Blog » What's Wrong With America, Part I: We Like to Watch
Tuesday, 14 December 2010 18:27

What's Wrong With America, Part I: We Like to Watch

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The spectacle is not a collection of images,

but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” 

--Guy Debord

This post has been a long time coming but finally took shape when a friend sent me the link to Joe Bageant’s excellent blogAMERICA: Y UR PEEPS B SO DUM? Ignorance And Courage In The Age Of Lady Gaga. Bageant is a radical southern writer from Winchester, Virginia, and the author of the gut-splitting, mind-blowing bookDeer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War, as well as a shelf full of other eye-popping gems. His argument over the years has been carefully assembled out of a series of in-your-face outrages that most of us, hell, maybe all of us on the Progressive side of life have at one time or another either thought about or wished would just go away. His prose is not for the squeamish or for lock-step ideologues of any stripe. He is, in the purest sense of a vanishing American tradition, an independent investigative reporter.

I’ll not spoil him for you. Instead, I’ll concentrate in this blog post on one argument that he and I share, namely, that the ignorance of the American people and resulting lack of political will to change anything other than the channel—and that not often enough—is likely being caused by a cultural addiction to entertainment. Specifically, to television.

Stop yawning. It’s not as simple as you suppose or as narrow as you imagine. My argument is grounded in communication and media research as well as in ethnographic experience and observation, and it is more than one large generalization. From the onset I grant a free pass to cultural entertainment activities that actually engage the mind, such as reading, writing, painting, playing music, creating websites, attending plays and performances, and exchanging views about topics other than what you “like” and “don’t like,” complete with supporting evidence drawn from something other than your own navel. If I am beginning to sound old-fashioned, do not, citizen, tar me with that old brush. That’s a tar that has been sold to you by those who do not have your best intellectual or cultural interests at heart.

Let us begin.

I do largely, but not exclusively, blame television for creating, organizing, and delivering the mindless “society of spectacle” that Guy Debord foretold. I do also believe that television’s well documented addictive qualities gobble up the time students should spend doing homework, which in turn is partially responsible for the inability of most students these days to spell correctly, or to locate North Dakota on a map, or even to recognize the difference between a possessive and a plural. But I don’t fault all television programming for the burgeoning ignorance among adults that includes, oh, esoteric things such as even knowing who won the recent political election or our teenagers’ documented slide from the top of world knowledge rankings in math, science, and literacy to 16th out of 30. No, that would be going too far.

After all, the Food Channel does good knowledge work, if only by encouraging couch zombies to reenter their kitchens and make something other than reservations for dinner. Or, failing that, to at least know how to read the menu at a restaurant.

National Geographic and The History Channel do afford armchair intellectuals the comfort of quasi-knowing about Others in the same way that The Comedy Channel and MSNBC offers the quasi-politically engaged Progressive spectator a few good laughs in addition to a steady diet of one-liners useful to make us feel like we know what we are talking about at work.

As long as we are entertained enough to substitute obsession with viewing spectacle for cultural and political boredom, those in power never have to fear a revolution. For as Debord observed: “boredom is anti-revolutionary. Always.” And spectacle replaces action with representation. 

That said, sports channels are also not so too bad, especially when my teams are winning or when the ex-athletes who become commentators—all millionaires several times over—ironically lament the money being spent on stars like Cliff Lee ($100 million or so, for five years of part-time pitching on sunny days in summer) or take to task Cam Newton’s poor ol’ Dad for trying to get a measly $180K from an SEC team in a conference that last year earned well over $1 billion from the labor of underpaid student athletes. Well, okay, not all of them are real students. But still. As Buzz Bissinger pointed out in a column for The Daily Beast yesterday, the only thing wrong with what Cam Newton’s Dad did is that he didn’t ask for enough money. Auburn, after all, earned $20 million this year from fans and television rights to the spectacle of football, primarily because we wanted to watch this one talented guy move toward the Heisman trophy. Or fail hard tryin’. Or be caught pants down in a financial scandal. Or arrested for dope or murder or whatever. When we are caught up in the spectacle, the actual event or cause doesn’t matter anymore. All we crave is the image and the story. People’s real lives only have entertainment value as television shows.

Hey, it’s not just about television, all right? We all know it’s really about The Money. Right? What’s on TV, the spectacle the media moguls treat us to, is all about the Benjamins. Politics is all about the Benjamins. Business is about Benjamins. Fraud, foreclosures, bailouts, taxes, salaries, opening weekend movie receipts, health care insurance, the price of a media-savvy lawyer, the value of a college education—it’s really all about the money. Call it what you will. Money talks and television is just a way of getting more of it or of watching those who do.

Money is the greatest American excuse for anything we do or don’t do, so much so that if money weren’t the excuse what we did, a lot of it—good and bad—would be simply deemed wrong. Bad behavior, good behavior, or lack of behavior when behavior is expected—it’s all about attracting the cameras, which are just vehicles for transferring spectacles into our living rooms, moving the Benjamins from one account into another, the whole transaction and event paid for by commercials.

