Bread and Circuses
The following essay was written c. 1996, near the end of my seven year "run" as a public school teacher. It was originally published on my legacy website, "Apokatastasis" - http://archibaldessays.homestead.com/BreadandCircuses.html
In addition to my work as a high school Spanish teacher, I also taught English-as-a-Second-Language at every K-12 grade level and at every school in my Orange County, North Carolina, School District.
Reviewing (but not revising) this essay, I am aware that much, if not most, of what I've written applies to all manner of "screen" pastimes.
Bread and Circuses
Advice on Television
by Roald Dahl, 1964
The most important thing we've learned
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER, let
Them near your television set ---
Or better still, just don't install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we've been,
We've watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone's place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they're hypnotized by it,
Until they're absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don't climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink ---
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK --- HE ONLY SEES!
"All right!" you'll cry. "All right!" you'll say,
"But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children! Please explain!"
We'll answer this by asking you,
"What used the darling ones to do?
How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?"
Have you forgotten? Don't you know?
We'll say it very loud and slow:
THEY....USED....TO....READ! They'd READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ, some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot....
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your T.V. set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the selves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks ---
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They'll now begin to feel the need
Of having something good to read.
And once they start --- oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts.
They'll grow so keen
They'll wonder what they'd ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.
I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision --we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television -- of that I am quite sure. E. B. White
"Without our television, we would not be a family." London schoolboy, age 10
"Think what we would have missed if we had.... never watched television, used a mobile phone or surfed the Net."
Queen Elizabeth II at a luncheon celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary to Prince Philip, on the virtues of modernity.
"Researchers have been trying for years to determine.... to what extent does (televised) violence, when depicted so vividly and on such a scale, induce violence in children? Although this question is not trivial, it diverts our attention from such important questions as, To what extent does the depiction of the world as it is undermine a child's belief in adult rationality, in the possibility of an ordered world, in a hopeful future? To what extent does it undermine the child's confidence in his or her future capacity to control the impulse to violence? Neil Postman
Our irrational contemporary Western impatience and our blind adulation of speed for speed's sake are wreaking havoc on the education of our children. We force them as if they were chicks in a pullet factory. We drive them into premature awareness of sex even before physical puberty has overtaken them. In fact we deprive our children of the human right of having a childhood. Arnold Toynbee
There is more to life than increasing its speed. Mahatma Gandhi
In living in the world by his own will and skill, the stupidest peasant or tribesman is more competent than the most intelligent worker or technician or intellectual in a society of specialists. Wendell Berry
Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good. Mahatma Gandhi
Choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil. Jerry Garcia
Many of the commonest assumptions, it seems to me, are arbitrary ones: that the new is better than the old, the untried superior to the tried, the complex more advantageous than the simple, the fast quicker than the slow, the big greater than the small, and the world as remodeled by Man the Architect functionally sounder and more agreeable than the world as it was before he changed everything to suit his vogues and conniptions. E. B. White
"It seems to me there are very dangerous ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition. I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized selfishness and systematic irresponsibility. If our affluent society ever breaks down and the façade is taken away, what are we going to have left?" Thomas Merton
W. H. Auden's great poem "September 1, 1939" has these lines: "Faces along the bar / cling to their average day: / the lights must never go out, / the music must always play." I was very moved by that when I read it in college, and I've thought in recent years how, with television, we've perfected the state of mind Auden describes: "the lights must never go out"! Now we can click the remote and numb ourselves perpetually....
A young writer I once interviewed said that he and his friends didn't get into drugs or alcohol while growing up. "Instead, we abused entertainment," he said. They rented lots of videos and played video games and kept the television on constantly. As a result, he had a hard time concentrating on anything for more than an hour. Dan Wakefield
"We gotta throw our televisions away. It's all trash.
It's like talking about how cocaine might have some vitamins." David Mamet
"The venerable tractor, already transformed from a bucking, gasping, dirt-clogged endurance test into an air-conditioned entertainment center on wheels, is due for another update. On-board computers, informed by field-specific databases...." "O Brave New Farm" Newsweek, November 24, 1997
"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture.
Just get people to stop reading them." Ray Bradbury
In a consumer society, there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy. Ivan Illich
There is a time for departure even when there's no certain place to go. Tennessee Williams
"There are two ways of lying, as there are two ways of deceiving customers. If the scale registers 15 ounces, you can say: 'It is a pound.' Your lie will remain relative to an invariable measure of the true. If customers check it, they can see that they are being robbed, and you know by how much you are robbing them: a truth remains as a judge between you
But if the demon induces you to tamper with the scale itself, it is the criterion of the true which is denatured so that there is no longer any possible control.
And little by little you will forget that you are cheating."
Denis de Rougement
"If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude. I suspect, for example, that the dishonor that now shrouds Richard Nixon results not from the fact that he lied, but that on television he looked like a liar. Which, if true, should bring no comfort to anyone, not even veteran Nixon-haters. For the alternative possibilities are that one may look like a liar but be telling the truth; or even worse, look like a truth-teller but in fact be lying."
Neil Postman on the 1981 firing of news anchor Christine Craft after "research indicated that her appearance 'hampered viewer acceptance.'" Excerpted from "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business" (Viking Penguin Inc., 1985)
"Anything that can't be disproven is true."
Campaign strategist and political advisor to Bill Clinton
"If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not meant, then what ought to be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and arts will deteriorate; if morals and arts deteriorate, justice will go astray; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in hopeless confusion.
Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said.
This matters above everything."
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Ballad of the White Horse, 1911
COMPULSORY GOVERNMENT SCHOOLING AS CUSTODIAL CARE
THE STATE IN LOCO PARENTIS
For 31 years my sister Janet has taught at Rochester, New York's least favored ghetto school. She has enjoyed extraordinary success, initially as a third grade teacher, and later as founding-teacher of a High Intensity Language Program serving immigrant Mexicans, Turks, Puerto Ricans, Cambodians and several East European ethnicities.
Janet has long observed that public instruction is essentially custodial care. However, since she also believes that Lincoln School #22 is the only dependable glimpse of "light" that many of her young charges will ever experience, she resists any polito-economic change that might affect the status quo. For example, Janet believes "vouchers" will scatter resources necessary for public instruction.
My own experience as a public school teacher coincides with Janet's. Despite middle-class wishful thinking to the contrary, public instruction distills to custodial care --- a dependable mechanism whereby both parents (or single parents) may join the workforce while surrogates raise their children.
Unlike Janet, however, I believe that the supposedly "benevolent" function of school-based custodial care is a sop which The State supplies to kind-hearted educators to insure Compulsory Government Schooling's more fundamental purpose, the perpetuation of The Official Story and the maintenance of traditional hierarchies. (Footnote 1)
While many public school graduates - even those in the nation's worst ghettoes - become self-sustaining workplace participants, Janet has the uncanny ability to predict (by grade 3) which of her students will "make the news" at one end - or another - of a smoking gun. (Footnote 2)
We have created a system of public instruction that boasts numerous micro-advances in an enveloping context of macro-disaster. This curious combination of heart-rending success and catastrophic failure mirrors the larger life of the body politic. (Footnote 3)
Recently, the New York Times (11/3/97) published a tabloid insert dedicated to education. In a review of instructional milestones over the last 100 years, it was mentioned that resistance to "school choice" arises from the fear that if public schools ever escape public orbit "they will not be accountable to 'The Public'."
