Global Village Idiots (February 11, 1998)

I’m finally, and fully, tele-connected. My satellite TV gives me access to over 100 channels of programming, and my computer is now part of the worldwide web. With one machine or the other, I can click on about any factoid I want. It’s like having the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and a catalog of all the world’s fine arts at my fingertips.

Yet… It doesn’t surprise me that the fastest growing components of the internet are book making and pornography. Or that, with few exceptions, all of the channels on my TV bombard me with endless, coordinated strains of telebites elaborately designed to separate me from my money. A monkey in a tuxedo is, after all, still a monkey.

My TV has a whole slew of channels that make their money marketing nostalgia. Do you want to watch old episodes of I Love Lucy? Gunsmoke? The Lone Ranger? No problem except for the commercials. Back when these shows were big, 30-minute network serials were 27 minutes long. But the reruns are only about 20 minutes long. Which means so much has been cut out of the originals to make room for commercials that watching them makes you feel a little crazy. Like, how did Ben and Hoss Cartwright get, in the flick of a camera, from ponderosa pines to the dried up water hole in the desert? How did our heroes get so thirsty so quick?

One nice thing about revisiting the golden oldies is the lack of laugh tracks. In the early days of TV, sitcoms were broadcast live in front of studio audiences. One problem with this was that sometimes the audiences didn’t laugh as much, or as loudly, as the producers wanted. So they tried “cueing” the audience with signs. At appropriate times, a production assistant would hold up signs saying “Laughter,” or “Applause,” or “Silence” and the audience was expected to comply.

There remained a problem, though. There always seemed to be somebody in the audience who laughed louder, or more frequently, than everybody else. Maybe he or she cackled, or snorted, or flat-out became hysterical. Funny thing is, such characters made the folks watching at home laugh more too. Which seemed to be the purpose of producing a sitcom. Nevertheless the producers didn’t like it. Their attitude being: “Who wants commentary from the peanut gallery?”

So it was that “canned laughter” came to be. In the beginning, there was still room in the can for the occasional eccentric. If you listened carefully, you could still identify individual laughers. But nowadays the canned laughter is so homogenized it’s tasteless.

Not so with the soundtracks of football games. During these violent spectacles, you’ll hear no cursing, no primal grunts, no snapping bones or shrieks of agony. You’ll hear only — squeezed between 60 commercials — the learned commentary of talking heads and the partisan cheers of the crowd.

Since the networks can package raw, gladiatorial combat as ballet, it’s no surprise that they can reduce political analysis to senselessness. If the subject is trivial — the OJ trial, the death of Diana, the Emmys — then their coverage includes everything you ever imagined you might want to know about it. And then some. But if the subject is important — how your tax dollars are stolen from you, how the banks and corporations are fleecing you — then the commentary is as scarce as news out of Kamchatka. 

The entire format of TV news is fraudulent. “Local” news, on all channels in all locales throughout the country, always begins with a street crime, or a car crash, or a burning building. Cut to commercials. Back to the bleeding heads, then tease: “Gilroy boy born with two heads. Stay tuned for details.” More commercials, more teases: “Did Stanford win today? Will it rain on your morning commute? These and other stories just ahead.” More commercials, another flooded trailer park, another tidbit on some (any) celebrity.

They always save the best for last. If you want the latest in sports and weather, you must stay tuned. Stay tuned while some millionaire haircut, in a 30-second soundbite, feels your pain, or senses your discomfort with regards to this issue or that. The haircut earnestly replays a few sentences of “background,” then offers a sentence or two of vacuous observation, then qualifies it. Then, after a string of commercials, with an arched eyebrow, he qualifies his qualifications.

Then there is the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, the History Channel and other “education” channels. Watching one of these is the best way to find out about the Psychic Hot Line (for a modest fee, your future will be foretold). Are you interested in the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman? Did you ever wonder if the ancient Incas had been visited by flying saucers? Is there really a mummy’s curse? Did the Titanic, as some have claimed, really come to rest upon the lost continent of Atlantis? Did Noah’s ark beach itself on Mt. Ararat? Does the Pentagon have the bodies of aliens on ice? Or did they incinerate them?

The sillier the superstition — astrology, numerology, biblical prophecy, Qui-ya — the more likely you are to find a documentary on it on “educational” TV. And if your interests run to “history,” then, at any given time you should be able to find a broadcast of a celebrity biography or “authentic” war footage presented in some kind of documentary format. 

