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Friday, February 15, 2013

Television And The Decline of Culture? Nonsense

Jeffrey Sachs (Project Syndicate 2.15.13) argues that America is now addicted to television resulting in a loss of social cohesiveness, vigorous intellectual activity, and a state of perpetual and habitual passivity. His assumption that it is contributing to some kind of moral decay, however, is dead wrong.  He sees television, the whipping boy of elitist intellectuals since its inception, as responsible for any number of ills – a fraying of social cohesion, an erosion of cognitive abilities, obesity, political manipulation, and much more.  In Sachs’ vision television is not simply ‘a vast wasteland’ empty of thought and substance; but far worse.  It is a junk-filled, plastic, garish landscape filled with the cheapest, most meretricious, and ugly array of social and human deformity that is destroying Americans society. 

The consequences for American society are profound, troubling, and a warning to the world – though it probably comes far too late to be heeded. First, heavy TV viewing brings little pleasure. Many surveys show that it is almost like an addiction, with a short-term benefit leading to long-term unhappiness and remorse. Such viewers say that they would prefer to watch less than they do

Characterizing television as this perverse, commercialized Nirvana; the dulling elixir soma of Brave New World; a narcotic designed to lull and pacify with senseless and inane programming, characterizes Americans as dumb, unresponsive, passive, and totally mindless; and is a patronizing, ignorant indictment of the worst kind. Making the remark ‘heavy TV viewing brings little pleasure’ is insulting and shows narrow-mindedness and an insular elitism.  Pleasure? Of course people say they would prefer to watch less television than they do.  They would definitely rather be eating the concoctions of Michel Richard, Alain Ducasse, or Jean-Louis Palladin instead of falling asleep during Letterman, shaking off Dorito bits and mopping up spilled Bud before stumbling to bed.

Why do people watch television and not attend opera, theatre, and symphony? Why are they not hosting dinner parties, or eating at Daniel, Jean-George, or Le Bernardin? Or not skiing at Gstaad and summering on the Vineyard? Why are they not deep in reflection over Kant, Hume, and Thoreau? Because nearly fifty percent of Americans (2008) have incomes less than $25,000 and almost ten percent work two jobs to make this modest income.  Fifteen percent of Americans live in poverty, are single mothers, live marginalized, unproductive, and routinely boring lives. College graduation rates in the US, at 34 percent, are the lowest of the OECD countries.   Television has always been and always will be the cheapest, easiest, and most accessible form of entertainment for the poor, the undereducated, the marginalized, and the profoundly tired.

Hundreds of millions of Indians watch Bollywood films every year.  These are even more mindless, predictable, inane, distortedly idealistic views of life on Indian screens than American television could ever muster.  Indian movies are long epic melodramas, filled with villains, music and dancing and set in the cool, idyllic vales of Kashmir.  After almost four hours, most viewers need to be pried out of their seats, so lost have they been in the unattainable, romantic, silly, and happy version of life they have just seen on the screen.  Satyajit Ray made movies for decades, but they were seen by few Indians.  His simple, plaintive, and beautiful looks into the dramas of the Indian village appealed to art film aficionados in the US and Europe, not to the vast millions of Indians who lived in these impoverished, marginal, unhappy places.

Of course Bollywood is silly nonsense; and so is American Idol and Survivor. What is the point? Privileged Americans like Jeffrey Sachs can afford to eschew the treacly mess on television.  They have the time, the money, the education, and the background and upbringing to appreciate ‘the finer things of life’.

Another Sachs criticism of television is that it ‘atomizes’ society, making us less trusting of our neighbors and less willing to help them in cooperative enterprises.  Zoned out in our Barcaloungers, zombies in darkened rooms illuminated only with the flickers of color and light, we care only for our sated, dopily happy selves.  It is TV that has created this insularity and indifference, says Sachs.

Moreover, heavy TV viewing has contributed to social fragmentation. Time that used to be spent together in the community is now spent alone in front of the screen. Robert Putnam, the leading scholar of America’s declining sense of community, has found that TV viewing is the central explanation of the decline of “social capital,” the trust that binds communities together. Americans simply trust each other less than they did a generation ago.