Whether this alleged lack of accountability proves true in the event substantive "school choice" is ever tested, public schools are not now -- and probably never have been -- accountable to "The Public." The widespread assumption that public schools are democratic - in either form or function - is an accurate measure of our blinkered conditioning. (Footnote 4)
The rank failure of Public Schools to imbue the populace with "deep literacy" - indeed the failure of public schools to halt the erosion of "deep literacy" ever since compulsory government schooling began in the mid 1800s - contributes significantly to the chest-thumping jingoism that typifies American politics.
Lacking an astute citizenry that "can re-write books while reading them" (to borrow Paolo Freire's definition of literacy) our anemic political instincts are satisfied by the seductive ritual of biennial ballot-casting, an exercise which "involves" -- at most -- half the voting age population. Despite the populist glaze attached to putative suffrage, the chief function of these ballot box rituals is to validate the manipulative intent of plutocracy.
Since the universal quest for "GOOD JOBS" (or, better yet, white collar "CAREERS") has eclipsed all other public and private concerns, America's increasingly obsequious Public genuflects at any corporate altar promising the creation of "JOBS."
Compulsory government schooling has lulled The Public into such unwakeable stupor that few Americans perceive - and even fewer question - the relationship between the automazation of work and the downsizing of the workforce except, of course, in the burgeoning service sector with its insatiable appetite for menials. Only "oddballs" and Amish continue to create their own work in the world. (Footnote 5)
THE CONFLICT BETWEEN SYMBOLS AND IMAGES
Battle lines are clearly drawn. We will either focus on the printed word and spoken discourse - means of communication which require thoughtful symbol management - or, we will surrender to media-crafted imagery that elicits visceral responses antithetical to deliberation.
I have learned the futility of trying to persuade "true believers" on the "left" or "right" -- the two wings of The Capitalist Party -- that public instruction contributes to surging rates of social and personal pathology even though the United States imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any society in history, including the Soviet Union at the height of the Gulag. Increasingly, first-time felons perceive prison as a sort of "graduate school" sequel to K-12 Public Instruction. In 1990, while teaching at C.W. Stanford Middle School in Hillsborough, North Carolina, a forlorn youngster confessed his growing fear that "there won't be room in prison for me when I get out of school."
Although bi-partisan support for public instruction bolsters the status quo, I have discovered one deviant suggestion that appeals to many adults.... and would appeal to more if it were enacted.
It is this.
Let every future school bond debate be linked to the creation of at least one K-12 educational sequence (perhaps charter schools or choice schools could embody this alternative) in which participating students - and their families - agree to banish television from their lives. No cables, no aerials, no satellite dishes, no TV sets, no excursions to "little Johnny's for Saturday morning cartoons."
Whenever I make this proposal, the response is twofold. Initially, I hear, "It'll never work." Then the same naysayers ask: "Where can I enroll my kids?"
"DON'T TELL ME TV HARMS CHILDREN.
WITHOUT TELEVISION I COULDN'T HAVE RAISED MY KIDS."
Over the last 25 years, several indigenous communities in Canada's far north suddenly "got" television. In all such communities the result was the same. Measures of malaise, personal dissatisfaction and social alienation soared. Ominously, these indicators rose identically in an indigenous community where the only available television channel was the Canadian equivalent of PBS.
The evidence is overwhelming: regardless television's "content," its "context" re-weaves the fabric of human consciousness in ways that erode social and personal integrity.
Many will protest these conclusions, declaring "It didn't happen to me!"
My response is twofold.
I know several families which prohibited television during child-rearing years. Public school teachers who taught these "tubeless kids" never failed to ask parents if their home was television-free since 1.) "your children are fully engaged in learning activities" and 2.) "your children enjoy conversation." (Footnote 6)
Clearly, a few anecdotal references do not comprise a statistically valid sample.
Nor does consistent engagement in classroom activity - or unfailing willingness to converse with adults - prove that these characteristics (even if causally linked) are superior to the television-conditioned traits that have replaced them.
However, there may be something to gain, and surely nothing to lose, by conducting a nationwide experiment to determine the psycho-social profile - the character and capability - of students who graduate a K-12 curriculum in which television is absent from youngsters' homes. (Footnote 7)
My personal interest in foregoing television was piqued by physician Andrew Weil's "Spontaneous Healing."
Here's what happened...
In the late '80s, I relocated from Managua, Nicaragua to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When we made the move, my wife and I did not own a television. Years later a friend gave us an unwanted unit. We attached the set to an aerial, and soon I was feeding a "news" habit with regular doses of MacNeil/Lehrer, Peter Jennings and "television magazines" like "Frontline", "20/20", "48 Hours" and "60 Minutes".
Having been a student at the University of Toronto during Marshall McLuhan's heyday, I knew how he analysed electronic culture through careful attention to commercial television. Invoking McLuhan's name, I justified my TV habit by claiming to "take the pulse of the nation", by scrutinizing the phosphorescent glow for intimations of socio-political change.
Before long my wife noticed that television was hampering our relationship.
You're probably familiar with the routine: "Shhh! I'm trying to watch this."
About a year ago I came upon Weil's recommendation that people undertake television "fasts" to purge the system and "cleanse the palate." In Weil's estimation, "The News" is a mental contaminant, which, like any uncontrolled pollutant, accumulates in the environment until a critical threshold is passed, at which point breakdown occurs.
Raised a pre-Vatican II Catholic, I knew that most religious traditions viewed "fasting" as a way to cultivate personal discipline, to assert mind over matter, and, supposedly, to expunge certain intractable "demons."
PULLING THE PLUG
Whether or not television was responsible for eroding my spousal relationship, Denise's stridulous resistance to the tube was clearly undercutting the quality of my life.
In the end, I concluded that no harm could come from detaching the aerial.
Immediately I noticed curious differences. For example, when I visited the bathroom, I found myself under no compulsion to hurry back to "the program-in-progress." As a consequence, I grew suddenly conscious of after-flush hand-washing --- the appearance of my hands, the warmth of the water, the texture of the soap.
Furthermore, I was peculiarly conscious of how I had unwittingly "erased" many of life's fine details from awareness, pressured by my "programmatic" urge to get back to the tube. Real elements of my life had been replaced by carefully controlled "programs" produced by strangers bent on commercial profitability.
Within days the quality of my spousal relationship was palpably improved. Suddenly, I was reading and writing more; I penned poetry for the first time in years; I began to write song lyrics. I joyfully joined my four year old daughter for bed-time story-telling.
I soon realized that the voyeuristic quality of television is the cornerstone of the epithet: "Get a life!"
We cannot --- like "Being There's" Chauncey Gardner --- "like to watch" other people "living" (or, pretending to live,) and, simultaneously, live our own unique lives. There is simply not enough time to do both. We can either be voyeurs who watch surrogates "live" life for us, or, we can seize the day and, perhaps, become who we are.
Television is the great "time bandit," the ultimate pre-occupation that saps communal vitality and reduces populist politics to the biennial ritual of ballot-box idolatry.
Many readers will allege that I am over-reacting, that the pleasurable content of television 1.) distracts the young, 2.) provides companionship for the old, and 3.) keeps the economically active well-informed.
I argue that most people are under-reacting, failing to ask several essential questions.
