The Curbside Solution

(A Few personal Reflections on Television)

You have heard it often enough in this conference that the corporate media are controlled by comparatively few, fabulously wealthy, conservative Americans. They own most TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, and magazines in the United States. These tycoons pull the strings in The Detroit Free Press and The Pittsburgh Press, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, WOMC and WXYZ, Channel 4 and Channel 1004. Even so-called "public" television and radio is under the indirect control of the same people. As if this is not bad enough, you have had ample opportunity by now to discuss the influence of advertisers on the corporate media and, especially, on television. TV is not there to tell us the truth about anything, not to educate us, not to evoke our sense of beauty or justice, not to appeal to our better, kinder and more rational side, not to serve our interests. Its purpose is: deliver us for as long as possible, and in as great numbers as possible, to the advertisers.

Many Americans know that there is something wrong with television. A few occasionally write protest letters to this or that TV station, government agency, or congressman. They may allow their children to view some programs but forbid them to view others. They may raise Cain about commercialism, violence, or pornography on their screens. After years of struggle, they typically concede that their reform efforts have failed, and they helplessly throw in the towel. All throughout this process, they go on watching TV, perhaps feeling that they are somehow immune to this seductive mixture of gossip, commercial propaganda, and political half-truths. They typically end up by viewing TV like a hurricane--horrible but inescapable.

In this brief lecture I shall argue that there is a very simple way out. We can't escape from our filthy air, but we can drastically limit our exposure to mind pollution. We can, if we wish, become masters of our own brains.

The solution is just as far as your curb. Twenty years ago, I simply gave the TV industry the slip. I unplugged my TV and placed it down by the curbside. This was painless, albeit radical, surgery--in less than five minutes, my home was TV-free. Two days later, the TV was picked up by the city garbage collectors, not to be heard from since.

In my talk today, I would like to consider the pros and cons of this TV-free lifestyle. Let me start by examining the advantages of continuous TV exposure:

1. Some of the material on television is entertaining, or valuable, or interesting, or useful, or worth knowing. Curbsiders are forced to give up these things. For example, if I wish to view some spectacular historical event such as the 1969 moon landing, I must invite myself to the home of a friend.

2. Emotionally drained, we sometimes lean on our TV sets to forget our troubles. Can we afford to let go of this stress reliever?

3. Perhaps the biggest price curbsiders like myself must pay is being somewhat out of touch with their culture. For kids, this is particularly difficult. But even adults find it embarrassing at times. People assume that you know who Archie Bunker, or the Three Stooges, or Madonna, or Dan Rather, or Carl Lewis are, but I often don't. Moreover, much more than verbal information is at stake here. There are some mannerisms, jokes, and values which come to us from television, and which, at times, make curbsiders feel like outsiders. I am, for instance, a lousy player of Trivial Pursuit and I can't solve the typical crossword puzzle on my own.

Given TV's enormous popularity, it must, I am sure, have some additional merits than the ones discussed here. But at this point I should like to explore the negative aspects of TV addiction:

1. The first, and perhaps most convincing, argument against the TV habit concerns opportunity costs. Here the question is: Could I spend my time more profitably doing something other than watching TV? To begin with, we need to digest some statistics. The typical American watches TV, on the average (including weekends and vacations), some seven hours a day. Now, that is a good portion of our lives. We all must sleep and do such meaningless things as brushing teeth. So, at the most, we have less than ten hours a day to do the things we want to do. Do you really want to spend 70% of that precious time on television? You could instead read books, talk to people, watch sunsets, and travel. You could develop your musical or basket-weaving talents. You could do all these things and still have some spare time on your hands, if you just let go of your television. Couldn't you get more out of doing such things than from TV?

2. Life is meant to be lived: we should not sit passively on a couch and let life pass us by. Yet, this is precisely what a TV addict does. Isn't it better to kiss than to watch someone else kiss? To ski than to watch someone else ski? To talk to our kids than to watch someone else pretend to talk to his/her kids? To eat dinner with family or friends, instead of each person eating alone while watching how other, imaginary, people live and eat? To really live, than to live vicariously?

3. We should, it seems to me, strive to expose ourselves to the highest quality in art and most other pastimes. Yet, TV is primarily concerned with the bottom line, not in art for art's sake. Is it really reasonable to expect excellence simply as a byproduct of greed? Doesn't TV vulgarize our artistic and aesthetic sensibilities? Doesn't it provide us with the cultural equivalent of junk food?

