More Than Entertainment and Diversion

I've been arguing for some time that it's a key mistake to see dominant media's entertainment component as little more than childish diversion and amusement.  That was sort of how the late, brilliant liberal-left neo-Luddite Neil Postman tended to discuss it.

There's plenty of infantile diversion, to be sure, but the entertainment (and also the self-help) media is just richly loaded with authoritarian ideology, just like the more explicitly political Evening News, the newspapers and the various dominant journals and political talk shows, etc.

Here are some pieces I've done on how we're being "More than Entertained":  “ ‘ The People are Unfit to Rule’: the Ideological Meaning of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer,” ZNet Magazine (January 3, 2006); “Thought Control,” ZNet Magazine (April 27, 2004); “Killing Us Softly: Politics and Entertainment,” ZNet Magazine (April 21, 2004); “More Than Entertainment: Neal Gabler and the Illusions of Post-Ideological Society,” Monthly Review (February 2000): 58-62 (not available online but the best of these).

I don't pretend to have anything like a monpoly on this sort of analysis, of course.  There are some excellent studies out on  the rich ideological content of “entertainment” media.  Some good references inlcude Michael Parenti, Inventing Reality (I don't have a have a copy handy but I believe he did a lot on entertainment media); William J. Puette, Through Jaundiced Eyes: How the Media View Organized Labor, chapters one ( "The Movies: Labor Framed"), three ("Television Dramas: Labor Snowed"), and five ("Cartoons: Drawn and Quartered"); and Marc Crispin Miller, Boxed In: The Cuture of TV. The prolific left cultural theorist and education scholar Henry A. Giroux performs some brilliant ideological analysis of films like Fight Club, Pretty Woman, Pulp Fiction, Cruel Intentions, The Ten Things I Hate About You, and Reservoir Dogs (to name a few) in his books Public Spaces, Private Lives: Democracy Beyond 9/11, Stealing Innocence: Corporate Culture's War on Children, and The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear. Giroux has interesting things to say about the reactionary pedagocial role of U.S. entertainment media in the socialization of U.S. youth  for the neoliberal era. 

Also very much worth mentioning is Stephen Macek's marvellous new book Urban Nightmares: the Media, the Right  and the Moral Panic Over the City.  This book is a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the ninth on numerous levels but one of its strongest points is the excellent use Macek makes of movies. As Macek shows, dominant media’s role in justifying reactionary, right-handed policies and encouraging the white suburban political majority to see the black inner city as primarily “a police problem” is not limited to news and public affairs commentary.  It also includes the corporate-crafted “popular culture,” as seen in such movies as Judgment Night (1993), Eye for Eye (1996), Seven (1995), Batman (1989), The Crow (1994), Mimic (1997), Escape from L.A. (1996), and Dangerous Minds (1996), to mention a small number of films from a large “cinema of suburban paranoia” that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s to portray the black ghetto as a terrain that is “not safe for normal (white, middle-class) people.” 

The first of these films, Judgment Night, was set in Chicago and begins when “a group of suburban men driving into a boxing match take a wrong turn into a ‘bad neighborhood’ on [the] South Side” and witness a homicide. The terrified suburbanites spend most of the film fleeing from the black drug-dealers who are responsible for the murder.  “Once they turn off the highway (in an area of Chicago that the knowledgeable immediately recognizes as somewhere near the notorious ‘vertical slums’ of the Robert Taylor Homes),” Macek notes, “they enter into a truly nightmarish urban landscape of dimly lit streets, vacant lots littered with blowing paper, and loitering bums.”  After one of the suburbanites is killed (by being thrown off the roof of a public housing project by a black gang leader) and two others are incapacitated by black gangsters, the movie’s macho hero “Frank” (played by  Emilio Estevez) defeats the black gang leader “Fallon” in a climactic street-fight after the gangster threatens his family. “Frank’s triumph,” Macek observes, “signals a victory of ‘normal’ middle-class suburban manhood over the deviant, violent manhood associated with the inner city,” thereby “vindidcat[ing] the conservative ‘family values’ preached by the likes of Dan Quayle and [vile neo-Social Darwinist] Charles Murray” and “valorize[ing]…suburban domesticity over and against the deviance and wildness of urban life.”