1.) What is the relative importance of the informational and recreational content of television compared to the contextual re-weaving of one's life and outlook?
2.) Are we as well-informed - and entertained - as we think? (Footnote 8)
3.) What does it mean that the gap between information and entertainment is narrowing?
4.) Does the nature of television impart a deluded sense that our needs have been met, when in fact we are wasting away like couch-bound opium addicts dreaming of consumer splendor in the midst of communal squalor?
To argue on behalf of television's harmlessness recalls the tobacco industry's decades-long assertion that cigarette smoking was harmless since many 3 pack-a-day smokers live to ripe old age with no visible sign of tobacco-induced pathology.
After 50 years of such brazen deceit, we now know that many people are naturally immune to the same health threats that kill "John Doe". For example, in parts of Kenya where HIV infection rates approach 20 per cent, epidemiologists "enjoy" a large enough statistical sample to prove that one per cent of those infected never manifest any sign of disease.
It is very difficult - if not impossible - to determine how many lives have been sacrificed on the altar of tele-voyeurism, or, at minimum, have been truncated by television's Procrustean bed.
Whatever the statistics, a K-12 educational system comprised of television-free students would be a simple, cost-effective way to run an invaluable psycho-social experiment.
"The powers that be" --- the same plutocratic elements whose survival necessitates a populace dulled by a steady diet of bread and circuses --- will fight "tube-less schools" with the ferocity of mothers protecting their young. Furthermore, tube-less schools will be vilified as "un-democratic," since, allegedly, they create undue burden by forcing people to relinquish one of life's "essential" pleasures.
Do not be mislead. Tube-less schools will prove so successful at forming artistic, intellectual, social, political and economic leaders that many parents - initially threatened by the elimination of TV - will be unable to resist the demonstrated capability of schools that actually banish "The Monitor."
My father --- a man equally skeptical of tele-vassalage and cyber-serfdom --- is among the legions who believe that the restructuring of televised "content" is sufficient to redeem the whole medium.
Dad also wonders why - despite long exposure - so many people seem unaffected by television?
Without probing my wife's observation that "Everyone is affected by it!", I suggest that "deep literacy" is - to some extent - prophylactic against the psycho-social ravages of TV. (Footnote 9) The ability "to read deeply" enables us to debunk the emotional allure of sensationalism, simultaneously providing entry to symbolic - and even spiritual - of profoundly transcendental significance.
At minimum, the elimination of sensationalism grounds us in our own lives -- "brings us to our senses" -- and invites us to make non-programmed choices concerning the mindful cultivation of our own unique "gardens."
In the absence of "deep reading", television-mediated culture is suffused with image and slogan promoting visceral reaction as the sole criterion of decision-making.
Having deified the elemental -- even atavistic -- primacy of pictorial imagery ("Duh... Do I have to draw you a picture?"), the presumption arises that we no longer need rational thought, orderly debate and cerebral activity to test reality. According to the new premises of perception, if we've seen the "picture," then the truth is self-evident.
Mind you: I'm not arguing that research, rational thought and deliberate debate are the only means of getting at "the truth", but that we seldom access the fullness of Truth if we fail to implement these three tools. (Footnote 10)
Circumscribed by visceral imagery, we have sacrificed depth for breadth and in the process grow unaware of our loss.
To a significant extent, all pursuit has become trivial.
CAN TELEVISION AND DEMOCRACY CO-EXIST?
At stake is the survival of democracy, and possibly, the survival of the biosphere. Television culture - in conjunction with compulsory government schooling - are incapable of developing a citizenry that can sustain meaningful democracy.
Despite television's universal "accessibility", the medium is, by nature, not democratic, but elitist. Television --- at least the sort of snappily edited programming that seduces viewers into neuro-dependent "eye-lock" --- cannot be "produced" without huge concentrations of capital. To suggest that the universal availability of television is "democratic" is to argue that Madonna and Dennis Rodman are "populists."
Underlying the discussion of democracy's survival is the real debate over democracy's survivability. Plato, for example, held democracy in low esteem, not because he was a reactionary aristocrat, but because he concluded that the political form was intrinsically unworkable.
Again, my father --- an avid Democrat who, at age 85, still pounds the pavement on behalf of ward politics --- has become persuaded that, generally speaking, people are not very bright, and that the future of democracy hinges on the hope that elected representatives will -- through the "sorting mechanism" of the electoral process -- prove to be more intelligent than the mass of humankind.
I have no way to prove my father right or wrong. Despite my innate inclination to champion the cause of enlightened populism, it may be that most wo/men are, in fact, genetically obligated to live lives of irremediable benightedness.
A point of interest.... Many readers will feel instant antipathy to my father's suggestion that humankind is incapable of direct self-government. Whether or not Dad's appraisal is accurate, reflexive antipathy to his suggestion goes to the heart of our collective quandary. Are we able to think without categorical constraints, or, has The State utilized compulsory government schooling -- and other mass media -- to erode the intellectual rigor that might otherwise challenge The Official Story?
Were we honest about our political pursuits, we would either acknowledge that elitism undergirds our pretentious "democracy", or, we would take pains to resume the Democratic experiment.
To utilize citizens stunted by Television (and Public Instruction) as a kangaroo court that rubber-stamps the foregone conclusions of plutocracy is even more cynical than Leona Helmsley's candid revelations concerning IRS tax structures.
We might consider a polity in which the abolition of TV is a voting requirement --- a sort of "polling tax" paid not by virtue of the resources one can acquire, but by self-disciplined abstention from certain forms of acquisition.
If adopting this requirement seems too Spartan, we could alternatively ask our elected officials (and their advisors) to forswear television during their term in office. (Footnote 11)
Unfortunately, we are so conditioned to view "The News" as indispensable political information that few people perceive how the "news" is saturated with dis-information, editorial bias, and spurious "objectivity" --- to mention three forms of monetarily-motivated mendacity made plausible by the iconographic manipulation of popular emotion.
Those well-coifed politicians who predicate every decision on the shifting winds of media-mediated political "discourse" insure that the body politic will eventually reap the whirlwind. Wherever imagery holds sway over print and leisurely discourse, there can be no final substance, only image-mongering.
Uncomely individuals like Abraham Lincoln -- or cripples like Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- would be unelectable in the current milieu of image dominance.
Do we believe Lincoln and Roosevelt incapable of rivaling today's politicians because television reportage, network pollsters and image-based campaigns are superior to print, discourse, debate and oratory? If history holds any validity, Lincoln and Roosevelt's print-dominated worlds were superior to the political posturing of TV-groomed politicians who re-position themselves according to the emotional caprice of their dumbed-down constituents.
The chief difference between Lincoln/Roosevelt and post-TV politicians is that televideots have elevated imagery above substance so that Reagan-the-Actor will always be The Peoples' choice, while Lincoln-the-Bumpkin-Rail-Splitter and Roosevelt-the-Wheel-Chair Bound-Invalid are political liabilities.
The ongoing displacement of print-based thoughtfulness by media-manipulated imagery is epitomized in Kathleen Wendland's autobiographical lament: "It was the free-wheeling seventies, and our family had chosen to live without a television. People began talking about our new "lifestyle." Funny --- I thought of it as a life, rich in friends and careers, brimming with garden-grown food and home-baked bread and the sounds of singing around the piano. The ultimate accusation came from our pastor's wife, who said, "How dare you try to protect your children from reality?" (This same "argument" is used to cast aspersions on parents who don't send their children to public school.)
