be quick to choose shows like “The Office” instead of a new episode of “Frontline”.  There is nothing wrong with this phenomenon.  But as with almost every option we encounter in our consumer culture, moderation is the key to achieve positive results.  It’s okay if you like to eat donuts, just try not to have one for breakfast every single day.  The same is true for television.  You may like to watch “Family Guy”, but you probably shouldn’t make that your choice every night.  As I’ve already explained, something of value can still be taken away, regardless of which show you choose.  Perhaps you missed out on a captivating recount of the 2008 financial crash when you chose “The Office” instead of “Frontline”, but who’s to say that some biting satire of corporate culture, mixed in with a few laughs, can’t be just as enlightening?

Those looking to place the blame on television for whatever social ill they have in mind will probably not be swayed by my arguments.  Many just reflexively view TV as a sub-standard format that will always be playing catch-up with the “more intellectual” entertainment options like cinema, live-theater and books.  I can still remember the desperate pleas of my English Teachers imploring us, for the sake of our own cognitive futures, to turn off the TV and pick up a book.  I will always be someone that defends the value of literature , but I never understood why TV received such a bad rap.  Reading can be a wonderfully enriching enterprise, but there are aspects of our lives and our culture that can be much more accurately reflected and conveyed through a television screen.  And let’s not pretend that the breadth of idiotic TV programming isn’t matched by an equally wide breadth of idiotic books.  I recently went on vacation and paid particular attention to the reading choices the people around me had made for their flight and for their time on the beach.  Everywhere I looked, my fellow vacationers had their noses buried deep in celebrity biographies, factually-challenged political screeds, dime-a-dozen mysteries and dull religious hot air.  I saw no one reading the classics, no how-to books, no research-driven non-fiction and and nothing that rose above what’s innocently known as “light reading”.  Books are great, but there’s no way that reading Sarah Palin’s latest offering is anymore enlightening than watching an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”.  They’re both fluff and both should only take an hour to get through.

The biggest problem with everything I’ve just laid out is that ultimately, the quality and depth of each individual’s television-watching experience is completely up to them.  It’s this unfortunate circumstance that gives the ‘blame TV’ crowd its most compelling argument.  TV can actually be dumb.  It can be violent, it can be lazy and can be apt to reflect a shallow understanding of our world.  But that’s not TV’s fault.  On the whole, TV responds to what the market demands.  If vast majorities of our society wanted smarter programming, then it would most likely be so.  But our society instead demands hours of cop shows about dead hookers, over-dramatized ‘reality’ programs, dishonest newscasts and exploitative spectacles of those who are downtrodden or different.  TV gives that to us because apparently that’s what we want.  But TV did not create those desires.  Our flawed inclination to watch awful TV is caused by a whole host of factors strung throughout every fabric of our culture.  Blaming television is merely making it a scapegoat for broader problems.  Television is not so much the cause as it is a reflection.  The opportunity exists for all of us to allow television, even in its current state, to have a positive affect on our lives.  So sit down, tune-in and bask in its enchanting warm glow.  TV is your friend and it doesn’t deserve your scorn, because if watching TV is making you dumber…you’ve only yourself to blame.


“CLASSIC” FOR A REASON–Why The Scholastic Headaches of My Past Are The Treasures Of Today

October 5, 2010

It took me WAY too long to realize that some things are called "classic" for a reason

I believe I owe my high school english teachers an apology.

They sought to broaden my mind with some of the finest pieces of literature ever written.  In return, I sought to find new and imaginative ways out of having to actually read them.

I am older now and I suppose a bit wiser as well.  And a portion of that wisdom can be directly attributed to letting go of my educationally evasive ways and finally giving the classics the chance they deserve.  The five novels shown above;  “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “All Quiet On The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, “1984” by George Orwell, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair have all captured and held my imagination in ways that I never previously thought possible.  After trying so hard to avoid them, who knew that 15 years later these books would turn out to be my absolute favorites?

I hate to say it, but my english teachers were right and I was most certainly wrong.

