Managing Us

We're So Easy

The crucial truths of the current age may be these: First, people will watch any television rather than no television. Second, sooner or later they will begin to imitate what they see on the screen. Third, while you can't fool all of the people all of the time, you can fool enough of them enough of the time, especially if you are a lot smarter than they are, and do it patiently, calculatedly, over time, like water eroding stone. And that is all it takes. Finally, television is scalable: Swathing the earth in Baywatch is not much harder than covering a state.

It is easy to miss what is happening. Criticisms of the vast wasteland are hardly new. Denunciations of televised fare have become commonplace, conventional, have sunk into clichedom and ceased to be noticed. The gibbering box dulls the mind. You get used to it. You forget what it is doing, and how well it does it. Until you are away from it for a while.

Maybe two years ago, I got rid of cable, reasoning that while the world might be full of idiots, I wasn't going to pay $40 a month to look at them. Recently I resubscribed because I wanted the Spanish channels. The experience was startling – though nothing had changed. I had just forgotten how appallingly propagandistic it was, how didactic, how gnawingly relentless in inculcating its messages.

The genius of television is that, to shape a people as you want, you don't need unrestrained governmental authority, nor do you need to tell people what you want of them. Indeed, if you told them what to do, they would be likely to refuse.

No. You merely have to show them, over and over, day after day, the behavior you wish to instill. Show them enough mothers of illegitimate children heartwarmingly portrayed. Endlessly broadcast storylines suggesting that excellence is elitist. Constantly air ghetto values and moiling back-alley mobs grunting and thrusting their faces at the camera – and slowly, unconsciously, people will come to accept and then to imitate them. Patience is everything. Mold the young and in thirty years you will have molded the society. Don't tell them anything. Just show them.

And television is magic: People can't not watch. No matter how bad the fare is, how much it offends against their most deeply held values, they will stare at it rather than be alone with their thoughts. Some of them will say, those who know they ought to know better, "There are some good things on TV. I like the History Channel." Yet they watch, and not just the History Channel. They cannot read a book instead. In saying this I am not striking a literary pose or making a conservative argument for high culture. I'm stating what I believe to be a psychological fact: People will watch a screen.

The packaged urgings flow from here, from America. Television is profoundly American, yet respects no borders. Movies and TV from the United States permeate much of the world. The less civilized parts of the planet particularly depend on dubbed or translated programming from America, because they cannot produce their own. With satellite feeds, supplying these countries is easy. The message is remarkably homogeneous. How surprising.

Last summer I was in Manzanillo, Mexico, and sometimes saw CNN in Spanish. The silent voice-over was exactly that of the big American networks: The same instruction on race, feminism, homosexuality, the same subtle disdain for religion, the same attack on traditional morality and on independence from the hive.. There was, for example, a favorable segment on a Mexican movie depicting druggery and casual sex among the young of Mexico City. The reviewer argued that the film was realistic and merely showing the world as it was. He pointed out that sex is natural. (So it is. So is tuberculosis.) The implication was that discouraging spontaneous coupling in adolescents was not properly progressive, and in any event would represent an intolerable rein on artistic expression.

The effect of the movie was of course to foster early sex and druggery. Exactly the American message.

To me, however, the arresting observation was how much of it was in opposition to Mexican culture. Whether for better or worse, television is grinding away at a whole society, imperceptibly turning it into a near-copy of ours. Few call this imperialism. It is, with a vengeance.

CNN is not alone. The Spanish channels in the United States inculcate exactly the same view of the world. There is for example Christina,a talk show out of Miami that deals in soft porn and therapy. Same message: the heroism of single moms, the moral duty to tolerate anything at all, that idea that the degraded is of the people and therefore praiseworthy.

Cristina is syndicated through much of South America. All it takes is a satellite and the entire Latin world can be bathed in American values – or at any rate in the values of American television. Scalability. It's what made the Internet great.

I do not say, note, that the ongoing catechism is always objectionable, but simply that its pervasiveness will over time determine culture. I have no desire to persecute homosexuals, to keep women in chadors or out of school. I'm not sure what racial policy should be, so I'm not sure that I disagree with the compulsory sermon. What bothers me is that we can't escape, that the same instruction whispers and babbles from sets in bars in Casper and Guadalajara and Nairobi.

Some believe that the drone of right thinking springs from a conspiracy, from some cabal at the top of the journalistic pyramid. I don't know. Through some inadvertence I am not invited to meetings of the boards of the networks. But I find the same values in desk editors and lowly reporters all through those parts of the media that I know. The old admonition against suspecting a conspiracy when stupidity, or insularity, is an adequate explanation may apply here. But it doesn't matter. Whether through plot or simple lemmingry, we have what we have.

The consequence is a ferocious centralization. Washington, New York, and Hollywood in large part determine what the world may see, what we may know and may not know and how it will be explained to us. The effect can be overstated, but so can it be overlooked.

And while television makes it easy for New York to talk to the world, the world has no corresponding way to talk to the networks, which wouldn't listen anyway. Nor do people have effective means of talking to each other, except in small groups.

They have us, and we will do what they say.