Norman Mailer once called a collection of essays Advertisements for Myself (1959), and his title as well as several of the chapters offered a prescient look into what was then becoming our mediated future that values celebrity culture (including the celebrity culture that is politics and literary success) over anything else, a cultural force that focuses all of society’s attention on the radical cultivation of a public self that can be visually and narratively commodified. By contrast, we could have decided to do things differently. We could have focused on the cultivation of a collective commonplace—a free and active marketplace of ideas—that could be engaged by ordinary, educated citizens in the interest of creating the public good, where arguments could be debated by real content experts (not reduced to soundbites of spin doctors or the rude opinions of flash celebrities), or at least those who know something useful about the issues.

These are not new arguments. Media scholar Neil Postman, back in 1985, warned us that because television did not meet the conditions necessary for rational argument, by our continuing reliance on it, we were, and we are, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

In a study done by a team of media scholars led by Sut Jhally from the University of Massachusetts called “Advertising and the End of the World,” it was estimated that every day in America we are exposed to over 30,000 commercials, from those we see on television to those we wear as labels on clothing to all those messages about the cultural power of the purchase visually displayed on billboards and signs and fliers and blimps and milk jugs. We are, each and every day, visually and mentally exhausted by advertising.

Doubt it? Stop reading. Look up from your iPad and then look around the space you are currently occupying. Count the number of advertisements within view. Note their diversity. Or, if you are in a dull room using your iPad or laptop, open a portal on the virtual world. How many advertisements are displayed? How many clever attempts are there to win your attention away from the information you came for, that, in the grand scheme, er, pardon me, in the grand interests of greedy commerce, are relegated to less interesting visual status? Furthermore, how much of the information content that you went to the website looking for is available, compared to how much advertising is displayed? How much of it is free? How much for sale? How much is spectacle?

Jhally claims that so much of our cultural space is devoted to advertising that what is left over for real news, or for cultural critique, or for educational purposes about important issues such as global warming, or solutions to the economic crisis, is laughable. And that fact alone is a major reason why despite being filled with a minute-by-minute flow of new information everywhere we turn, we are far less intelligent or knowledgeable about things that matter than we used to be. Put simply, there is no time left to think about what we are watching. And—here’s the really sinister part of the society we have created—we are afraid that if we stop watching, stop being viewers of the spectacle, we will somehow fall behind in what we are expected to know. Our value as a commodity will fall. We will no longer be so cool. Or hip. Or sick.

If all we had to worry about on television was advertising, or the big money that fuels it, or how dumb we are becoming, that would be bad enough. But George Gerbner and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication collected data over 30 years and discovered something far worse: The “Mean World Syndrome.”

Here’s how it works. Watching television actually changes our brain waves from active Alpha states to passive Beta ones, and in so doing, also significantly increases our fear of the public, especially racial and classed Others, and of public streets in general. It’s a mean world out there. Why?

Because news on television is dominated by bad news. Fires and murders and crisis. Spectacles, all. Also because the most popular serialized dramas are police shows, or crime shows, or movies that feature horrific crimes, often those crimes perpetrated by cultural Others who prey on the innocence of ordinary victims. More spectacles. And because over time, as we age and our perceived vulnerability increases, we channel the fears of Others that have been cultivated by television into a political preference for a police state, even so far as being willing to give up our rights and to vote for anyone who promises to protect us from … those people. 

Those people could be terrorists, liberals, or murderers; these are important differences that no longer matter to many people. Particularly older white citizens who watch a lot of television and who do, in fact, form the largest support group for the Tea Party and Republicans. What television has done for these white people is to collapse categorical cultural and political differences into one convenient demonized Other.

What the Tea Party and Republicans have done is cultivate fear as a permanent cultural condition, which is what I think Donald Rumsfeld really meant when he called the global war on terrorism our “enduring war.” What better for the future of spectacle? What better for raising big money? Or for the core message of Republicans?

In 1979, Hal Ashby directed “Being There,” a film based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski. The main character, Chance, a.k.a Chauncy Gardener (portrayed by Peter Sellers), was a politically connected wealthy man’s gardener who, more than anything else, “liked to watch” television. The wealthy benefactor dies and Chance becomes, through a series of oddly plausible if highly comedic events, a serious political figure whose simplistic pronouncements are treated as profound by other wealthy individuals. They eventually determine that Chance should become the next President. He’s photogenic, he will do what he is told to do to protect their vested interests, he says pithy things they already believe, and besides, he really likes the watch television.

When the film was released it was praised for its metaphorical qualities as well as for the fine acting of Peter Sellers. It was applauded as fiction. Today the star of the film would be likely be Sarah Palin and the film would be seen as a documentary. But she’s just one example of the same basic principle, or cultural theme.

One major part of what’s wrong with this country is our unhealthy dependence on and cultivated obsession with entertainment, particularly the entertainment provided by the spectacle of television and its mediated offspring. Its dominance over our cultural and political lives cannot be denied and has been thoroughly documented by scholars and noted by pundits. It is as if we are daily and voluntarily ingesting a potent drug that will alter our minds, change our perception of the world, and make us less likely to leave our homes to engage in much of anything. Because we like to watch, because watching has become a substitute for doing, we view some of the most important political events as if they were nothing more than television shows featuring celebrities posing as heroes. We vote based on what show and which celebrities we want to watch for the next year, or two, or four. In the end—which is now—we wake up from this mediated narcotic and gaze at the screen. We find that nothing is on that we want to watch anymore. But that’s all we have left.

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