Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

The Dumbing of America

It could not have been an idea sprung full-blown before the spread of the medium. No one would have been able to predict the astounding fascination with the amazing picture box that the Western world–and Americans in particular–would develop. No one sat down and plotted to take over the public forum with a one-way system of communication that could–and would–literally be sold to the highest bidder; there was no way to know (although Orwell had an inkling, and it didn’t take visionaries like Ray Bradbury long to see the potential).

GIs arrived home from a long war ready to buckle down and raise families. Industries needed buyers for the wares that would replace war goods, and willing workers for the factories and new industries that would arise: the assembly lines feeding the automobile craze, the road-building, and the suburban development that the two, combined, made possible.

City centers were already crowded. The availability of individual travel on a large scale–not to mention the opportunity to actually own one’s own home–drove people from the cities to the new suburbs by the millions. That, in turn, inspired the development of ”shopping centers” that could be reached by automobile, and later malls. At either of those, all the shopping a suburbanite needed to do was available at one place, eliminating a great many neighborhood stores and, to a great extent neighborhoods themselves. People walked their dogs, mowed their lawns and spoke to their neighbors, but the sense of community and belonging that had existed in the densely-populated city neighborhoods ceased to exist, due to the lower population density and independence of housing and households. People were beginning not to need people, in a personal sense.

The Korean war, onset of the “Cold” War, fueled further expansion of the Military Industrial Complex (as President Eisenhower famously labeled it), and further affluence for workers in the boom that resulted from the “defense” industry. People were looking for ways to disperse the unaccustomed affluence.

At about the same time, along came television.

It is hard to describe, to those who were not a part of it, the palpable way that TV fascination took hold of Americans. (I presume the same was true of Europeans and the British.) In ten short years, from about 1950 to 1960, we went from a nation of newspaper and book readers, family conversationalists, porch-sitters, neighborhood strollers, and folks who actively associated with others in the community by attending dances, town meetings, church socials and myriad other get-togethers, to people who spent their evening hours looking at snowy black-and-white images in their living rooms.

“TV dinners” were served on “TV trays” in front of the set. Some people even built “TV rooms,” with all the furniture arranged to facilitate looking at the tube. Family dinners and conversations were passé. Conversations with friends and in the workplace now centered on the latest antics of Lucy and Ricky, Ralph and Alice, and the latest acts on the Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows, rather than on the news, politics and current events that had been staples of social intercourse since the American Revolution. Books sales fell. Attendance at concerts, readings, town meetings, social events at church and community center–even at worship services–showed a steep decline over that decade. Leisure time began concentrating itself around electronics instead of real people.

It became obvious to politicians and their backers that this addiction, the extent of which had been entirely unexpected, was an opportunity for exploitation that could hardly be beaten. Instead of acquiring information and their picture of the world from newspapers, books, conversations, civic leaders, broad educational backgrounds and radio (relatively independent in those days), people could obviously be encouraged to accept more and more of their understanding of current events from this new, single source. Whoever controlled it would have the keys to a kingdom.

From that realization to the present, every substantive legislative measure, whether related to media or education, has been aimed at the eventual goal of total information control–and thus people’s decisions about their lives and their political opinions. Indeed, it may be said that today people do not have political opinions. They have, instead, the opinions of others that have been carefully filtered and fed to them by the one-eyed-monsters in the (living room) (TV room) (rec room) (bedroom) (den) (kitchen) (hotel room) (airport lounge) (waiting room) (back seat of the SUV) and the various other places they may be encountered.

Today, the American average for television-watching exceeds four hours a day. Television and its partners in manipulation, the advertising industry and PR firms, are today keys in the distribution of income, and responsible for an amazingly significant portion of our lives and thought. TV ads influence the majority of watchers’ spending: cars, appliances, brands of toothpaste and douche, lifestyle items, toys, breakfast cereals–even from which supermarkets and vendors all these things should be purchased.