The same essential black- and city-demonizing and white-vindicating themes became a staple on American entertainment television as well, providing critical backdrop and in some cases essential focus for such popular fictional dramas as NYPD Blue, Cops, Law and Order, ER, and Homicide – to mention just a few.  They are also evident in numerous, generally highly exploitative daytime talk, court, and freak shows as the Jerry Springer Show, the Maury Povich Show, the Montel Williams Show, Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown. A highly popular and especially vicious radio morning (“drive time”) show hosted by the audacious white male “shock jock” “Mancow Muller” polluted the Chicago area’s airwaves during the late 20th and early 21st centuries with repeated noxious and often more than just covertly racist references to alleged urban black violence, stupidity, crime, parasitic welfare-dependency and the like.

I’d also like to mention Marxist sociologist David Nibert’s analysis of the ideological function of state lotteries in his fascinating study Hitting the Lottery Jackpot: Government and the Taxing of Dreams (Monthly Review, 2000).  The lotteries that have spread across the U.S. since the 1970s do more than help state governments maintain savagely unequal school funding systems.  They also play a dark ideological and – following Giroux – pedagogical role in legitimizing inequality, teaching of number of reactionary lessons:

  • Great wealth is a matter of pure chance, not a product of structural inequality.
  • “Anyone can play” and “anyone can win” (frequent statements in Lottery advertisements) in the level playing field that is the American land of opportunity.
  • Acquiring purely individual wealth is the central purpose of human experience and the best thing that could ever happen to someone.
  • The best response to inequality and alienation in the workplace is not to organize with fellow workers to struggle for a more equitable and meaningful work experience but rather to escape the workplace altogether by acquiring a fortune.

Some of these same themes can be detected in the recent popular General Electric Television (NBC) show “Deal or No Deal,” where selected audience members match their wits with an invisible capitalist odds-maker as they try to guess which of 20 or so suit-cases contains a million dollars. 

This show also functions as a ritual in the humiliation of ordinary people by the superior and inherently distant, invisible authority of the untouchable capitalist elite.  People typically refuse to accept early money offers from “the banker."  Egomaniacally and superstitiously convinced that they are going to be the lucky one that gets the million dollars (and encouraged to think this by the show's host Howie Mandel), they often end up walking out with winnings far smaller than the initial offers.  Millions of viewers across the country can almost be heard saying “what an idiot, they could have walked out with $67 thousand.”

The notion that there is no collectivity or broader society worth feeling for or worrying about and that everything is just about “you, me, mine and ours” (nothing beyond a household and perhaps a small group of FRIENDS) – is so ubiquitous that it’s almost hard to recognize anymore on U.S. Television. .

I recently saw a weekend PBS show about how people don’t have enough time: Americans are totally stressed out by overwork. But of course there was zero discussion of the structural and historical roots of this problem (ably discussed in sophisticated and Marxian terms in Juliet Schor’s book The Overworked American) or of any of the many important ways working people in general could act to reduce hours and increase their ability to participate in collective, public and democratic as well as personal and private lives.  The show was only and all about little things YOU could do to create in more time in YOUR life – the only life that matters.  It was about overwork as a purely personal matter.

There was no room of course for notion that our relentless imposed privatism is part of the context for the corporations’ success in time-squeezing us to despair and civic marginality — with that marginality a factor in the atrophy of governmental and union protections against overwork (a vicious circle).  That kind of reflection is left for radical “cranks” who have no place in dominant media, including “P”BS.

Now there’s this show whose name I can't remember (help, someone) where a team of attractive and benevolent super-contractors pick a single isolated family that deserves (the team determines) to have a home built or massively rehabilitated for them. Typically the family in question has suffered some sort of terrible tragedy or challenge. It’s a big deal: the “EM’ team shows up to great fanfare, with great public celebration to do this great thing for understandably grateful family members, whose personal and family lives are upgraded (for a time anyway) by The Media Corporation. The bigger pressing and deepening shortage of affordable housing for working families in general in metropolitan America goes unaddressed as hundreds gather outside to gaze in wonder at the residential miracle that Big Brother Television Network has seen fit to grant to a single, officially DESERVING poor family.