A nearly universal assumption holds that television --- and its Public Instruction handmaid --- are worthy institutions whose guiding principles should normalize the young. I hold that these two institutions --- which, in the absence of hands-on parenting, comprise the primary acculturative mechanisms for the nation's young --- are destroying democracy and exacerbating psycho-social pathology. (Footnote 12)
VIRTUAL REALITY VERSUS GROUNDED REALITY
In the mid 1800s, Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce admonished his people: "I tell you the white man is coming, and neither you nor I have seen anything like him."
Perhaps Caucasians are unique in this regard: we live lives in which the natural environment has been completely replaced by "built-up" environments that are technological extensions of the human mind. Except on those rare occasions when we deliberately undertake wilderness "adventures", we continually divorce ourselves from the natural order, and then have the hubris to declare that our technological interventions and electronic interpositions are Reality Itself. We live in ceaseless "psychological" projection.
Wendell Berry sounds this cautionary note: "The ancient Greeks and Hebrews warned us to distrust those who think they make all the patterns."
The "realties" we have created, which is to say the games we play --- televised entertainments, computer games, sporting events, the "grading and sorting" exercises of compulsory government schooling --- recall the quip that "a successful coach has to be bright enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it matters."
Whether in stadia, classrooms, or transfixed before television screens (or computer monitors), public discourse is now conducted by "expert" cheer-leaders who presuppose the transcendent importance of diversion, entertainment, voyeurism and surrogacy. In an ideological environment that assumes we are spontaneously evolving toward ever-greater "good", no one asks where this incessant quest for "bread and circuses" might actually lead. (Footnote 13)
This much is certain: technology is leading away from humankind's traditional understanding of earth-rooted "reality" and into realms ominously denominated "virtual reality."
VIRTUAL PRESENCE VERSUS REAL PRESENCE
When I was a boy, my first fit of pique over Roman Catholic doctrine arose from Church teaching that the Sacrament of Reconciliation - what used to be called "confession" - was not sacramentally "efficacious" unless penitent and confessor shared the same physical space.
Confession-by-telephone, for example, did not fulfill the conditions of sacramentality. Unless people met face to face -- unless people were physically present to one another -- sacraments were not sacraments. Only the "incarnation" of actual, shared presence was fully sacred.
I railed against the Church's absurd distinction.
Now, 40 years later, I wonder if the Catholic notion of physical sacramentality isn't the sine qua non of socio-political salvation.
Although the technological extensions of humankind have great utility and value, they are not endowed with what theologians call "Real Presence".
"Real Presence" means that the divine Spirit can only manifest in un-mediated ways. One cannot, for example, experience The Beatific Vision at the other end of a phone line, just as one cannot make love through Orwellian "feelies", or New Age cyber-suits.
In more mundane terms, it is impossible to experience the grandeur of Niagara Falls by chatting with a friend who holds his cell-phone over the churning brink to give us a taste of cascading majesty.
In pop terminology, we might say: "Be there, or be square."
The expansion of electronic communication erodes the actual quality - the real presence - of community life.
Although communication networks are always intriguing - and often informative - the contextual impact of these networks remains discarnately (and isolatedly) intellectual.
If people are comprehensively networked, they can retreat behind electronically moated walls of gated communities and never again experience their "neighbor" except to pay the delivery man or to wave from one air-conditioned BMW to another.
The blandishments of network-facilitated "retirement" are so seductive that they persuade "retirees" that networking is not only unimpeachably good, but that electronic networking is The Ultimate Good.
From this vantage, electronically-mediated network participation becomes the exemplar of "fully" human existence, accessible only to those who immerse themselves in elecro-info grids. In the holy name of technocratic modernity, the poor of the earth are again dehumanized.
In his foreword to, "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business," Neil Postman distinguishes between the divergent nightmares of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the "feelies", the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in "Brave New World Revisited," the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In "1984," Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In "Brave New World," they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right." (Footnote 14)
Orwell was persuaded that Evil would have an evidently evil face, just as I was persuaded during my first marijuana adventure
--- no, Mother, I didn't inhale! --- that the astonishing changes in my field of consciousness were surely reflected in the physical features of my face. Yet the bathroom mirror at the end of the (very long) hall failed to confirm my self-evident presumption.
At the beginning of her career, political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, attended the Nuremberg trials to contemplate evil-writ-large on the visage of Hitlerian henchmen like Adolf Eichmann.
To her astonishment, she found that Nuremberg defendants were not incarnate devils, but mousy bureaucrats wearing three piece suits, eager to discharge their organizational duty within "the greater scheme of things".
Arendt coined the memorable phrase "the banality of evil" to epitomize her shocked realization that the world's real havoc-wreakers are 9 to 5 "family men."
Evil seldom appears monstrous. Furthermore, the benign face of most people who perpetrate (or perpetuate) systematic evil causes us to focus disproportionately on individual evil-doers like Geoffrey Daumer, Ted Bundy and Timothy McVeigh.
Even though these fellows "look like the boy next door," the horrifying activities of Daumer, Bundy and McVeigh validate our certainty that evil is evidently monstrous, and, in the process, we are distracted from the far more commonplace "banality of evil."
Conveniently, we are distracted from the nature of the evil we ourselves perpetrate (or enable) by dutifully "doing our jobs."
Wendell Berry observed that the structural ramifications of modern evil are so pervasive that "the only escape from victimization has been to 'succeed' --- that is, to 'make it' into the class of exploiters, and then to remain so specialized and so 'mobile' as to be unconscious of the effects of one's life or livelihood."
Typically, the root of evil is little more than an inversion - or blocking - of wholesome life processes. Usually, evil involves constipation of the creative process. Instead of surrendering to the demands of our "God-given" genius, we allow the "slow stain of the world" to subvert the power given us as birthright. (Footnote 15)
Often we choose the predictable "security" of heartless institutional superstructures. By occupying such organizational niches, we fail to express our personal "genius" and find ourselves shunted into lifelong stuntedness. Soon, our personal and political relations become saturated with the noxious vapors of truth denied. Thus dwindled and embittered, we turn to the ceaseless distraction of bread and circus. In the end, these amusements exact a toll: they "drive us to distraction" --- a phrase that formerly meant "losing one's mind."
"YOU CAN'T GET THERE FROM HERE."
In a culture dominated by distraction, we become so eager to see anything other than what is in front of us that, eventually, we no longer see what is in front of us.
We become figments of our own imagination.
This is the pathway by which our present reality is replaced by virtual reality.
Consensus reality disappears.
Virtual reality becomes whatever we would have it.
In the process, electronic networking depletes the interconnectedness of "present" community, while The Common Good is buffeted by "the invisible hand of the marketplace," a purportedly providential mechanism powered by the engine of radical individualism.
In the Brave New World, screw "women and children first."
It's "everyone for himself."
Under the crushing weight of modern techno-economies, palpable value devolves into post-modern meaninglessness. Meanwhile, atomized pseudo-citizens --- locked within electronically moated pleasure domes --- drool over the consolations of consumer culture. (Footnote 16)
In a world where famine is an urgent reality for millions of human beings, weight-losing mice make headlines in "developed" societies swollen by hollow options.
