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Television: the cyclops that eats books.

WHAT IS DESTROYING America today is not the liberal breed of one-world politicians, International Monetary Fund bankers, misguided educational elite, or World Council of Churches. These largely are symptoms of a greater disorder. If there is any single institution to blame, it is television.

TV is more than a medium; it has become a full-fledged institution, backed by billions of dollars each season. Its producers want us to perch in front of a glazed-over electronic screen, pressing our clutch of discernment through the floorboards, and sitting in a spangled, zoned-out state ("couch potatoes," in current parlance) while we are instructed in the proper liberal tone and attitude by Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. These television celebrities have more temporal power than the teachings of Aristotle and Plato have built up over the centuries.

Television, in fact, has greater power over the lives of most Americans than any educational system, government, or church. Children particularly are susceptible. They are mesmerized, hypnotized, and tranquilized by TV. It often is the center of their world. Even when the set is turned off, they continue to tell stories about what they've seen on it. No wonder that, as adults, they are not prepared for the front line of life. They simply have no mental defenses to confront the reality of the world.

One of the most disturbing truths about TV is that it eats books. Once out of school, nearly 60% of all adult Americans never read a single book, and most of the rest read only one book a year. Alvin Kernan, author of The Death of Literature, maintains that reading books "is ceasing to be the primary way of knowing something in our society." He also points out that bachelor's degrees in English literature have declined by 33% in the last 20 years and that, in many universities, the courses largely are reduced to remedial reading. American libraries, he adds, are in crisis, with few patrons to support them.

Thousands of teachers at the elementary, secondary, and college levels can testify that their students' writing exhibits a tendency toward a superficiality that wasn't seen, say, 10 or 15 years ago. It shows up not only in their lack of analytical skills, but in poor command of grammar and rhetoric. I've been asked by a graduate student what a semicolon is. The mechanics of the English language have been tortured to pieces by TV. Visual, moving images--which are the venue of television--can't be held in the net of careful language. They want to break out. They really have nothing to do with language. So language, grammar, and rhetoric have become fractured.

Recent surveys by dozens of organizations also suggest that up to 40% of the American public is functionally illiterate. That is, our citizens' reading and writing abilities, if they have any, are impaired so seriously as to render them, in that handy jargon of our times, dysfunctional. The problem isn't just in our schools or the way reading is taught-TV teaches people not to read. It renders them incapable of engaging in an activity that now is perceived as strenuous, because it is not a passive hypnotized state.

Passive as it is, television has invaded our culture so completely that the medium's effects are evident in every quarter, even the literary world. It shows up in supermarket paperbacks, from Stephen King (who has a certain clever skill) to pulp fiction. These really are forms of verbal TV-literature that is so superficial that those who read it can revel in the same sensations they experience when watching television.

Even more importantly, the growing influence of television, Kernan says, has changed peoples habits and values and affected their assumptions about the world. The sort of reflective, critical, and value-laden thinking encouraged by books has been rendered obsolete. In this context, we would do well to recall the Cyclops--the race of giants that, according to Greek myth, predated man.

Here is a passage from classicist Edith Hamilton's summary of the encounter between the mythic adventurer Odysseus and the Cyclops Polyphemus. On his way home from the Trojan Wars, Odysseus and his crew have found Polyphemus' cave:

"At last he came, hideous and huge, tall as a great mountain crag. Driving his flock before him he entered and closed the caves mouth with a ponderous slab of stone. Then looking around he caught sight of the strangers, and cried out in a dreadful booming voice, |Who are you who enter unbidden the house of Polyphemus? Traders or thieving pirates?' They were terror-stricken at the sight and sound of him, and Odysseus made shift to answer, and firmly too: |Shipwrecked warriors from Troy are we, and your supplicants, under the protection of Zeus, the supplicants' god.' But Polyphemus roared out that he cared not for Zeus. He was bigger than any god and feared none of them. With that, he stretched out his mighty arms and in each great hand seized one of the men and dashed his brains out on the ground. Slowly he feasted off them to the last shred, and then, satisfied, stretched himself out across the cavern and slept. He was safe from attack. None but he could roll back the huge stone before the door, and if the horrified men had been able to summon courage and strength enough to kill him they would have been imprisoned there forever."

To discover their fate, read the book, preferably Robert Fitzgerald's masterful translation. What I find particularly appropriate about this myth as it applies today is that, first, the Cyclops imprisons these men in darkness, and second, he beats their brains out before he devours them. It doesn't take much imagination to apply this to the effects of TV on us and our children.

Quite literally, TV affects the way people think. In Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander quotes from the Emery Report, prepared by the Center for Continuing Education at the Australian National University, Canberra, that, when we watch television, "our usual processes of thinking and discernment are semi-functional at best." The study also argues that, "while television appears to have the potential to provide useful information to viewers--and is celebrated for its educational function--the technology of television and the inherent nature of the viewing experience actually inhibit learning as we usually think of it." Moreover, "The evidence is that television not only destroys the capacity of the viewer to attend, it also, by taking over a complex of direct and indirect neural pathways, decreases vigilance --the general state of arousal which prepares the organism for action should its attention be drawn to a specific stimulus."