We have at least three ideological functions with this show it seems to me: (1) elevation of the private sector (business community/corporations) over the public sector (people turning to corporate television.  not government, for solutions to personal difficulty, detached from societal difficulty); (2) elevation of the individual household over broader social need; (3) the elite designation of some disadvantaged people as “deserving” and thus others as non-deserving.

Sometimes the ideology gets a little heavy handed even on U.S. television.   Purely by television clicker chance the other say I happened to watch five minutes of an old “Charles in Charge” re-run from perhaps the late 1980s..  As far as I can tell, this sit-com featured Scott Baio as the dutiful transplanted urban white ethnic house boy of a nice and silly middle-class WASP family in the suburbs. In the episode I’d happened upon, the family was hosting a liberal professor for dinner.  The professor had apparently been invited by the family’s nice mother because she was interested in one or some of his books.  The dinner is a disaster because the professor is just a terrible, know-it-all elitist who makes no effort to hide his judgment that the nice suburban family is a bunch of pathetic boors not worth licking his boots.  At one point the evil, arrogant and bearded professor tells “Charles” that the nice mother (who writes for as local newspaper) is “a hack.” 

The evil academic asks “Charles” if he can interview him for “a book I’m doing on American youth in the 1980s.”  “Charles” just frowns and walks away, basically telling the guy to get lost: go back to your snobby university and your fellow intellectual vermin.

It was very corporate-faux-populist (ala What’s the Matter with Kansas?). With a little help from the transplanted urban ethnic tough guy (Scott B, sort of a nicer and younger “Fonzie”), the nice little suburban WASP family is saved from the attack of the creepy intellectuals and culture critics.

Reminded me of a “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” episode I saw at some point in the 1990s.  The “Fresh Prince” was Will Smith, playing a product of the Philadelphia ghetto sent to live with his fabulously wealthy black uncle and the uncle’s privileged family on the West Coast. At one point, the family is visited by one of the “Fresh Prince’s” aunts, who turns out to be an unreconstructed Black militant from the 1960s. She’s a total caricature, still talking crazy stuff like “power to the people.”  Will Smith is briefly seduced by her contagious idealism but at some point there comes the inevitable incident revealing the leftist aunt to be nothing more than a dangerous and crazy crank (I don't remember the specific incident).  Young Will Smith  returns to the comforting confines of his new-normal bourgeois existence.  He stops his brief and dysfunctional focus on obsolete and meaningless issues like imperialism and racism and the like.  

I was reminded also of a state television show I watched during my one trip across the Iron Curtain.  In the summer of 1983, saw the following plot line on a television in “socialist” Prague. There’s a young couple – a virtuous proletarian steelworker and his girlfriend, a secretary in some government bureaucracy. They work hard and occasionally date.  They’re going to get married and raise young proletarians for the socialist fatherland.  Then one day the secretary starts hanging around with a weird bourgeois guy who listens to western pop music on a transistor radio.  He gets her to listen to the bad western music.  The steelworker finds out she is cavorting with a bourgeois Westernizer and becomes depressed.  He goes on a long drunk, thereby costing socialism the value of his labor power for a number of days. She has a crisis of conscience and goes to find him at his workplace, where the steelworker's comrades say he has disappeared.  She goes and finds him and recants her bourgeois ways.  The steelworker returns to his blast furnace and everyone is happy again – saved from the attack of  Western capitalist culture.

No, the show was not in English and I do not know “Czech.” The ideology was so transparent, however, that you literally didn’t have to know the language to follow the show.  

For what it’s worth, my hotel room in Prague had four channels.  The other three channels were all classical music – showing symphonies and quartets and the like.

The thing about the Soviet bloc is that the thought control was out there for everybody to see.  It hit you over the head like a sledgehammer and in fact the Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia put the initials of the day’s censors down at the bottom of each day’s paper.

Things are very different in the U.S. of course, where many are led to believe that the media is independent from concentrated power and that they are being “informed,” “entertained,” and counseled without "elite" messaging and, well, thought control.

Think again.

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