Being away from a hometown for a long time or not seeing a friend for many years is an interesting experience. When you return or see the friend again, you see the changes immediately. Whereas if you live in the same place during those same years or see the friend on a regular basis, usually the changes are less noticeable, or maybe not noticed at all.
I have returned to the city I grew up in after many years and the changes are considerable, but consider just a small detail. This city is in a tropical part of the country and sun, hot, blazing sun is what I remember strongly from the past. Now, it is still hot, but there are massive amounts of shade that did not exist before. Small trees, or where there were no trees at all, have been replaced with huge oak trees and other species all over the place. Streets that were once sun-drenched infernos, where waiting on a bus meant heavy perspiring and squinting eyes, now have cooler refuges in the shade. Neighborhoods that were populated with little-shade-producing palm trees and citrus trees have been replaced with tall sycamores, magnolias, pines, and more oaks. The difference is amazing.
The same, of course, happens with people. Long-time friends who were previously dark-haired, slim, and even athletic, are now white-haired, heavier, and look like my grandparents rather than my peers. These changes are all natural, the point is, the difference is amazing and immediately noticeable.
So, take this a step further. Having lived outside the United States for many years, I have now returned. The country has changed in many ways. The hometown now has many immigrants, especially from Latin America and Eastern Europe. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t converse in Spanish with someone, this never happened before. Yesterday, a repairman came to the house and he was from Albania. I never before met an Albanian in this town in my life. It was fascinating talking to him and listening to his observations of the city, the country, the society. He is a plumber, but he is also, whether he realizes it or not, a good psychologist, sociologist, and cultural anthropologist as he spoke. This kind of encounter and conversation happens all the time now. I enjoy talking to people and listening to their observations. I was as an undergraduate a Latin American specialist, and my university classes never contained the kind of insights and information that I now find in everyday life from immigrants.
I, too, am one of those observers of my own country and culture. I now have a different context for seeing, hearing, comparing, and learning. I have lived for long periods of time in two other countries where I was a teacher, but most importantly, a learner.
There are four themes that arise repeatedly, every day, and simply for a brief discussion let’s consider what is broadcast on television since people in the U.S. spend from four to 6 hours a day in front of the tube, and this includes television and computer screens that are becoming like television with broadcasts.
There are four themes that insist and insinuate themselves into our lives. They are: sex, food, violence, and fear. While these themes have always been on television, often in far more subtle and restrained ways, much has changed in my absence. And while each has a natural and, perhaps we can say, essential role in our lives, they can be and are being used to influence us as never before.
Even newscasters, once considered as serious presenters of information, now exude sensuality, and this is true for men as well as women. Men often dress on local news and conversation programs as if they were going to a casual party. Young, viral, pretty, with an extra button undone, and yes, I am referring to the men. Laughing, flirting, charming. The woman, breasts often partially exposed, tight-fitting ensembles, very short skirts. Ask me what they said a moment later, and I probably will not remember, but the clothing, yes, and the figure, obvious. The message is hardly subtle, but I think as the viewer becomes accustomed to this, the message becomes familiar, of course, and powerfully subliminal. This is the standard, this is the norm, and since these physically beautiful people are the ones selected out of, surely, a large number of interviewees, they are hardly representative of the population at large. Regardless of what they might say or report, they are clearly eye candy and purveyors of sensuality.
Television does not just purvey sex, the food messages are overwhelming. Advertisements are filled with sweet, sugary desserts and high-calorie entrees from a multitude of chain restaurants and fast-food franchises. Usually I don’t even consider eating these things, but after a barrage of such commercials during a one-hour program, I find myself attracted to things I know are not helpful or healthy. Given the tremendous problem of overweight in the United States, this carefully produced and tempting advertising is hardly a public service. Even one portion of any advertised product usually contains enough calories to make anyone eventually obese unless he or she is training for a marathon.
Television always has had violence, whether it was central to series’ themes or the nightly news, car accidents, family disputes, shootings, etc. But television violence has become much more explicit in spite of the fact that scenes of real wars are so heavily restricted that we do not see much of the devastation, killing, and injuries in war zones. New television series are through special effects showing scenes of body mutilation that never existed before. All of this is sanitized, of course, we do not hear the real sounds of injury and death and we do not smell the blood, excrement, urine, and gunpowder that accompany guns and bombs, including the smoke and dust that are a constant in real war zones.
This is visual violence without its unavoidable and unforgettable accompaniments that penetrate our memories and do not leave in real life. Again, the subliminal effects of this massive sensory experience is not easily measured.
This is, perhaps, the most penetrating of all four of these themes. Fear operates in many ways, some quite obvious and others less immediately obvious but very real and very present. Fear can be implanted like a time bomb. For example, we go about our lives not giving a thought to high places, then we find ourselves needing to climb a ladder to read something on a roof or to paint a peak on the house, and suddenly our fear of heights is front and center. We go about our daily lives, tending to routine duties, but then in the middle of the night a strange sound wakens us to fears we did not know were so close to the surface.
There are countless images on television that implant fears, fears of people of different races, cultures, nationalities, colors. I have discovered that while statistics show that violent crime and assaults are generally down in the U.S., people are afraid nonetheless. We know that if violence and shootings happen, they usually take place between people that know one another, it is not “strangers” that threaten us the most.
Some of the most rational people that I have talked to accept the United States spending more on military “defense” than the rest of the world combined. We are afraid and we want to be protected, although what multi-million dollar aircraft, missiles, ships, and more than 800 military bases of all sizes all over the world are going to do to protect us is profoundly questionable.
There are other issues that I have seen after my long absence, but these four are at the top of the list and because we are subject to these, we become profoundly malleable. There is no doubt that in our wealthy, corporate-controlled and driven culture with an immense military role that permeates everything from university research to video games and toys to government budgets, there is no doubt that there are huge amounts of money being spent on psychological and marketing research to make use of these powerful inducements and stimulators. Even thinking of food alone, with all the advertising aimed at getting us to overeat and consume large amounts of non-nutritional calories, there is a mult-billion dollar industry for exercise, weight loss, and, again special food related to losing weight. It would be comical if it were not so tragic in terms of increasing problems with diabetes, high blood pressure, and other food-related infirmities. We will not talk about it now, but a fifth theme would be the vast amount of pharmaceutical advertising that is now done on television with chilling announcements of horrendous possible side effects from these medications.
How many of these problems, including those of depression, are not also related not to any unavoidable physical vulnerability but rather to lifestyle and cultural factors that changes in behavior and thinking could eliminate? But then again, there is the issue of marketing and multi-billion dollar industries that prosper from this kind of suffering.
I have been away for a long time and now that I am back in the United States I see a country that is different in many ways from the one I left in the late 1990’s. I think, I hope, that if one becomes aware of what has happened and is happening, that this can be an important, even crucial step in taking back one’s life and making it better. We are not powerless to make changes, but I see a people often largely convinced that the problems are too big, the way of life too overwhelming, to challenge and to change. Maybe this is the most important issue to face and we need to do it now, first in our own attitudes and secondly working together to find daily ways to reverse the trends.