How are our neural pathways taken over? We think we are looking at a picture or an image of something, but what we actually are seeing is thousands of dots of light blinking on and off in a strobe effect that is calculated to happen rapidly enough to keep us from recognizing the phenomenon. More than a decade ago, Mander and others pointed to instances of "TV epilepsy," whereby those watching this strobe effect overextended their capacities. The New England Journal of Medicine recently honored this affliction with a medical classification--video game epilepsy.

Shadows on the screen

Television also teaches that people aren't quite real. They are images-gray-and-white shadows or technicolor little beings who move in a medium no thicker than a sliver of glass, created by this bombardment of electrons.

The tendency is to start regarding them in the way children think when they see too many cartoons--that people merely are objects that can be zapped, or that can fall over a cliff and be smashed to smithereens, then pick themselves up again. This contentless violence of cartoons has no basis in reality. Actual people aren't images, but substantial, physical, corporeal beings with souls.

In addition, the violence on television engenders violence. There have been too many studies substantiating this to suggest otherwise. One that has been going on for 30 years, by psychologist Leonard Eron, began research on 875 eight-year-olds in New York State. Analyzing parental child-rearing practices and kids' aggressiveness in school, he discovered that the determining factor is the amount of TV parents permit their children to watch.

Eron's current partner in this extensive ongoing study, University of Illinois professor of psychology Rowell Huesmann, has written: "When the research was started in 1960, television viewing was not a major focus. But in 1970, in the 10-year follow-up, one of the best predictions we could find of aggressive behavior in a teenage boy was how much violence he watched as a child. In 1981, we found that the adults who had been convicted of the most serious crimes were those same ones who had been the more aggressive teenagers, and who had watched the most television violence as children."

This report is buried in an alumni publication of the University of Illinois. In 1982, the National Institute of Mental Health published its own study: "Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the '80s." It stated that there is overwhelming evidence that violence on TV lends to aggressive behavior in children and teenagers. Those findings duly were reported by most of the major media in the early 1980s and then forgotten.

Why do such reports sink into oblivion? --because the American audience does not want to face the reality of TV. They are too consumed by their love for it.

Television eats books. It eats academic skills. It eats positive character traits. It even eats family relationships. How many families spend the dinner hour in front of the TV, seldom communicating with one another? How many have a television set on while they eat breakfast or prepare for work or school?

What about school? I've heard college professors say of their students, "Well, you have to entertain them." One I know recommends using TV and film clips instead of lecturing, "throwing in a commercial every 10 minutes or so to keep them awake." This is not only a patronizing attitude, it is an abdication of responsibility. A teacher should teach. However, TV eats the principles of people who are supposed to be responsible, transforming them into passive servants of the Cyclops.

Television eats out our substance. Mander calls this the mediation of experience. "[With TV] what we see, hear, touch, smell, feel and understand about the world has been processed for us." When we "cannot distinguish with certainty the natural from the interpreted, or the artificial from the organic, then all theories of the ideal organization of life become equal."

In other words, TV teaches that all lifestyles and values are equal, and that there is no clearly defined right and wrong. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, one of the best recent books on the tyranny of television, Neil Postman wonders why nobody has pointed out that television possibly oversteps the injunction in the Decalogue against making graven images.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the traditional standards and mores of society came under heavy assault. Indeed, they were blown apart, largely with the help of television, which just was coming into its own. There was an air of unreality about many details of daily life. Even important moral questions suffered distortion when they were reduced to TV images. During the Vietnam conflict, there was much graphic violence--soldiers and civilians actually dying--on screen. One scene that shocked the nation was an execution in which the victim was shot in the head with a pistol on prime-time TV. People "tuned in" to the war every night, and their opinions largely were formed by what they viewed, as if the highly complex and controversial issues about the causes, conduct, and resolution of the conflict could be summed up in these superficial broadcasts.

The same phenomena was seen again in the Gulf War. With stirring background music and sophisticated computer graphics, each network's banner script read across the screen, "War in the Gulf," as if it were just another TV program. War isn't a program --it is a dirty, bloody mess. People are killed daily. Yet, television all but teaches that this carnage merely is another diversion, a form of blockbuster entertaimnent--the big show with all the international stars present.

In the last years of his life, Malcolm Muggeridge, a pragmatic and caustic TV personality and print journalist, warned: "From the first moment I was in the studio, I felt that it was far from being a good thing. I felt that television [would] ultimately be inimical to what I most appreciate, which is the expression of truth, expressing your reactions to life in words. I think you'll live to see the time when literature will be quite a rarity because, more and more, the presentation of images is preoccupying."

He concluded: "I don't think people are going to be preoccupied with ideas. I think they are going to live in a fantasy world where you don't need any ideas. The one thing that television can't do is express ideas.... There is a danger in translating life into an image, and that is what television is doing ... [thus] falsifying life. Far from the camera's being an accurate recorder of what is going on, it is the exact opposite. It cannot convey reality nor does it even want to."
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Author:Woiwode, Larry
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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