Watching “history” on “educational” TV, you would think the great bulk of it was made by corporate tycoons, victorious generals, imperial politicians and movie stars. On TV, the only aspect of history that is consistently — incessantly — presented is war. And in virtually all of the “war programming” you will find that most putrid of all popular superstitions: the idea that there is glory in war. The “sensitivity” with which TV documentaries present their lurid images of mangled, decaying corpses is belied by their universal reverence for the murderous activities of soldiers. American soldiers, German soldiers, Confederate soldiers, Russian soldiers — no matter. They are all presented as self-sacrificing heroes in TV documentaries. While the civilians, who have done nearly all of the dying in the wars since the end of WW1, are bit players in their own mass slaughter.

Given the quality of the programming, is it any wonder then that the funniest things on TV are the results of public opinion polls? It’s hard to believe the network personalities who deliver the results with such gravity can keep from falling over laughing. Items something like: “82% of Americans believe in God.” And: “71% of Americans believe that money is the most important thing in life.” Or: “76% believe they are going to Heaven” and “92% of those under 40 want to live to be 100.” “73% believe they have a personal, guardian angel” and “88% are afraid to go ‘outside at night’.”

You would think, at least once, that the majority of respondents to a poll question would answer: “I don’t know.” After all, nearly always it is the only honest response. Yet people feel obligated to “give” an answer, in effect reversing the dictum that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it. As it is, if you set the results of American public opinion polls side by side, what you see is a frightened crybaby who wants more of everything (except crime and taxes).

Lately, with rumors of imminent American air strikes, on the news we have seen crowds of Iraqi civilians bouncing up and down in patriotic fervor. Some of them offer up their babies as sacrificial lambs to Saddam Hussein, their Great Leader, placing their babies where they think we Americans might bomb. The scenes are embarrassing. How can you collect so many morons in one place? Simultaneously, among Americans, with regards to Clinton’s troubles, we see the rally ‘round the wanger effect. The more the President lies to us, the more he makes fools of us, the more we like Him. The more we feel His pain.

My feet firmly planted in the Information Revolution, I wonder what it is good for? What good is a “supermarket of ideas” if the sole purpose is to market wants and ideas? So the internet is full of commercials? What else is new? Like everything else within the corporate domain, the internet becomes just another gadget used to separate us from our money. Look around our houses. If accumulating gadgets and other stuff was the way out, then we wouldn’t be so lost. For what ails us, there are no technological fixes. I believe it is better to know where you’re going and not know how to get there, than it is to know how to get there but not know where you’re going. In other words, the worst thing is aimlessness. To build a consumer economy simply to build a consumer economy is empty. Maybe Hell consists of a whole nation obsessed with producing, distributing, marketing and consuming more gadgets, more knickknacks, more dead floor space, more food washed down the garbage disposal, more horsepower, more payload, more “conveniences,” more creature comforts and more luxuries. The consumer economy is like a perpetual motion machine. Even if you could sustain it, why bother?

During the latter part of the 19th century it was commonly believed that the tremendous growth in productivity unleashed by the industrial revolution would result, at least by now, in the liberation of humanity from lives of poverty and drudgery. Back then, it seemed the only logical goal (“capitalism with a human face,” you might call it). Little did they know that so much economic activity — so much productivity — could be, through the miracle of marketing, flushed down a toilet. They foresaw the evolution of a homo economicus. That is, an idealized “common man” who rationally pursued his own best interests. With the spread of education to “the masses,” the people of the future would know the value of a buck. They wouldn’t buy anything unless it paid itself off in use. They would scrupulously avoid acquiring debt of any kind, and they would save for their futures (and the futures of their children). As a result of these simple virtues, the free market would produce only what was useful, the banks wouldn’t own a cut of everybody’s paycheck and each generation would move closer to liberation. Once “the material prerequisites of happiness” had been secured by the common people, they, being of rational mind, would then devote themselves to family and community, to recreation and the arts, to furthering their individual educations and tending to the business of the Republic. Such an enlightened citizenry, they believed, would never again fall victim to what Thomas Carlyle called “the tyranny of the moneybag.”

While it is obvious that we have not become who they believed we would, at least they were aimed in the right direction.

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