Nevertheless, America is haunted by a curious paradox.. Despite our obsession with pleasures of the flesh (the intractable downside of our puritanical inheritance) we have become a curiously disembodied people.
It's as if the premise of the fifties horror film, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" has become the modus operandi of the northern latitudes.
With one exception.
Instead of "replacement pods" secreted under the beds of unwitting victims, Real Presence has been replaced by the virtual presence of "in-your-face" television screens and computer monitors. Admittedly, some people escape the clutches of electronic enchantment, but, in general, the ubiquity of these spirit-sapping devices is self-willed.
Even more ominous than the displacement of human life which "the cathode tube" signifies, is the missionary zeal with which devotees preach its innocuousness, indeed its needfulness.
If a mind-altering chemical were placed in the nation's water supply, the hue and cry would be universal.
Yet, mind-altering "communication radiations" saturate "the air" --- an element as basic as water (and even more difficult to replace with purified varieties) --- and we embrace the contaminant with the passion of young love.
When I was a boy, not having a TV meant you didn't have a TV.
Now, not having a TV means you're "a deserter" --- possibly a member of an "alien species". We are witnessing the rapid evolution of homo sapiens into homo phospho-vidicus, a putative step forward that replaces wisdom with information, reason with emotion.
"Video" has replaced our lived lives, converting us into spectators, reducing us to the complicit passivity of guilty bystanders.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE
In recent decades the Northern Latitudes have been preoccupied by Freedom of Choice. I suspect this extraordinary concern is - in large part - a reaction to the chthonic apprehension that we have already surrendered most Real Choices to "The System". Now, in a belated effort to shut the barn door, we scour the shattered landscape, seizing shards of fragmented freedom, desperate to persuade ourselves that simulacra and residue can be re-constituted as "the real thing."
The painful truth of Choice is that conscious choice is often painful. Despite the proliferating enticements of pop culture, Choice is not an invitation to an endless smorgasbord. It is an invitation to make lasting decisions that will influence the course of life forevermore.
However, driven by a commercially-informed Value System based on the supremacy of "bread and circuses", we behave like well-conditioned consumer units, construing Choice as a facilitation of whimsy, a means of avoiding commitment rather than making it, a way to re-spin the wheel of fortune whenever our "choices" prove less pleasurable than planned.
Intriguingly, recent enthusiasm over the many options made available by Free Choice has been tempered by assertions that Free Choice is, perhaps, impossible since human responses are so easily conditioned. From sex to chocolate, from ginkgo leaves to net-surfing, we grow swiftly addicted to a vast palette of pseudo-satisfactions.
I suspect addiction has become a universal problem in recent decades, in part because "moderns" trivialize the nature of Choice.
Substantive choice braves the awe-ful fact that choosing any One Thing necessitates the simultaneous rejection of all other options. To choose a spouse, for example, requires the renunciation of other amorous interests.
At least in theory, this simultaneous selection and rejection is both exhilarating and painful. Unfortunately, moderns are seldom conscious that the committed choice of one option necessitates the denial of others. In an attempt to circumvent the consequences of Choice, we have re-defined the rules of the game through avoidance mechanisms as diverse as serial monogamy and serial murder.
Charles Manson spoke on behalf of everyone deranged by infantile notions of choice when he said: "I want it all!" (By the way, you can now visit Charlie at his web-site...)
If people choose to watch television, simultaneously recognizing that they are choosing not to read great literature, or to bake bread, or to feed the hungry, or to read to their children, well... that's a Real Choice.
May they rest in peace.
HOW "STUFF" GETS THE UPPER HAND
The ability to make real choices is, in fact, eroded by the presence of temptation, (what Catholic Christianity calls "the near occasion of sin.")
The other night, I ate dinner at a friends' house while several guests watched the University of North Carolina football game in the next room. ("The TV Dinner".... an ominous phrase if ever there was one!)
When I finished my meal, I moved to "The Entertainment Center", situated myself in a commodious chair, and was immediately captivated by the broadcast, even though the game was an epic blowout.
Is television nature's way of abhorring a vacuum by sucking all available attention into a gaping void?
Many people deny that mere "things" can force their "will" on human beings. One manifestation of this assessment is that "Guns Don't Kill People; People Do."
However, the debate over Free Will cannot be conducted without examining the relationship between mind and matter.
In the presence of matter, mind is always conditioned by a phenomenon called "material mandate." "Material mandate" posits that if there is a handle on an unlatched door, people will tend to use that handle even though the door can be opened just as easily without it.
Similarly, if a gun is present when an individual loses temper, there is disproportionate likelihood that "material mandate" will take "control", and that the gun will be used as a means of venting rage. (Recently, I saw a macabre bumper sticker which read: "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will accidentally kill their children.")
In an electronic context, when people are exposed to a television broadcast, they usually succumb to the material mandate of watching "it" even though Free Will remains - at least in theory - operant.
Furthermore, the degree of material mandate associated with different "things" --- "televisions", "guns", "leaf blowers" --- is never the same.
With the arguable exceptions of repercussion-less orgies --- or gourmet meals wafting savory aromas in the direction of painfully empty stomachs --- there are few material mandates as powerful as television.
I remember when my infant daughter suddenly confronted her first televised image of human slaughter. Although I immediately interposed my body between the screen and two-year-old Maria, I had to jerk rapidly back and forth to prevent her craning head from peering around my body.
A NEW MORAL ORDER?
In the Middle Ages, most moral choices were based on personal considerations. People were immersed in the im-mediacy of community life and were morally motivated by feelings of goodness, guilt or shame. In turn, these three stimuli prompted medievals to perform certain actions while refraining from others.
In the second half of the 20th century, moral behavior - and, more frequently, immoral behavior - were increasingly linked to the "autonomous" activities of social, commercial and political systems.
Nevertheless, until recently, medieval and modern morality had much in common. Whether morality ultimately rests on individuals or institutions, particular behaviors have long been qualified as "good" or "bad."
In other words, the "content" of behavior -- what individuals or "corporations" actually do -- has remained the foremost determinant of moral judgment.
However, image-based media have created unprecedented conditions suggestive of a new moral order. (Footnote 17)
By re-weaving the context of consciousness so that humans are increasingly disconnected from the traditional ambit of moral content, it becomes necessary to make many moral decisions according to the protection (or pollution) of the context of consciousness, what we might call "the environment of consciousness." (Footnote 18)
Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, observed that "sinfulness" (from the Testamental Greek word "hamartia", a marksman's term for "missing the target") is usually rooted in unconscious behavior.
When people are conscious of their actions -- and the likely repercussions of those actions -- the resulting clarity of consciousness, will, in most cases, motivate goodness without additional stimulus.
However, popular culture - and even ecclesiastical culture - contend that people are not responsible for their actions if they are not morally informed --- which is to say, if people are un-conscious. (In the language of moral theology, such people are considered "invincibly ignorant.")
Admittedly, the sins of unconscious perpetrators are always forgivable, if only because those "trespassed against" must unload their burden of resentment. In the New Testament, Y'eshua, the Nazarene, modeled such forgiveness pleading: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
Nevertheless, unconscious behavior is still sinful -- it still "misses the mark" -- even when forgiveness pardons a particular trespass.
It is always sobering to realize that even when we don't know what we're doing, reality holds us responsible nonetheless. Anyone who defies the law of gravity, for example, will, in fact, become a splattered corpse by leaping from a freeway overpass.
