Sometimes you don’t grasp the essence of something until you’ve been removed from it for a while. Take television. I don’t watch a lot of it anymore. I haven’t in quite a few years.
It’s not about cultural Luddism. It has to do with the analog-digital switchover some years ago and related household budget calculations regarding the price of television these days. The main function of the television in my house these days is to provide a screen for DVDs. We also watch an occasional news broadcast, Moyers show, Frontline, or British detective on the “public” television stations – the only ones that still come in clearly since we bought a “digital converter box.”
It also has to with the fact that my partner Janet and I noticed that we didn’t miss the major networks as they disappeared from our screen, one by one, after the digital takeover. Life without the 10 O’clock News and the Tonight Show turned out to be quite alright. When there’s a hockey or basketball game I want to see, I can always go to a bar or a friends’ house.
Recently, however, I got marooned without my laptop computer for a couple of days during a snowstorm in a large American city, in a small apartment with cable access to all of the major television networks. I watched an inordinate amount of television these two days, thanks in part to the Olympics and also to the fact that I was constantly looking for weather and traffic reports. For whatever reasons, I spent a lot of time gazing into the eyes of beautiful young broadcasters sitting behind desks and walking in front of spectacular high-tech weather maps in immaculate, brightly colored studios.
The thing that struck me most in this re-encounter with television was the almost non-stop outward happiness of the smiling and laughing People on Television. To be sure, their joviality was turned off and replaced with properly stern visages when the news turned to murder and a fire in the city’s unmentionably black ghetto, a train-car crash in the suburbs, misery in Syria, a bad snowboarder fall in Sochi, and the trauma experienced by hijacked air passengers over Europe. But the turn away from cheerfulness was short-lived. Sitting like a zombie with a remote in my hand, switching between the news, commercials, talk shows, sit-coms, and more commercials, I could not escape the impression that American television is dedicated to propagating the notion that everyone is or should be so incredibly and consistently glad to be alive that they can barely contain themselves.
Seated before the relentless bliss coming off the gorgeous People on Television, I started to feel vaguely uneasy, even a bit guilty over my “negative” tendency to focus on difficult societal problems like:
- The United States’ savagely disparate patterns of racial and economic inequality, so extreme in the current New Gilded Age that the richest 400 Americans possess between themselves as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of the population (along with a probably larger share of the nation’s elected officials) while median black wealth is equivalent to 12 cents on the median white net-worth dollar.
- The daily imprisonment of more than 3 million Americans, most of them by far black and Latino, in the U.S., the world’s mass incarceration leader (a curious mark for the self-described national homeland and headquarters of freedom and democracy).
- The squandering of well more than a trillion dollars each years on a vast U.S. war and empire budget that accounts for half the world’s military spending and provides giant subsidies to “defense” corporations – this while 16.4 million U.S. children, nearly a quarter (22.6%) of all U.S. children (including 38 percent of black children) are living below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.
- The war to abolish privacy and other basic civil liberties and decencies being waged by the National Security State in alliance with your local police and giant transnational corporations like Facebook, Verizon and Google.
- The ever-escalating destruction of livable ecology, moving now into full crisis, at the hands of rapacious growth- and carbon-addicted capitalism.
Certainly nobody who spends a lot of time in inherently “dysfunctional” worrying about such unpleasant things as these would ever be welcome among the properly adjusted super-happy people who brighten up the nation’s omnipresent telescreens in the name of Helping People Feel Good About Life and Themselves in the Greatest Nation on Earth – what the generally smiling former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) once described (in a speech given in support of giving George W. Bush free reign to invade Iraq if he wanted to) as “the beacon to the world of how life should be.” Among other things, including the transmission of state-capitalist neoliberal ideology and propaganda (in “entertainment” production no less than in news and commentary), American television is all about escape and “amusing ourselves to death” (Neil Postman). It’s about infantilized dissociation from the continual and accelerating crimes perpetrated by the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, race, patriarchy, and eco-cide. It’s about “taking the risk out of democracy” (Alex Carey) by (among other things) de-legitimizing what ought to be understood as thoroughly legitimate popular anger over the corporate destruction of democracy, justice, and life on Earth. If you’re angry or sad or (worse) active and organizing in relation to that destruction (or some key aspect of it), then there must be something wrong with you. Look at how happy those People on Television are and turn that frown upside down! Your rage and/or sadness is definitely “what not to wear.”
Things got very different, thankfully, when I turned off the television, cleaned up the apartment, and trudged for my overdue trip home through the snowstorm’s melting remnants to the bus station on the edge of the city’s downtown. Nobody among the predominantly black and Latino crowd there seemed all that particularly happy. Up on two large telescreens blaring loudly above the Greyhound, Trailways, and Indian Trails passengers below, the nation’s first technically black president was holding court. Barack Obama was cracking wise, feeling good about himself and some new federal fuel efficiency standards on CNN. He was in a good mood, flashing his big million dollar smile.
Clearing slush from the bottom of my suitcase, I was the only person in the station who gave the Grinner in Chief so much as a glance. That’s no surprise. The deeply corporatist and ironically/objectively white-supremacist Obama has worn out his once enthusiastic welcome among many of the millions of poor folks of color who voted for him in record numbers. What, really, has Obama’s election meant for them? Very little beyond a brief symbolic rush (a black family in the White House) that has translated into no concrete real-life gains for America’s most truly disadvantaged and oppressed.
Whatever, the people at the bus station had other things to worry about, none especially pleasant, besides Obama’s cheerful speechifying. They were concerned about getting their luggage tagged before their boarding line closed; finding enough coins to make a pay-phone call to the uncle who said he’d pick them up; keeping their kids in once place and their luggage safe from the menacing-looking guys lurking in the corner, etc. They looked tense, irritated, sad, angry, worried, and in some cases shell-shocked. For smiles and cheer, you had to look at the two looming telescreens, showing the president, the CNN anchors, and other happy and attractive People on Television selling, well, antidepressants. Down below, people were being real in a dirty, messy, and slightly prison-like bus terminal soaked in the undeniable stigma of poverty. They knew exactly where they were, without illusion.
Good for them, I thought. Don’t get me wrong. I romanticize neither poverty nor despair. At the same time, I know that contemporary corporate capitalist evil draws no small strength from its relentless quest to exploit our universal desire to escape our present reality – to take us away from our actual experience before we can properly process that experience well enough to understand and resist the endless wickedness imposed from above. For that reason alone, after two days of commercial television overdose, I found the mostly black and brown people’s gloom beneath the beaming face of America’s first half-white president to be a great breath of fresh air.
Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, IA.