Only the rare teacher has the courage to reveal to us that in the actual world of men and women freedom is flawed like an imperfect diamond: precious in facets, but at the heart a darkness which breaks the heart. What children never learn is that to be free is to possess, among other things, the right to be stupid, to be trivial, to be greedy, to be cunning, to be richer than your neighbor, and, if you’re very rich, to be practically safe from the law. Who teaches us that freedom is only as good as the men and women who make use of it? In and of itself freedom means nothing — the right to be wonderful, the right to be a jerk.
In the context of my pessimism, the problem with television is that it can serve as a propaganda device for the most cynical people in our society. Television is not just another neutral household object with a function disconnected from the affairs of our democracy. We may playfully call it the boob-tube, but that is only because the television industry promotes its own silly image, like a clown working the crowd while his partner picks your pocket. And hasn’t your child been well-plucked when he’s sixteen years old, can hardly read, drinks three Cokes a day, and fears solitude?
A child watching television believes what he sees. He is innocent of facts which would undermine his belief; literally speaking, he has no reason not to believe. What he knows, he knows very well, and he has started to convert that knowledge into “facts” about reality which someday he will perhaps be willing to defend with his life. But right now the extent of his knowledge will take him only so far. Tell a very young child, for example, that his dog is really a cat, and all his accumulated knowledge about that subject will make an appearance as hilarity; again, tell him that his real name is Popeye, and, not exactly understanding the nature of names, he may be momentarily confused, at least until an adult with authority sets him straight; but then go one step further and tell him the sort of untruth against which he has no factual defense, say, that he will be much happier if he eats a certain candy bar or chews a certain bubble gum (all the while cajoling his interest with jingles and glimpses of giddy and unbounded joy), and he will most assuredly believe you. No child by himself can countermand the authority of humorless adults whose business it is to fool him out of his natural contentment. Those are not weird or unsettling people up there on the bright screen, they are actors; in other words, perfectly acceptable adults who represent quite nicely other people who are not actors. That the whole thing lacks only authenticity can hardly matter to a child who hasn’t yet figured out the many dimensions of the real. What set of facts, after all, does a child have which can stop his mouth from watering at the sound of the Doublemint jingle?
Here’s another question: what does it mean for the “average” child to spend around fifty hours a week in the constant presence of a sales pitch? The existential nausea of such an experience is unmeasurable, and, as adults, we cannot imagine it. I would guess that a child’s unconstrained sense of awe is damaged by such an experience. Nor do I mean by that simply the hurt done to the eyes, to the friendly eyes of a child, watching such a parade of hideous housewives and simpering husbands and smug doctors and coy children and the ubiquitous nitwit who in one form or another seems to inhabit every commercial. I mean, rather, that a sense of wonder predicates a universe which is in and of itself a lovely event. As music at its heart represents only itself with an incontrovertible integrity; as a flower offers us a beauty whose value is only its own existence; so, too, the world and the things of the world can be for a child whose understanding is not yet corrupted quite enough. Shall we give the child a stick to play with? He has made no decision about sticks. A stick is the only broken thing in the world which adults don’t pick up, unless it’s on their lawn. It’s also something that can be twisted and turned a thousand ways; it can prod and scoop; it can be repaired instantly and turned into a gun, a motor, a plane, a sword, a shovel, a wand. There are worse toys around. This is the state-of-being from which our later dreams of plenitude derive. If we have the good fortune to grow into an adulthood which is not diluted by cynicism or the fear of perpetual evaporation, which still expects out of every day a certain abundance, it is because as little children we were allowed to suffer little injury to our personal wonder at the fullness of being.
And watching television? I believe that watching television with its constant commercial assault will quickly disabuse a child of the notion that the world, by itself, is enough. In a very short time a child whose primary delight was the entanglement of self and world (an activity often described as “play”) learns that his enjoyment of the world depends partially on his ability to own pieces of it. What could be more obvious? The first intent of a commercial is to create a momentary dissatisfaction with what is. Subtly and violently a child is maneuvered out of the present, where contentment occurs, into the future where possession takes place; and since the future is only future (and not present), all contentment takes on the quality of an imagined event. An adult is being created before his time. The three-year-old, who, a month ago, wanted nothing more than to revel among the shapes and oddities of this world (which seemed scattered across his path like coins in a dream) is now sobbing in front of Coke machines or crying at the check-out counter because his father won’t buy him a Milky Way. Advertisements, indeed, work like a charm. And if they didn’t work, where would the future consumers come from, with their hunger, not for life, but for things?