In the current information environment, there is an evolving moral order in which we are responsible for failing to become morally informed.... for failing to become conscious.
In this new environment, it may be necessary for sins of omission to be accorded the same moral gravity as sins of commission.
Virtual reality - whether televised or computerized - persuades people that "monitoring the situation" (and other forms of passive observation) are appropriate responses to the human condition.
However, such passive postures -- if they remain passive, or worse, if they induce contented passivity -- are corruptions of consciousness that are intrinsically immoral, even if one's attitude remains untinged by malice or any inclination to perform overtly malicious acts.
Marshall McLuhan observed that "the medium is the message". This is to say that the content of a given medium is far less important than the medium's context. For example, television communicates information, but it also imposes a context of passivity, surrogacy, unidimensionality and isolation masquerading as unity. In general, the context of any medium (television is just one example) embeds the "values" which then deploy fixed parameters for the type - and range - of evoked response. (Footnote 19)
The context of communication - to a far greater extent than the content communicated by a given means of communication - pre-determines the quality of consciousness.
Although the fact is as obvious - and as invisible - as Poe's "purloined letter", the quality of human behavior arises from the contextual quality of people's consciousness. It does not arise from any "do-good" motivation attached to the superficial sense of what people think they're doing.
Tolstoy noted that lasting "changes in our life must come from the impossibility to live otherwise than according to the demands of our conscience... not from our mental resolution to try a new form of life."
Most Americans - like most materialists - are not grounded in the inexorable demands of conscience. Instead, we are creatures of whimsy and caprice. The envy, greed and wantoness of consumer culture insure that any change will have the depth of a New Year's resolution. (Footnote 20)
Most people keep score of their virtuous activity as if they were tracking the vicissitudes of an athletic contest. Their left hand always knows what the right hand is doing. In the end, such "ledger maintenance" -- such "legerdemain" -- is no more relevant to authentic virtue than an accountant's post facto number-crunching is relevant to a company's productive capacity.
If it is true that humankind is witnessing a reformulation of the moral order, then the context of human consciousness may, at last, be rivaling the significance of moral content. Admittedly, the context of consciousness has always resided at the heart of things. However, our awareness of the linch-pin importance of context becomes uniquely apparent in moments of epochal transition such as the technological transformation currently under way. (Footnote 21)
TOOL DESIGN, TOOL USE,
AND MEANINGFUL ACCOMPLISHMENT
It has been said that the keeper of the Pearly Gates will ask but one question: "Where are your scars?"
If we have no scars, we will then be asked a second: "Was nothing worth fighting for?"
The "time banditry" of television --- and the related passivity of couch potato-hood --- take "the fight" out of us.
Although many will argue that the resulting calm is preferable to fractious clamor, it may also be argued that television-induced tranquility is the hushed whimper of quiet desperation. (Footnote 22)
We Americans have built our identity as individuals --- and as a nation --- upon "Yankee ingenuity," on our ability to "get the job done". We Americans are tool-makers --- and tool-users --- par excellence. Furthermore, our technological credo holds that "tools are neither moral nor immoral except insofar as their use is moral or immoral." (Footnote 23)
Although great good arises from tool manufacture and tool use, our obsession with tools --- and with the "accomplishments" that these tools enable --- is not a propitious environment in which to suggest that certain tools may, by their nature, erode the foundations of life.
In his groundbreaking book, Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich detailed the characteristics of life-enhancing tools as distinct from tools whose structural bias - whose metaphysical context - demeans life.
Although Illich's painstaking analysis cannot be briefly summarized, his essential distinction is that Good Tools enhance the well-being of human community by contributing to the Common Good --- which is to say, a good from which no human being is structurally excluded. To quote Emerson: "As long as civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter, and our wine will burn our mouth. Only that good profits which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all men." (Footnote 24)
UNDOING EVIL: A FOOL'S ERRAND?
It has been suggested that J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth novels are more than fictional fantasies. According to this thesis, Tolkien - in writing "The Ring Trilogy" - had "been used" as a mouthpiece "of the Muses" to articulate a new myth.
This intriguing analysis argues that the unprecedented menace of recently-devised nuclear weaponry was the underlying reason why Tolkien sent Frodo on an epic journey to return the Ring of Power to the Crack of Doom. Frodo's quest was based on the premise that certain powers are, by nature, "too hot to handle." When mere mortals are tempted to use power beyond their capacity for wise employment, they should undertake to "un-make" those powers.
Whether or not humans can "un-make" power, the influence of televised imagery has proven "too hot to handle." (In this regard, we might learn from Aztec Civilization which employed the wheel in the manufacture of children's toys, but refrained from using the wheel as an economic technology.) (Footnote 25)
Given television's awesome power to re-weave the context of consciousness (Footnote 26), we would wisely strive to "un-make" the dominion of television by creating a nation-wide Educational System for families who forswear the impediment. (Footnote 27).
Ultimately, two political questions beg answers.
1.) How frightened are we to confront the results of a national experiment in television-free education?
2.) If television-free schools are shown to "produce" more creative, more capable, more compassionate, more independent, more interdependent, more socially and politically active human beings, then, what will we do about television? (Footnote 28)
Will we munch a few more chips, muttering "What an interesting study..."?
Or, will we return television to the Crack of Doom?
The following (annotated) passage is excerpted from James W. Loewen's fine volume, "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong." (The New Press, NYC, 1995) Mr. Loewen is professor of sociology at the University of Vermont.
"Although American History textbook writers include more social history than they used to, they still regard the actions and words of the state as incomparably more important than what the American people were doing, listening to, sleeping in, living through, or thinking about. Particularly for the centuries before the Woodrow Wilson administration, this stress on the state is inappropriate, because the federal executive was not nearly as important then as now.
` What story do textbooks tell about our government? First, they imply that the state we live in today is the state created in 1789. Textbook authors overlook the possibility that the balance of powers set forth in the Constitution -- granting some power to each branch of the federal government, some to the states, and reserving some for individuals -- has been decisively altered over the last 200 years. The federal government they picture is still the people's servant, manageable and tractable. Paradoxically, textbooks then underplay the role of nongovernmental institutions or private citizens in bringing about improvements in the environment, race relations, education, and other social issues. In short, textbook authors portray a heroic state, and, like their other heroes, this one is pretty much without blemishes. Such an approach converts textbooks into anticitizenship manuals --- handbooks for acquiescence....
This view holds that we Americans abandoned our revolutionary ideology long ago, if indeed we ever held one, and now typically act to repress the legitimate attempts at self-determination of other nations and peoples....
High school American history textbooks do not, of course, adopt or even hint at "the American century" (in which) the most powerful nation on earth has typically acted to maintain its hegemony.
...Omit(ting) the realpolitik approach, they take a strikingly different tack. They see our policies as part of a morality play in which the United States typically acts on behalf of human rights, democracy, and "the American way." When Americans have done wrong, according to this view, it has been because others misunderstood us, or perhaps because we misunderstood the situation. But always our motives were good. This approach might be called the "international good guy" view.