But even if I had sucked it up and read everything that was assigned to me in high school, I don’t think I would’ve been properly equipped to truly appreciate them anyways.  My teenage mind was too preoccupied with thoughts of girls and basketball for there to be any room for classical literature.  I lacked the necessary depth and cultural awareness required to understand the messages woven into these books.  And therein lies the real shame, because these books offer to readers timeless lessons that are as true and as applicable today as they were when they were written.  I am fortunate enough to have been compelled to give them a second chance, but for others, novels like these remain in an educational graveyard never to be thought of again.  These books have the ability to illuminate our understanding of the world around us and it’s truly regrettable that for so many, they exist only as the relics of a long-forgotten youthful curriculum.

So if these books are currently gathering dust on your shelf, here’s a brief explanation of why each of them has something valuable to say about the world we live in today.

THE GREAT GATSBY–takes a long look at wealth, ambition and moral decay as they relate to the American Experience.  The book’s title character, Jay Gatsby, is a true example of the self-made man.  But for all of his accomplishments and materials possessions, he is still unable to attain his true desires.  He is forever chasing happiness in the form of Daisy, the object of his affection.  Gatsby’s earnestness and virtuous plight is contrasted by the hollowness and indifference of the society into which he has been elevated.  Those who surround him care only for themselves and the wealthy lifestyles that define them.  Gatsby ultimately falls short of his dream in tragic fashion.

Our world today is set up to condition us to believe as Gatsby did.  We are led to believe that success and happiness can be achieved through self-determination and a relentless pursuit of wealth.  The individualistic ethos pushed by the far-right and the corporatist class has produced a culture brainwashed to worship consumerism and to reject the value of the common good.  Our world fills us with desires to be rich, while those who are, have lost all concern for those below them.  Fitzgerald’s descriptions of a society filled with inequality in the 1920’s has incredible parallels to the wealth gap and decay that exists today.  Fitzgerald wrote, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”.  In our materialistic world of bail-outs and selfish ambition no truer words could be spoken.  The Great Gatsby provides a brilliant illustration of what happens when a world, such as ours, has truly lost their way.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT–quite simply, gives full voice to the horrors of war.  The book follows the experiences of a group friends in the German Army during World War I.  Not a single line of the book is wasted on romantic notions of heroism or glory, instead we are given an honest portrayal of the brutality, pointlessness and long-term effects of war.  The book describes in grisly detail the way soldiers are robbed of their humanity and become either fresh-meat for the unstoppable war machine or numb, lifeless relics unable to re-enter normal society.  The author focuses on the empty value of nationalism and how citizens are conned into believing that war has purpose.  We also get to see the brotherhood that grows between soldiers after all other forms of human emotion and interaction are stripped from them by the blood-thirsty leaders that have betrayed them.

American men and women are currently engaged in conflict all over the globe.  Our media and government urge us ad nauseum to ‘support the troops’, but we live in a world where it is deemed cowardly and unacceptable to insist that these men and women might be shown true support by being spared of the horror and brutality of war.  We send young boys and girls to die in foreign lands without being asked to sacrifice ourselves.  All Quiet On The Western Front should be read by any person who blindly advocates for war without considering the true cost on the lives of those who fight it.  Militarism has become the religion of the United States and our society has become callous to its effects.  This book is a striking reminder that the violence of war not only kills and maims, but also has a deteriorative fallout on the country that supports it.

1984–is a bleak glimpse of life under an omnipresent totalitarian government.  Every aspect of life, including work, language, home, sex and recreation all fall under the absolute power of The Party.  The book’s main character, Winston Smith toils under this oppressive regime and struggles not only to remember a brighter past, but also secretly fights against the power structure to regain merely a shred of his individualism and independence.  The novel exposes the methods that totalitarian regimes use to control their citizens.  These methods include psychological manipulation, constant propaganda, intrusive technology, and restrictive control over all information.  It is a world where The Party retains its power by imposing absolute limitations on its citizens’ ability to even conceive of an alternative state of being.