What about the precision of our educated irony which comprehends the essential inanity of most television, but which nevertheless tolerates it as the price we have to pay for living in a mass culture? As adults we have erected so many bulwarks against the mendacities of television and its corporate propaganda that compared to us, a child watching television is like a pale water-creature without a shell, washed up on the beach; he is like a membrane.
Of course, the distortion wrought by television on our children’s dignity is not comparable to the poisoning of reality accomplished by totalitarian regimes in power. Television stinks, but it doesn’t stink that badly. And yet one has to start somewhere; before the attack the enemy must be “softened.” Nor is it merely rhetorical to ask what the difference is between corporate and political propaganda. In content, a great deal; in form, very little. Becoming accustomed to actors conning us into buying mediocre products is simply the first step toward electing con men into political office where they will sell a gullible public second-rate policies. It’s the “becoming accustomed’’ which bothers me. Because the world is new to them, children should get used to nothing. Get used to what? Clamor, selling, being manipulated, the itch of always wanting something you don’t have, falsehoods like Easter eggs dipped in appealing colors, sales camouflaged as fun — it’s all a flavorless cynicism without boundaries which is offered to our children. And who is that whose footsteps we presently hear everywhere in America? Who is that we so kindly call “yuppies” with their depthless good taste?
It takes little effort to see what is working on a child’s mind as he watches hundreds of commercials each week, what is providing a tonality to his thoughts and a particular edge to his desires. Indeed, when have the aggressive and the trivial been so smoothly welded together? But then again, when has the entrepreneurial spirit set itself the task of inveigling children out of their sweet fancies? Hannah Arendt once wrote that Pavlov’s dogs were not just dogs, they were perverted dogs.
“Put it this way,” my friend Michael Clancy said to me one summer night as we were having a few drinks at the Lion’s Head. “Say you have a kid one day. You have a kid because you want to have a kid. You and your wife both want to have a kid. OK, after he’s born you give him your name, yours and your wife’s. Now right here you’ve got a couple of choices. You can say I made this kid and I’m gonna raise him. Or you can figure the kid was some kind of devilish mistake, maybe put on earth to make your life miserable. Believe me, I know a few fellows like that. Anyway, if you’re not a mistake yourself, you raise your kid. You teach him what you know until he knows it. You teach him a few rules to live by so he won’t end up a punk. You feed him, you clothe him, and you teach him to stand on his own two feet. If you’re a church-goer, he goes to church. If you’re not, he doesn’t. They say give your kids a lot of room. I’m not so sure. My father, bless him, told me what to do, and if I didn’t do it he busted me. That was all right. He stopped when I was big enough to bust him back. But like I was saying — you raise the kid in the family so he knows all the time that his feet are on solid ground. Remember, unless you drop dead of a heart attack, your kid will take care of you someday. He’s got to know something before he’ll do that even moderately well. But here’s my point. When he’s old enough you send him to school. You want him to learn some things about the world, and that’s where he’ll learn them. The Sisters — and I remember every one of those tyrants — taught me what I needed to know, and even more. If his teacher’s not a spoiled brat, he’ll learn how lucky he is to be an American — what it took for us to get here, that kind of thing. He’ll learn about all sorts of real heroes. He’ll learn what it means to be born here and not in some Asian rice paddy. He’ll also learn he’s not the first person born in the world, and he’ll not likely be the last. That way he won’t end up like those who fall apart every time some piece of misery comes down the road. With all those years of training, in the family and in school, if we’re lucky, we might end up with somebody we can have a drink with.