In Frances FitzGerald's phrase, textbooks present the United States as "a kind of Salvation Army to the rest of the world." In so doing, they echo the nation leaders like to present to its citizens: the supremely moral, disinterested peacekeeper, the supremely responsible world citizen.... Since at least the 1920s, textbook authors have claimed that the United States is more generous than any other nation in the world in providing foreign aid. The myth was untrue then ; it is untrue now. Today at least a dozen European and Arab nations devote much larger proportions of their gross domestic product or total governmental expenditures to foreign aid than does the United States.
(Of the 12 American history textbooks I analyzed in writing this book) all but one contain at least a paragraph on the Peace Corps. The tone of these treatments is adoring... As a shaper of history, however, the Peace Corps has been insignificant. It does not disparage this fine institution to admit that its main impact has been on the intellectual development of its own volunteers.
More important and often less affable American exports are our multinational corporations.... As multinational corporations such as Exxon and Mitsubishi come to have budgets larger than those of most government, national economies are becoming obsolete. Robert Reich, secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, has pointed out, "The very idea of an American economy is becoming meaningless, as are the notions of an American corporation, American capital, American products, and American technology." Multinationals may represent a threat to national autonomy, affecting not only small nations but also the United States.
When Americans try to think through the issues raised by the complex interweaving of our economic and political interests, they will not be helped by what they learned in their American history courses. History textbooks do not even mention multinationals. The topic doesn't fit their "international good guy" approach. Only one high school textbook mentions "multinationals" in its index, and its treatment consists of a single sentence: "These investments (in Europe after W.W.I) led to the development of multinational corporations --- large companies with interest in several countries." Even this lone statement is inaccurate: European multinationals date back centuries, and American multinationals have played an important role in hour history since at least 1900. One multinational alone, International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), which took the lead in prompting our government to destabilize the socialist government of Salvador Allende, had more impact on Chile than all the Peace Corps workers America ever sent there. The same might be said of Union Carbide in India and United Fruit in Guatemala or Exxon in Angola.
(And when the United States does intervene,) our intervention (is always represented as) humanitarian.
(We) could use a shot of the realism supplied by former Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler, whose 1931 statement has become famous: "I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interest in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers.... I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras 'right' for American fruit companies in 1903. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints." (Which recalls Al Capone's own advice: "You can get much further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.")
(James Loewen goes on to investigate the treatment of 6 significant post-War events as represented in 12 high school textbooks. The events - and the curricular role they play - are as follows: 1.) American assistance to the shah's faction in Iran in deposing Prime Minister Mussadegh - and returning the shah to the throne in 1953 - is mentioned in one of twelve texts; 2.) America's role in bringing down the elected government of Guatemala in 1954 is mentioned in one of twelve texts; 3.) America's rigging of the 1957 election in Lebanon, which entrenched the (minority) Christians as the chief political party thus unleashing the Muslim revolt and civil war the next year was mentioned in none of the twelve texts; 4.) American involvement in the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba of Zaire (and subsequent installation of Mobutu) is mentioned in one of twelve textbooks; 5.) our repeated attempts to murder Premier Fidel Castro of Cuba and bring down his government by terror and sabotage is mentioned in none of the twelve textbooks, and 6.) America's role in bringing down the elected government of Chile in 1973 is mentioned in 3 of twelve textbooks. (According to one's method of calculating the ongoing fallout of these 6 episodes, 500,000 to 1,000,000 people have already been killed as a result of these 6 interventions --- a mini-holocaust still-in-progress. Yet these -- and other -- acts of U.S.-sponsored terrorism go unmentioned -- or, receive summary justification -- in high school history textbooks. Keep in mind that these textbooks comprise the deepest insight into American political history ever supplied to 85% of the population. With antecedents like these, the nation will never transcend the low-grade fascism and swashbuckling jingoism that is the heart of American politics.)
(In his description of lies routinely told by U.S. government officials to justify America's covert belligerence world-world, Loewen points to a statement by John Kennedy's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, who, on the very day of the 1961 Cuban "Bay of Pigs" invasion, declared that "The American people are entitled to know whether we are intervening in Cuba or intend to do so in the future. The answer to that question is no."
Those of us who remember the Gary Powers' U-2 spying incident, might recall that Eisenhower's vigorous denial of that episode represented the tip of an iceberg: during the 1950s, thirty one (31) U.S. spy flights had been downed over the Soviet Union, carrying 170 men with them. "For decades our government lied to the families of the lost men and never made substantial representation to the USSR to get them back."
Later, the United States secretly bombed Laos -- and trumped up the Tonkin Bay incident -- to escalate the Viet Nam "conflict" into the full-fledged horror it became.
"Over and over, presidents have chosen not to risk their popularity by waging the campaign required to persuade Americans to support their secret military policies (even though) our Constitution provides that Congress must declare war....
To the extent that their understanding of the government comes from their American history courses, students will be shocked by these events and unprepared to think about them.
'Our country... may she always be in the right," toasted Stephen Decatur in 1816, 'but our country right or wrong!' Educators and textbook authors seem to want to inculcate the next generation into blind allegiance to our country. Going a step beyond Decatur, textbook analyses fail to assess our actions abroad according to either a standard of right and wrong or realpolitik. Instead, textbooks merely assume that the government tried to do the right thing. Citizens who embrace the textbook view would presumably support any intervention, armed or otherwise, and any policy, protective of our legitimate national interests or not, because they would be persuaded that all our policies and interventions are on behalf of humanitarian aims."
(Among a wealth of other topics, Loewen discusses the details of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI administration, during which public figures - from Kennedy to King - were victims of systematic extortion. Hoover's contempt for Afro-Americans in general -- and Martin Luther King Jr. in particular -- is a sordid chronicle deserving careful attention.)
"Not only do textbooks fail to blame the federal government for its opposition to the civil rights movement, many actually credit the government, almost single-handedly, for the advances made during the period. In so doing, textbooks follow what we might call the Hollywood approach to civil rights... No book educates students about the dynamics that in a democracy should characterize the interrelationship between the people and their government. Thus no book tells how citizens can and in fact have forced the government to respond to them....
Many teachers don't help; a study of twelve randomly selected teachers of 12th grade American government courses found that about the only way teachers suggested that individuals could influence local or national governments was through voting.
Textbook authors seem to believe that Americans can be loyal to their government only so long as they believe it has never done anything bad. Textbooks therefore present a U.S. government that deserves students' allegiance, not their criticism....
By downplaying covert and illegal acts by the government, textbook authors narcotize students from thinking about such issues as the increasing dominance of the executive branch. By taking the government's side, textbooks encourage students to conclude that criticism is incompatible with citizenship. And by presenting government actions in a vacuum, rather than as responses to such institutions as multinational corporations and civil rights organizations, textbooks mystify the creative tension between the people and their leaders. All this encourages students to throw up their hands in the belief that the government determines everything anyway, so why bother, especially if its actions are usually so benign. Thus our American history textbooks minimize the potential power of the people and, despite their best patriotic efforts, take a stance that is overtly antidemocratic."
It is difficult to lay Loewen aside. Rarely do educational researchers render such tenacious analysis of one particular structure by which Public Instruction hobbles the citizenry. In his chapter "Down the Memory Hole: The Disappearance of the Recent Past", one glimpses the depth of America's "official" denial of such landmark events as the Viet Nam War.
Recent poles reveal that only 3% of American high school graduates believe Viet Nam received even summary treatment.
