Television and the State

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. ~ Exodus 20:4

Gore Vidal said once ' somewhat jokingly but accurately nonetheless ' that the National Security State under which we now live would have been impossible without air conditioning. It used to be, he said, that Washington DC would be abandoned in summertime because it was simply too hot and muggy for government workers to stay there, but with the advent of air conditioning, they could comfortably remain to plan and plot and control year round.

There's no doubt that the power of the State is fueled by oil and powered by electricity. The State relies on technology. You could perhaps make the case that the modern State is a direct result of technology, a logical extension of its principles. Technology, of course, gives the State bombs, jets, and satellites: in other words, its weapons and its modes of transportation and communication.

But the most powerful and arguably most essential of the State's technological tools is the one that reaches directly into a person's mind. And the beauty part of it, at least for the State, is that it has no need to order the People either to obtain one of these devices or to submit themselves to it. Americans want them. They're eager to have them. They want and crave them. Some will spend thousands of dollars to have the biggest and most elaborate of them. People voluntarily, willingly, eagerly, offer up their minds and their bodies and their souls to it, exposing themselves for hours on end to its toxic, conformist emanations.

Without televisions in every home in America ' without so many watching them so much ' the power of the State would be greatly diminished, for its power in the end depends upon the consent of the People, and that consent would not and could not exist without the boob tube.

It is, perhaps, not a mere coincidence that the rise of television coincided with the rise of what Vidal calls the National Security State . The State knew very well that television had the potential to become the greatest mass medium of all time. It could reach millions of people at the same time with the same imagery. And it also knew that control of that imagery would give it unprecedented power over the People because it would for the first time have the ability to circumvent the troublesome, quarrelsome left brain ' the part that uses words, that parses and doubts, that questions, that makes curious and sometimes highly individualistic connections, that uses logic and creates meaning ' because images are received by the accepting, holistic, unquestioning right brain. And while it's certainly true that pictures can be questioned or interpreted, they don't have to be questioned or interpreted and quite often aren't. But, even (or, perhaps, especially) unquestioned, they still remain in the mind and they still have an effect ' often a very powerful one because they engage the emotions rather than rationality.

Have you ever wondered about the Second of the Biblical Ten Commandments? I found this the most curious of them when I was a boy. It seems pretty clear why God would want to prohibit murder and stealing. But why would God prohibit 'graven images'? The version in Deuteronomy is even more explicit than the version in Exodus: 'Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves'lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, the likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth.' Why does God have a bug up His butt about images?

In his intriguing book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain says that 'having discovered the immense utility of alphabetic writing, (the Israelites) considered iconic information to be a threat to their newfound skill' (p. 83) and explains that the first four Commandments reinforce 'the ability of a people to think abstractly, linearly, and sequentially. Together they encourage a mindset that enhances the use and facility of alphabet literacy' (p. 85).

Literacy gives us this ability to think abstractly, sequentially, and linearly ' literacy gives us the ability to think, period. And in the postwar era, the State has systematically denied literacy to the People on one hand while giving them television with the other. As John Taylor Gatto points out in The Underground History of American Education, the illiteracy rate by 1940 was 20% for blacks and 4% for whites. Sixty years later, '40% of blacks and 17% of whites can't read at all. Put another way, black illiteracy doubled, white illiteracy quadrupled . . . . we spend three to four times as much real money on schooling as we did 60 years ago, but 60 years ago virtually everyone, black or white, could read.' And the cause of this? Gatto says that 'one change is indisputable, well-documented, and easy to track. During WWII, American public schools massively converted to non-phonetic ways of teaching reading' (p. 53).

And television not only bypasses the questioning, literate left brain, it apparently shuts it right down. Joyce Nelson reports in The Perfect Machine on a researcher who in 1969 discovered that television 'effortlessly transmits information not thought about at the time of exposure' (p. 70). He and other researchers, she tells us, found that 'watching television tends to shut down the left hemisphere, disengaging the information processing of this area of the brain . . . . we must recognize that he is referring to logical-critical thought ' the thinking of the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere, which has its own mode of thinking, stays tuned' (p. 71).

This ability to transmit 'information not thought about at the time of exposure' accounts, among other things, for the basic content change in commercials since the Sixties. Then commercials tended to concentrate on the left brain and tried to give viewers logical reasons for buying particular products. But over the last 30 years, commercials have become increasingly focused on the right brain, providing sub- or non-logical persuasion to consume. Think, for example, of the recent Levi's commercial in which a young couple walking through an empty city withstand a charging herd of buffalo.

It also accounts for the State's need for television, because it's the power of the picture, the unreasoning emotion of the right brain, that allows the growth and acceptance of the National Security State . Television provides constant, easily accessible pictures of danger that only the State can protect us from. Nelson points out that one of the first functions of television was to create fear of Communism and thus justify the permanent war economy by providing the People with an enemy (p. 40-6). Today, from the drug shooting on the local news to the latest episode of "NYPD Blue" and the nationally televised fall of the World Trade Center, television continues to provide horror and tension much more immediately and effectively than words ever could and in turn generates the emotional intensity, the unthinking, visceral fear, that the State needs to justify its actions to the People and take as much power as it wants.

Vidal was right about air conditioning. But that just set the physical stage. Television has helped provide the unthinking, un-critical American mind-set that has allowed the People to view the increasingly fascistic National Security State as its savior and protector. And one of the first steps in ending this virulent threat to our lives and our liberties is to deny television free and unfettered access to our minds. Images are corrupting us. If we want to begin to weaken the power of the State and start to re-establish freedom in our lives, we have to 'just say no' to the most powerful and destructive drug of all: television.

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Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.