“Now after what I just told you, why would I own a television? Do you realize what kids learn from television? We won’t even bother with the fact that they don’t see or hear anything real. What galls me is that what they do see is so very unfortunate. Nobody on television has an idea in his head beyond his bank account or getting in front of everybody else. Have you seen that show where some Hollywood type calls women out of the audience so they can crow and wet their pants at the very idea of a new icebox or a trip to Hawaii? Why, it’s beyond human recognition. Thirty years ago you had Gleason as a bus driver. He was always yelling and confusing the issues, but you knew he was a decent man; there was never any question about that. Now you have half-hour comedy shows where everybody’s stupid and uncontrollably selfish. Tell me, friend, is it good for any child to see those shows about Texas millionaires who screw each other in every way, and the worst of them always coming out on top? When your kid’s going through his education, having a television in the house is just pulling the rug from under yourself. From eight to three they learn about people with brains and courage, and then they come home from school, turn on the tube, and find out it’s really a dog-eat-dog world where being clever is all that matters. You might as well tell them from the beginning that decency is a waste of time. Look at what’s out walking on the streets today. No thank you. When my child was old enough to ask for a television, I told him to tell his friends that his father was crazy. ‘Tell them anything you like,’ I told him, ‘but no thank you.’ ”
In front of a television set, a child turns into a pod-creature, mouth agape, eyes dull, body very still, breathing steady but shallow. The roots of this behavior can be found, I think, in astonishment; and by that I refer to a mostly archaic, seventeenth-century definition which understood an astonished person to be one who was stupefied, one who had been “driven stupid.” Children, in this sense, are indeed astonished by television.
Not long ago I heard a statistic which troubled me: the average American child watches about six hours of television a day. Now what bothers me about this statistic is that I’ve never known a child to whom it could be applied. I’ve known kids who watched a lot of television, but even those who weren’t too bright or didn’t have a lot of “inner resources” would, after a few hours, crawl away from the television set and play with toys. And even the most inert parents I’ve known would eventually say to a child sunk in video stupefaction, “That’s enough for today. You’ll wear your eyes out.”
Does this mean that all over America there exist legions of children with brains the size of a pea who watch thirteen and fourteen hours of television a day, and thus round out the national curve? Or have I lived my life within such a class bias that even my notions about television viewing represent a sort of fantasy version of what’s going on? In that case I would be like a girlfriend of mine who was raised entirely in apartments along Park Avenue. One day she asked my ten-year-old boy, raised entirely in Chapel Hill, how many tree houses he had built lately.
The other night while walking in my neighborhood I accidentally caught a glimpse of a family sitting on their glassed-in porch, watching television. I turned away quickly, as if I’d seen something embarrassing. There they were, an entire family at twilight, silent, their mouths slightly open, attentive to bright flashing colors and the voices of bad actors. I thought: this is a defilement. But of what?
Does this mean that I long for some primitive way of life, when families would sit by the fire each evening and mend harnesses? I hope not. Yet, come to think of it, what pain might television alleviate? It’s not a bad question when you realize that most inventions become successful only when they relieve us of some trouble or other. Take this family on their porch staring at the tube: what commotion in their lives has been numbed or stilled or refined away by this flashing box in front of which they all sit — mother, father, and two children — so mutely entranced?
However, television can be suspect without longing for the simple life. I like being alive right now, here in Chapel Hill, in America, with all the great modern contrivances like vibrating motel beds and photographs of Mars. I’m a photographer, so I’m certainly not opposed to machines!
Yet, to tell the truth, I also find it pretty embarrassing to watch other photographers spinning their focus and flailing about with apertures in the hope of robbing some poor public moment of its image. I suppose that’s it — the robbing of something from the world, the cheapening of it. Am I being too fastidious in my defense of reality? Perhaps the world can take care of itself without the help of someone who would most likely upset the mesmeric tranquility of a family gathered around the television, learning, say, about the Holocaust. But will they be told the truth? And what if the truth is untellable? Is it not precisely this reduction to “entertainment” which represents television’s most dangerous tendency? What happens to our sense of real life if that which is incomprehensible is given a happy ending? And what if the world cannot take care of itself?