January 10, 2005
Going indoors to exercise this winter, I recently rejoined my old health club and was dismayed to find the place taken over by giant, state-of-the-art TV screens. Future research will probably show some sort of neurological dysfunction results from running on a treadmill, increasing your heart rate and adrenaline levels, while watching images of "Fear Factor" participants writhing while being stuck with pins and vomiting from eating slugs.
Or movies rife with violence.
Or soap operas featuring labor pains, hostage situations, and severe emotional distress.
Or, worst of all, at my health club, all of the above at once!
Why is it that the Right is always going into the red zone on the moral outrage meter over decadent American culture, while the Left is blamed for this sort of rot? Clearly, it is the corporate media market that brings us this strange TV-land where we all share a collective least-common-denominator American existence.
If the Left had its way, we'd have a proliferation of PBS and NPR and public access channels filled with dreary, wholesome public interest fare.
Instead, we've got media conglomeration and infotainment that feeds frantic consumerism.
Since I usually work out in the daytime, I've noticed that most of what I see is directed at women (still the main purchasers of household items advertised during the soaps). A voyeuristic view of the suffering of women-whether Andrea Yates or Laci Peterson or the fear-factor pin-sticking victim or the soap opera stars-seems to be an obsession on every channel, whether the programming is news or fiction.
I'm sure there's already plenty of research showing why people gravitate to these gory spectacles. Maybe it makes the already powerless and screwed-over feel relatively better off. Maybe it just speaks directly to our inner reptile. But feeding whatever part of the human psyche craves this stuff cannot be healthy for us as individuals or as a culture.
Recently, in the wake of the endless Scott Peterson trial, a few reporters from television and print media, including the San Jose Mercury News, stepped forward to object to the mindless race to cover the gruesome blow-by-blow. It is the competitive marketplace mentality that drove a story that reporters themselves found irrelevant and a waste of time, they said.
Meanwhile, more important issues that people really ought to know about were going uncovered.
Maybe I'm naive. I grew up without a TV, and have spent most of my life not seeing much of it, despite a stint as a "liberal commentator" on Fox News.
And, of course, Fox is part of the problem. A steady diet of increasingly ugly, lowbrow entertainment programming combines with bullying rightwing punditry to bring down the level of discourse in the country and stamp out intelligent thought. The connection between rightwing politics and cultural sleaze is nowhere more evident than it is on Fox.
The Left ought to pick up on this idea, instead of letting the Right get away with professing shock at sex and violence on TV and movies, even while the worst tabloid offender is self-described conservative Rupert Murdoch, who brought us such wholesome family-values programming as "Who's Your Daddy?" and "The Simple Life" with Paris Hilton.
My friend Gary Ruskin runs an outfit called Commercial Alert, started by Ralph Nader, that works on this very front. Since I have two little children I have become increasingly interested in his work. How outrageous is it that companies market directly to toddlers, drawing on research that shows two-year-olds dream about animals?
Commercial Alert decries this sort of thing, as well as everything from pre-movie commercials in the theaters to the corporate takeover and renaming of municipal ballparks to Coke and McDonalds infiltrating the schools.
"Commercial Alert's mission is to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity, and democracy."
The group's website: http://www.commercialalert.org-states.
I like that use of the language of family values by a progressive group.
Some of Commercial Alert's allies also include conservative family-values folks. Phyllis Schlafly and James Dobson have joined the battle against Channel One in the schools, for example, on the grounds that parents, not corporations, should be teaching kids.
Without question there's a conflict between the right's conservative "family" focus and the deregulating, big-business-coddling, sell-out politics that are the Republican Party's bread and butter.
Perhaps there is a clue here for progressives who feel so alienated in our current political climate. Self-described conservatives who are not rich might realize their kinship with progressive politics if we make the connection, like Gary does, to a more humane and less money-driven culture.
Meanwhile, I think I'll try to take a break from those TVs and go for a run outside-maybe talk to some neighbors. It might be better for my health.