4. The same goes for truth and objective information. Don't we owe it to ourselves, loved ones, and future generations, to vote intelligently and to know what goes on in the world around us? If we suspect that we are fed propaganda, not truth, it behooves us, I think, to ignore institutional lies and to embark on the search for the truth. In support of this view, let me quote a few people who have given this very subject some thought:

Ben Bagdikian (Media Monopoly, p. xvi):

Our picture of reality does not burst upon us in one splendid revelation. It accumulates day by day and year by year in mostly unspectacular fragments from the world scene, produced mainly by the mass media. Our view of the real world is dynamic, cumulative, and self-correcting as long as there is a pattern of evenhandedness in deciding which fragments are important. But when one important category of the fragments is filtered out, or included only vaguely, our view of the social-political world is deficient.

Aldous Huxley (Brave New World Revisited, pp. 107, 33-35):

It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not free--to be under no physical constraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel, and act. . . . The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him, the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free. . . . Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.

Albert Einstein (Einstein on Peace, p. 502):

Democracy, taken in its narrower, purely political, sense, suffers from the fact that those in economic and political power possess the means for molding public opinion to serve their own class interests. The democratic form of government in itself does not automatically solve problems; it offers, however, a useful framework for their solution. Everything depends ultimately on the political and moral qualities of the citizenry.

These are not mere abstractions. Many scholars feel that American politics is a con game. They believe that we are being hoodwinked, day in and day out, to vote against our interests and convictions. How else can you explain the fact that people in a democracy permit environmental decline and unsafe working conditions? How else can you explain poverty, destitution, and hunger for dozens of millions side by side with fabulous wealth for a few thousands? How else can you explain the fact that "we" vote to take money out of our own pockets and stuff it in the pockets of millionaires? The massive misinformation perpetrated upon us by television throws some light on this odd state of affairs. Now, if TV indeed contributes to the injustice and irrationality of our system, then we ought to fight back. Our most effective weapon is boycott. Early in this century, the Chicago meat-packing industry used to dish out foul-tasting meat which was at times contaminated with sawdust and even human flesh. Meat consumption in the U.S. went down by some 50%, and only then did the industry partially clean up its act. Our letters of indignation will not, I assure you, clean up our screens. A massive boycott will.

5. Another obvious drawback of television is commercials and corporate sponsorship. Like it or not, corporations are paying good money to shape our behavior. Should we consent to this deal? Should we let our emotions, beliefs, and buying habits be bought and sold to the highest bidder? Just think of it. Some people out there are paying approximately $300 a year to brainwash you. If you have a spouse and two kids, they are paying some $1200 to manipulate your household. Your children are definitely not immune to this propaganda barrage. And, despite what you might think, neither are you. So, from cradle to grave, the average American is exposed to questionable values. These include "money is king;" "happiness is earning and spending;" "look out for number one;" "you are not good enough the way nature made you, but must dye your hair, eyelashes, nails and God only knows what else with commercial products;" "your car need not only be safe, reliable, fast, and comfortable, it must be glamorous and it must tell everyone that you subscribe to the all-embracing creed of conspicuous consumption;" "violence is superior to lovingkindness;" "junk food is it." Should we continue to be exposed to such false values and beliefs?

6. TV does provide a sort of emotional escape, but better options abound. First, it is not clear that TV relieves stress; there is evidence, for instance, which suggests that people are in a worse mood after watching TV than before. Second, there are better alternatives. You can probably relieve stress more effectively and healthfully by such things as walking and yoga.

7. The last point which comes to mind concerns children. American children spend 30% of their waking hours in front of a TV set. They are exposed to 13,000 killings, 100,000 violent episodes, and some 650,000 commercials during their childhood. It is well known that children are more vulnerable than adults to X-rays, heroin, and alcohol. Isn't it reasonable to suppose that they are more susceptible to indoctrination as well? Should responsible parents permit this endless harangue? Aren't our children's minds just as precious as their bodies?

Well, there you have it, some obvious pros and cons of TV watching. Two points seem to emerge from this talk. First, we all share the blame for TV's unpalatable bill of fare. Second, you do have a choice.

Allow me to end this somber lecture with the merrier injunctions of a fellow curbsider (Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate factory, pp. 145-9):

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray

Go throw your TV set away,

And in its place you can install

A lovely bookshelf on the Wall!