Consider this: television is a one-way medium. Since we cannot interact with it, there is no confounding argument, no confusing counter-statement to refute or cause us to question what we are told. If we have doubts, they will be swept away by the next episode of CSI or Idol, and by the time we are free of our electronic master and able to look up information, we have forgotten the question (if we ever consciously questioned what we heard to begin with).

And then there’s politics.

TV allows us to choose the political discourse that we find most comfortable. Now that might seem like a good thing, but sound opinions are not formed by listening to those who agree with us, but by personally rolling around in our heads the arguments for both sides of an argument. All the networks, all the so-called “news” shows, all the mindless garbage that takes the place of substantive information about the important things happening in the world–all of those are controlled by the same few top-level corporations. The result is that I may find the ranting of the “journalists” at Fox more to my liking than the less obviously slanted remarks at CBS but, nonetheless, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, they will all try to convince me of whatever the people at the top want me to believe.

Let us take the Iraq war as an obvious example. Did any major medium come out and say what they are all saying now–that the war was a mistake, a waste of money and lives, and so forth? With greater or lesser vehemence, they all–vaunted purveyors of truth that they claim to be–supported the position that we were justified in invading a country that had done nothing to us.

Did we invade Saudi Arabia, homeland of eleven of the twelve hijackers? No, we invaded, first Afghanistan–a good idea, given that Bin Laden and his gang seemed to be holed up there, and then pulled resources out of that endeavor to invade Iraq, a country that all the best information told us had nothing to do with 9/11 at all, the information having for months been public knowledge! Our leaders, via the media, simply pounded us with the information they wanted us to hear, ignoring and suppressing contrary opinion and information. Excluding PBS, none of the networks began their hand-wringing until the cat was thoroughly out of the bag. Only when there was a common accord throughout the country and the world that the Iraq war had been a terrible mistake did the mainstream media jump on board and begin reporting a mild version of the national consensus.

I mention the above, not to beat a horse that with any luck is nearly dead, but to point out an egregious example of the media’s–and especially television’s–influence on our thinking. There are other examples: For one, somehow the administration managed to convince enough voters that going from a $4 trillion surplus to a $2 trillion deficit in four years was a good reason to give them further license to manage our money. TV owns the biggest piece of that, by far. Our brains are like any other computers: garbage in, garbage out.

The media are concentrated in the hands of a small number of corporations, all of whom are agreed on certain things that need to be accomplished by them, their allies, and their political puppets. Education has been dumbed down. It is no accident that lip service is given to improving education, yet the sum of all education expenditures over the past twenty years has not even kept pace with the inflation rate, when adjusted to the number of students to be educated. It is no accident that 30% of our high school graduates are functionally illiterate–and those are graduates, not the dropouts. It is no accident that steps are taken to keep poor people poor and uneducated. Folks who don’t read, who are unequipped for getting information other than orally or visually, are sitting ducks for manipulation. The printing press unleashed the Age of Enlightenment. In the United States, at least, television has ended it.

Only one thing can change. The way we seek out information. I’ll close this with a series of questions that only you can answer.

* Do you usually take the word of strangers when making decisions? * When was the last time you listened, all the way through, to an idea that made you uncomfortable?

* When was the last time you sought out unbiased information to help you make a decision?

* When was the last time you read a non-fiction book?

* Any book?

* When was the last time you visited a library?

* When was the last time you read a newspaper?

* When was the last time you had a conversation about politics with someone whose views were different–not an email exchange, a face to face conversation?

* When was the last time you discussed current events with your kids?

* How often has that happened?

* When was the last time you went online and got information about politics or current events–a variety of information, not just from sites you approve of?

* When did you seek out opinions different from yours, and attempt to inform yourself–not change your mind, just inform yourself?

* When was the last time you encouraged any of your kids to do the above?

* When was the last time you voted–for either party?

The only answer to the crises that face us is you.

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