In a disingenuous disclaimer, he goes on to say:

Of course, many other factors are at work, but television-driven social atomization should not be understated.

Really? Perhaps he is referring to the rise in two-income families who come home knackered from work and have no energy, will, or desire except to sit in front of the tube? Or the decline in community institutions which have continued to peddle 19th century traditionalism and ignored the new individual dynamic of the 21st? Or the pervasive reach of an entitling government which has neutered private community initiative? Or the ragged, bile-spewing militiamen who hate this invasive government and raise fuck-you individualism to new heights.  Or the increased mobility of the American workforce who either follow jobs from here to there to survive or languish at dead-end minimum wage jobs in small, worn-out, fading towns?

This menacing Cerberus-like monster – television – in not only responsible for addling our brains and destroying community, it is making us fat:

Certainly, heavy TV viewing is bad for one’s physical and mental health. Americans lead the world in obesity, with roughly two-thirds of the US population now overweight. Again, many factors underlie this, including a diet of cheap, unhealthy fried foods, but the sedentary time spent in front of the TV is an important influence as well.

The last time I walked through the Harvard campus (Sachs is a triple Harvard graduate), I didn’t see any fat people.  These super-smart, wealthy, privileged students and teachers tone themselves at the well-endowed university gyms or at private health clubs where they work the machines and shmooze with the best and the brightest.  Summers were tennis, biking through Tuscany, and swimming off Nantucket – no chance of getting fat there, especially when fresh arugula, Comice pears, oysters from the Pacific, and yellowtail from the Atlantic were available at the corner market. 

Unhealthy, fried foods? Hell, that’s staple down here in the Delta.  Piggly Wigglys have ready-to-haul 100 lb. sacks of cornmeal, slabs of fatback, and all the cheap bacon, ham hocks, and lard you could ever want to cook your catfish, greens, and cornbread. 

It gets worse, says Sachs.  The multi-headed Hydra is not finished gorging on us Americans.  Television not only addles the mind, but insidiously introduces corrupt corporate interests into it before it fails:

At the same time, what happens mentally is as important as what happens physically. Television and related media have been the greatest purveyors and conveyors of corporate and political propaganda in society.

America’s TV ownership is almost entirely in private hands, and owners make much of their money through relentless advertising. Effective advertising campaigns, appealing to unconscious urges – typically related to food, sex, and status – create cravings for products and purchases that have little real value for consumers or society.

What Sachs wants, of course, is for Americans to have a steady diet of Masterpiece Theatre and Ken Burns, high-toned Edwardian dramas, dramatized history, and sepia-tinted romanticism.  Public television has none of those intrusive ads for mattress discounters, Ford F-150s, and beer, and can give the viewer an hour of solid, demanding programming.

Sachs is still not finished:

Many neuroscientists believe that the mental-health effects of TV viewing might run even deeper than addiction, consumerism, loss of social trust, and political propaganda. Perhaps TV is rewiring heavy viewers’ brains and impairing their cognitive capacities. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently warned that TV viewing by young children is dangerous for their brain development, and called on parents to keep children under two away from the TV and similar media.

Has Sachs not seen the latest media statistics which show that teenagers between the age of 12-17 watch the least TV of any other age category? Adolescents may get their electronic start from static TV viewing, but they soon graduate into the much more exciting world of gaming, interactive social media, and high-powered virtual reality.  It is the tired, the poor, the disadvantaged, and the whipped adults who sink down in front of the TV and veg out. The anecdotes of proud parents who talk about how their 3-year old is a whiz at flipping through I-Phone apps, or can surf the web with the best of them are now legion.  TV is a gateway into the far more exciting, cognitively challenging, and infinitely more interesting world than reality TV.

Sachs ends with the most ill-informed, patronizing, insular, impractical plea yet:

At the very least, we can minimize those dangers. Successful approaches around the world include limits on TV advertising, especially to young children; non-commercial, publicly-owned TV networks like the BBC; and free (but limited) TV time for political campaigns.

I think Sachs was asked to whip up an article for Project Syndicate, and he wrote this  over cornflakes and Good Morning America.  Triple Harvard should show more class at least.

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