The dark and sinister world portrayed in 1984 could easily be dismissed as a hyperbolic expression of government power.  But just because our world can’t match the same level of manipulation and despair, does not mean that many of these totalitarian devices don’t already exist.  Our oppressor is not a singular entity such as The Party, instead it is a collection of government agencies and huge corporations that strive to develop complete control over our finances, our thoughts, our beliefs, our consumer habits and our ability to act autonomously.  We live under a government that is rapidly expanding its ability to eavesdrop on its citizens and that same government is masterful in the way it uses propaganda to spread fear and animosity towards foreign enemies as a way to wage war.  Our information is controlled by a corporate-owned media that has no real regard for facts or the truth.  Our politicians and leaders are allowed to express dishonest and contradictory statements without being held to account.  We’re led to believe that capitalism allows us freedom of choice, but those choices are always dictated by a small list of companies whose only motivation is profit at our expense.  The connections between our world and the world in 1984 are subtle and are intentionally obscured from our minds, but they exist and are constantly growing nonetheless.  1984 offers a wake-up call to readers and urges them to examine and scrutinize those that wield power over them.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH–is a novel highlighting the struggle between rich and poor, landowner and tenant.  The author contends that the misery and misfortune of the one is directly caused by the inhumanity of the other.  The book tells the historical tale of families from the dust bowls of the midwest who were pushed off their land and forced to head west in search of work, land and a sliver of hope for the future.  Their journey is a combination of blind optimism and enduring hardship and despair.  Once in California, the family joins the ranks of thousands of other dispossessed families and realizes that their visions of a brighter future were all an illusion.  The trend of exploitation continues as the landowners of California seek to protect their own power by treating the migrants like animals, using their desperation as a weapon against them and ultimately turning them on each other.  The novel is a study of the hardships of class warfare, but also a contemplation of the value of family and the bonds that are formed by those who retain the value of humanity in the face of insurmountable sorrow.

The class struggle of The Grapes of Wrath is true for all societies throughout history, but it is especially germane to our recession-ravaged lives today.  We may not be forced to live in camps and asked to toil for merely pennies per day, but workers everywhere still feel the pressures of exploitation from the ruling classes in a variety of ways.  Our world today still lacks the altruism and kindness that is required so that everyone can enjoy a happy life.  The families in the book are perplexed at the notion that able-bodied humans who want to work and eat and live are somehow denied that opportunity.  Our country is currently filled with unemployed and dispossessed people who are still perplexed by that very situation.  The desperation of the characters in the book is also matched by an underlying anger.  That same anger exists today.  The Grapes of Wrath is a fantastic handbook for how and towards whom that anger should be directed.  This book is a wonderful reminder that family, love and people should always come first.

THE JUNGLE–is often incorrectly thought of as merely an expose of the turn-of-the-century meat packing industry.  It is more appropriately described as an expose on the failings of the entire capitalist system.  The novel features the lives and trials of an immigrant family that settles near Chicago as they optimistically pursue their vision of the American dream.  Over time, that dream is shattered by the realities of the cold-hearted and ruthless nature of capitalism.  The family is exploited, chewed-up and spit out by the profit-hungry machine.  Their belief that hard work and honesty will eventually bring happiness is dashed by a never-ending cycle of abuse and debasement at the hands of not only those who reign over them but also by those who are competing alongside of them as well.  The novel is a critique of capitalism and takes the position that despair among the working class is an unavoidable product of the system’s ultimately selfish goals.

Although our country has progressed past the era of 14 hour work days and the sale of contaminated meat, capitalism still exacts its toll on those who labor under it.  The Jungle is a terrific illustration of just how far we have come, but it is also a reminder of how much misery still remains.  The merciless extraction of labor from those with no other options still exists in this world, if not here in America, then in other countries where social advancement has yet to take hold.  Products, especially food products, are still made not so much for the benefits they offer the consumer, but for the cost-effective benefits they offer to those who sell them.  We’re still taught to believe in American Dream.  We’re still taught to believe that all you need to thrive is the will and determination to make that dream a reality.  The Jungle presents to us in unrelenting fashion, the abundance of holes that are forever woven into the fabric of that capitalist dream.

There is no way that all of these lessons could have carried the same significance if I had experienced them as a teenager rather than as an adult.  I feel silly for at one time being so adverse to the world of reading and classic literature, but at the same time my tardiness has afforded me new insight.  I could have given these books the chance they deserved in high school, but that chance would have forever classified these enduring works as nothing more than annoying stepping stones of my educational past.  My high school english teachers were indeed right, the value of these books is immeasurable.  But I am glad I resisted.  Instead of being musty tales of times long-forgotten, these books are now an important part of who I am and what I believe.  They’ve broadened my horizons and shaped my understanding of the world.  And if I’m not mistaken, that seems to be the whole reason why they’re assigned to us in the first place.  I should still get credit for figuring it out, albeit fifteen years too late.