Don't toss that television!

By Erik Jay
web posted June 5, 2000

The common-sense observation that the tool is not responsible for the carpenter's poor use of it has been enlisted to great effect in the gun-control debate. Although the bumper sticker reductionism of "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" is at once trite and true, the notion that people are indeed responsible for their actions, as well as the actions of the hammers and electric drills and handguns and fuel-injected SUV's under their control, is close to the status of Holy Writ for conservatives and libertarians. What's to argue?

On the other hand, this clear and straightforwardly simple thinking eludes a surprisingly large number of otherwise dependable freedom-and-responsibility boosters when it comes to mass media. All of a sudden you start hearing the sort of all-encompassing generalizations and one-size-fits-all thinking that typifies the average Hillary Clinton supporter's anti-gun views. Recently, from a pulpit, I heard that television sets and CD's and other "offending contraptions" should be tossed in the garbage; perhaps recycling them into toasters or space heaters would be acceptable, but they should most assuredly not be sold at a garage sale. "You can protect your family from [the TV poison] without selling it to someone else, bargain price or otherwise," and apparently you won't be missing a thing. In the abolitionist view, "there is no downside" to ridding your home of the electronic multimedia funnels that pipe in the sick and savage products of a perverse, anti-Christian entertainment industry.

Somehow this sounds more like a "Guns don't kill people, bullets kill people" argument than the original, human-action-centered syllogism. We don't like what others are building with them, so out go the hammers and screwdrivers and belt sanders. Hold up a second!

I have encountered over the last several years a growing number of concerned parents who have opted to dump the TV set. (Because one cannot escape it -- music is heard in the car and at the mall and in school -- we'll leave the critique of pop tunes for another time and focus on television, the conduit most central to modern media-drenched homes and the easiest one to turn off completely.) The decision has been made by these well-meaning Moms and dedicated Dads that American TV fare in the first year of the 2000s is unalloyed crud. It's a wasteland out (in) there.

Or is it? Certainly the most popular sitcoms and nighttime soaps are puerile and perverted pap, if not outright propaganda from the unreconstructed Stalinists of Hollywood-on-the-Volga. But right there, sandwiched in the metastasizing channel listings between "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the latest Marilyn Manson video tribute to the sensual joys of demonic oppression, is a fabulous documentary on the Lewis and Clark expedition. And over here, on the next page -- floating above the blurb for Agent Mulder versus the bloodsucking family iguana, the interview with Madonna's favorite sperm donor of the moment, and the synopsis of Ted Turner's latest TV-movie on the fascist cannibals of the Catholic Church -- is an invitation to watch "Jesus of Nazareth" and "Moses, the Lawgiver" back-to-back later in the week.

One father told me that he just didn't have time to monitor his 12-year-old son's viewing habits. What occurred to me, of course, is that he might as well have said that he just never had time to raise his son, to instill values in him, to teach him how to monitor himself. So the easy answer for this dad was to dump the TV altogether, a classic example of tossing the baby out with the bath water. This young man will now be spared "Beverly Hills 90210" even as he misses the opportunity to see a documentary on astronaut training. Certainly, as I put it to the father, there is a way to avoid the former and take advantage of the latter, isn't there?

"Too much work," says Pop-2K. "It's easier just to get rid of it, all of it."

Yikes.

With hundreds of channels, there truly is something for everyone in the information-age cafeteria of "custom" TV, with the seemingly limitless choices of cable and satellite receivers now complemented by a bevy of new technologies for recording, delaying, replaying, taping, splicing, slicing, and dicing those propagated pixels (or 0's and 1's if you've gone digital).

With the capabilities come a torrent of content; in my area (the foothills northeast of Los Angeles) the cable company gives me ultra-high-speed Internet access and a TV package comprising all the basic channels, all the "premium" channels, two Showtime movie channels, two HBO, two Cinemax, and a couple of others, all for about $80 a month. I expect to be paying only two-thirds or half that much within a year or so, and probably for 50 per cent faster net speeds and a half dozen more movie channels.

Still, I don't watch a whole lot of TV, and I never just plop down in front of it and scan channels. I get a Sunday paper primarily for the TV listings, and if something I want to watch is on this week, I can make time to watch it (rare) or set the VCR to tape it (common). My wife will unwind with the cooking shows (God bless Emeril Lagasse -- bam!) and we will get together to watch Jack Hayford or Charles Stanley or D. James Kennedy or Bishop Charles Blake preach; to hear Bill Buckley (alas, no longer) and Steve Dunleavy and Brit Hume pontificate; to see Al Gore and Bill Clinton and their spin squadrons twirl and thrust and parry and obfuscate; and occasionally to deduce along with Jeremy Brett just who did the dirty deed that Sherlock Holmes is investigating this time. These are not wasteland experiences, I assure you.

It is far to facile simply to relegate an entire technology to unimportance in one's life, and dangerous, too; you will miss a lot of what is happening around you. If you have children, you might be able to limit the damage done to your kids via TV programming, but you will also limit enriching experiences. They will see Buffy and Shannon Doherty's latest snotty Gen-X character anyway, whether at friends' homes or the mall or even school; but they won't see it with your play-by-play commentary, followed by a channel switch to the acceptable alternative you have investigated and provided.

Yes, TV is a non-stop, pervasive influence in our society. But a TV is just another tool; to rid your home of it may be a powerful statement, but in the end it is a self-defeating one. The challenge -- for parents particularly, but for the rest of us, too, who desire edification and intellectual stimulation, as well as occasional escapist fare (and that's okay too!) -- is to control this massively powerful technology.

It is true that a tool can be quickly transformed into a weapon; some things, like axes, are arguably both to begin with. It might help to view TV in this light. Ultimately, it is up to each one of us, acting for ourselves as well as for our children, to use our home's trusty axe to chop the wood that warms the hearth that heats the house and lights the room so we can, in safety and comfort, read a story and see the accompanying illustrations. An intruder, one who may even wish us harm, is always watching for us to let our guard down, so he can break in and grab that axe and use it against us.

Now just whose fault is it if we let that happen?

Erik Jay is editor of "What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage" which you can subscribe to by visiting http://erikjay.com.

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