Don’t Toss the TV

The common-sense observation that the tool is not responsible for the carpenter’s poor use of it has been enlisted to great effect in political debates, such as the one over gun control. Although the bumper sticker reductionism of “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is at once trite and true, the notion that people are indeed responsible for their actions, as well as the actions of the hammers and electric drills and handguns and SUV’s under their control, seems like nothing so much as plain old common sense.

Of course, common sense is now quite uncommon. And so we find a surprisingly large number of otherwise sensible “personal responsibility boosters” rejecting this straightforward thinking when the target of their ire is the mass media, specifically television. All of a sudden one starts hearing the sort of all-encompassing generalizations and one-size-fits-all thinking that typifies the average politician: “TV is a wasteland, a cesspool, that teaches our kids violence and mindless consumerism.” There’s no room for grey in this kind of thinking; it’s as black-and-white as the original Milton Berle series. And the chorus of voices is growing.

“Offending contraptions”

Recently, at his Glendale, California church’s weekly men’s meeting, Jerry Bray listened as a traveling evangelist beseeched the assemblage to toss their television sets, CD’s and other “offending contraptions” in the garbage. Apparently, recycling them into toasters or space heaters would be acceptable, but they should most assuredly not be sold at a garage sale. “You can protect your family from TV poison without selling it to someone else, bargain price or otherwise,” according to the brochure the evangelist distributes with cookies after his presentations.

If you “kill the devices that bring that filth into your home,” the brochure goes on to say, apparently you won’t be missing a thing. In this abolitionist view, “there is no downside” to getting rid of the electronic multimedia funnels that pipe the sick and savage products of a “perverse and Godless” entertainment industry into the home. That’s pretty heady stuff there.

Yet, somehow, that sounds just like a poor carpenter blaming the tools again. We don’t like what others are building with them, so out go the hammers and screwdrivers and belt sanders. We don’t like a few, or even a lot, of the programs, so out goes the TV. Hold on a second!

Puerile and perverted?

Over the last several years a growing number of concerned parents have opted to dump the TV set. Millions of well-meaning Moms and dedicated Dads have apparently decided that American TV fare today is 100% (im)pure, unalloyed crud. It’s a wasteland “out there,” the argument goes, but you don’t have to bring it “into the family sanctuary.” The operative word here is “it,” which stands for all TV programming, from Homer Simpson smoking pot to the impressionist masterpieces of Seurat. “It” is all “worthless.”

Or is it? Certainly the most popular sit-coms, cop shows, reality TV and game shows are puerile and perverted pap, if not outright propaganda from “the unreconstructed sensualists of Hollywood-on-the-Volga” (that evangelist can turn a phrase!). But right there in TV Guide, sandwiched between channel listings for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and a Marilyn Manson paean to the joys of demonic possession, is a fabulous documentary on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Just change the channel and there you go.

And look, on the next page of program listings – floating above the blurb for the hot reality TV show of the moment (cops and hookers living in a car?), alongside the listing for an exposé of fascist cannibals in the Catholic Church – is an invitation to watch “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Moses, the Lawgiver” back-to-back later in the week. That’s quite a spread, isn’t it?

Part-time parents

One semi-doting dad told me recently that he just doesn’t have time to monitor his 12-year-old son’s viewing habits. What occurred to me, of course, is that he might as well have said that he just doesn’t have time to raise his son, to instill values in him, to teach him how to monitor himself. So the easy answer for this dad was to dump the TV altogether, a classic example of tossing the baby out with the bath water – and the soap, washcloth, towel and tub, too. This young man will now be spared “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” even as he misses the opportunity to learn about the U.S. astronaut training program.

Certainly, I put it to the father, there is a way to avoid the former and take advantage of the latter, isn’t there?

“Too much work and takes too long,” he said. “It’s easier just to get rid of it, all of it.”

Yikes. With hundreds of channels, there truly is something for everyone in the information-age cafeteria of “custom” TV, with the seemingly limitless choices of cable and satellite receivers now complemented by a bevy of new technologies for recording, delaying, replaying, taping, splicing, slicing and dicing the programs. With the capabilities come a torrent of content; in my area, the cable company gives me high-speed internet access and a TV package comprising all the channels I need, all for about $90 a month.

Still, I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, and I never just plop down in front of it and scan channels. I get a Sunday paper primarily for the TV listings, and if something I want to watch is on during the coming week, I can make time to watch it (rare) or set the DVR to record it (common). My wife and I will unwind with the cooking shows (God bless Emeril Lagasse – bam!); watch the various political spin squadrons twirl, thrust, parry and obfuscate on the talking-head cable shows; and occasionally deduce along with Sherlock Holmes just who did the dirty deed this time. These are not wasteland experiences, I assure you.

Acceptable alternatives

It is far too facile simply to relegate an entire technology to unimportance in one’s life, and dangerous, too; you will miss a lot of what is happening around you. If you have children, you might be able to limit the damage done to your kids via TV programming by dumping the set, but you will also limit enriching experiences. They will see Miley Cyrus’s musical soap opera or Shannon Doherty’s latest snotty Gen-X character anyway, whether at friends’ homes or the mall or even school; but they won’t see it with your play-by-play commentary, followed by a channel switch to the acceptable alternative you have investigated and provided.

Yes, TV is a non-stop, pervasive influence in our society. But a TV is just another tool; to rid your home of it may be a powerful statement, but in the end it is a self-defeating one. The challenge – for parents particularly, but for the rest of us, too, who desire edification and intellectual stimulation, as well as occasional escapist fare (and that’s okay too!) – is to control this massively powerful technology. It is so powerful, in fact, that George Orwell populated 1984 with as many big, propaganda-spewing monitors as characters. Big Brother wouldn’t have been big without TV.

Interestingly, however, it wasn’t the fear of TV as a non-stop pitchman for an authoritarian state that stuck with people. No, it was TV turned the other way ’round, as a full-time silent snoop, that took hold as the technology matured into the 1950s and beyond. With the proliferation of video surveillance cameras in the UK (there are over 4 million in London alone), and their gradual introduction in the U.S. in the almost-benign form of “traffic cams,” perhaps we should not be too quick to view Orwellian paranoia as overheated and baseless.

Use vs. abuse It is too early to tell how the public use and abuse of TV, video security systems and related technologies will all play out. It is true that a tool can be quickly transformed into a weapon; some things, like axes, are arguably both to begin with. It might help to view TV in this light. Ultimately, it is up to each one of us, acting for ourselves as well as for our children, to use our home’s trusty axe to chop the wood that warms the hearth that heats the house and lights the room – so we can, in safety and comfort, read a story and see the accompanying illustrations.

An intruder, one who may even wish us harm, is always watching for us to let our guard down, so he can break in and grab that axe and use it against us. He may wish to sell sugar-coated nothingness to our kids when we’re not watching, swear a blue streak in a cable movie or otherwise foul our safe haven. But we are not powerless here. We are wide awake and diligent, and remember, when we go to sleep we can turn on the surveillance cameras and bolt the doors, both figuratively and literally. Still, as that traveling evangelist said, there are evildoers who are plotting to assault you and your kids across the airwaves and over the cable connection.

There is no good reason to miss out on DaVinci himself just because you want to keep The DaVinci Code out of your house. Sure, your “enemies” may try to take over the entire entertainment industry so that, one day, there will be no quality choices at all.

But just whose fault is it if you let that happen? And why would you want to hasten the day? Don’t do it. Don’t help the wrong side.

Don’t toss that TV. 


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