Despite the fact that "the U.S. dropped three times as many explosives as it dropped in all theaters of World War II, even including our nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," not one textbook shows any damage done by U.S. forces. However, these same texts always include photos of the paltry physical damage perpetrated by the Viet Cong.
Only one of the twelve textbooks included a single photo from that era's gallery of decisive images: a Buddhist monk immolating himself; a naked girl running down Highway 1 to escape a napalm attack; the casual "brain blasting" of a suspected Viet Cong sympathizer by South Viet Nam's national police chief; the bodies of women, old men and children stacked at My Lai.
Concerning the U.S. military policy of targeting civilians, General William C. Westmoreland offered this fatuous defense: 'It does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn't it?"
In 1971, Senator John Kerry - a Viet Nam war vet, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that American troops had "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Viet Nam. All this was in addition to the normal ravage of war.'.... Yet no textbook uses any photograph of any wrongdoing by an American. Indeed, no book includes any photograph of any destruction - even of legitimate targets -caused by our side."
My last reference to Loewen's "Lies my Teacher Taught Me" concerns his analysis of "Progress" --- the secular credo that typically undergirds American abuse of power --- whether in foreign policy, or in the historic elimination of native peoples, or the industrial degradation of the environment.
Loewen's chapter on the philosophical underpinnings of "progress" is entitled "Progress is Our Most Important Product." (Many recall that this phrase was General Electric's motto, but few remember that Fortune magazine declared General Electric "one of the ten worst corporate environmental offenders.")
"Perhaps textbook authors do not question the notion that bigger is better because the idea of progress conforms with the way Americans like to think about education: ameliorative, leading step by step to opportunity for individuals and progress for the whole society. The ideology of progress also provides hope for the future. Certainly most Americans want to believe that their society has been, on balance, a boon and not a curse to mankind and to the planet. History textbooks go even further to imply that simply by participating in society, Americans contribute to a nation that is constantly progressing and remains the hope of the world....
Faith in progress has played various functions in society and in American history textbooks. The faith has promoted the status quo in the most literal sense, for it proclaims that to progress we must simply do more of the same. This belief (in "the inevitability of progress" which was vehemently attacked by G. K. Chesterton at the turn of the century) has been particularly useful to the upper class, because Americans could be persuaded to ignore the injustice of social class if they thought the economic pie kept getting bigger for all. The idea of progress also fits in with Social Darwinism, which implies that the lower class is lower owing to its own fault. Progress as an ideology (and as an article of faith) has been intrinsically antirevolutionary: because things are getting better all the time, everyone should believe in the system. Portraying America so optimistically also helps textbooks withstand attacks by ultrapatriotic critics in Texas and other textbook adoption states....
'Anyone having the slightest familiarity with the physics of heat, energy, and matter,' wrote E. J. Mishan in 1977, 'will realize that, in terms of historical time, the end of economic growth, as we currently experience it, cannot be that far off.' This is largely because of the awesome power of compound interest. Economic growth at three percent, a conventional standard, means that the economy doubles every quarter-century, typically doubling society's use of raw materials, expenditures of energy, and generation of waste.
The energy crises of 1973 and 1979 pointed to the difficulty that capitalism, a marvelous system of production, was never designed to accommodate shortage. For demand to exceed supply is supposed to be good for capitalism, leading to increased production and often to lower costs. Oil, however, is not really produced but extracted....
Because the economy has become global, the "commons" (i.e., the life-sustaining capacity of shared environments) now encompasses the entire planet....
Quantitatively, the average U.S. citizen consumes the same resources as ten average world citizens or 25 residents of India. Our continued economic development coexists in some tension with a corollary of the archetype of progress: the notion that America's cause is the cause of all humankind. Thus our economic leadership is very different from our political leadership. Politically, we can hope other nations will put in place our forms of democracy and respect for civil liberties. Economically, we can only hope other nations will never achieve our standard of living, for if they did, the earth would become a desert. Economically, we are the bane, not the hope of the world. Since the planet is finite, as we expand our economy we make it less likely that less developed nations can expand theirs....
David Donald characterizes the "incurable optimism" of American history courses as "not merely irrelevant but dangerous." In this sense, our environmental crisis is an educational problem to which American history courses contribute."
I would warn optimists that the plight of America's public school system can not be remedied by "tinkering" reform.
As a System, public instruction requires hierarchical management methods that are inimical to informed democratic consent. The (military/industrial/educational) System can only survive by perpetuating the Official Story, a quietly bureaucratic agenda that systematically stultifies the populace so that pocketbook concerns divert attention from the sort of scrutiny needed to fashion an interactive government independent of multi-national corporate domination.
As long as our children are imbued with a "smiley faced" assessment of "America the Beautiful," we will never perceive -- much less act on the knowledge -- that "trickle down" economics is, from the rapidly globalizing vantage of most human beings, the equivalent of being "trickled upon."
After 30 years' service in a New York inner-city school, my sister, Janet Archibald, observed that "violence is essentially a language problem. After you've yelled 'Fuck your mama!' there's nothing else to do but pick up a gun.'" Anyone familiar with the rules of discourse is aware that conversation, debate and verbal negotiation are essential tools for conflict resolution. A rich palette of verbal skills also enables conflicting parties to abandon dispute - or, to submit dispute to formal negotiation - long before frustration turns violent. The ability to articulate oneself verbally is the equivalent of wearing well-padded gloves while sparring. Inarticulate individuals, on the other hand, tend to initiate conflict "with the gloves off." In consequence, trivial squabbles escalate to lethal engagement. "Time" magazine recently confirmed Janet's well-drawn connection between violence and limited language skill by noting that "violence is, essentially, a confession of ultimate inarticulateness."
Several years ago, my sister Janet attended a teachers' banquet and was surprised to learn - over roast beef and chicken - that she was one of very few colleagues not gulping psychoactive drugs.
Our public schools are so rife with horror that - in addition to the widespread use of psycho-active drugs (among teachers and students alike) - the System drives one-in-three newly certified teachers to quit within five years of employment. (In a recent University of Texas study, the number of teachers who "would choose another career if they could start all over" rose four hundred and fifty two per cent (452%) since the mid '60s.)
However, "The Public" - having witnessed the erosion of one cultural institution after another - is determined to pretend that public schools (the only social institution relatively recognizable in its original post-War form) can be reformed without bed-rock structural change.
Even charter schools -- the System's moribund effort to save Itself from Itself -- reveal little structural divergence from mainstream pedagogical models. While pretending to liberate individual initiative, the reality of charter schools is routinely disfigured by the need for "teacher certification," standardized "achievement criteria," cumbersome institutional scale, and an unbreakable tether to the tiresome "authorities" responsible for the existing muddle.
The nation's public schools are autocratic environments. Typically, each district's Central Office - and each individual school's Front Office - are freighted with administrators of legendary officiousness. If "Public" School management was transparent to "The Public" - which it is not - citizens would be startled by the heavy-handed arrogance of most administrators.
Perhaps this prepotent officiousness - and the "busy-work" it engenders - compensate for the fact that administrators don't have "real jobs." If they had real jobs, they'd be teaching.
Unfit to teach -- or, as often happens, desperate to flee teaching via better-paying administrative posts insulated from the rigors of "the trenches" -- these administrators are so heavily invested in "careers" (and mortgages) that they dare not loosen their bureaucratic grip on a system that would otherwise crumble of its own dead weight.
In order to "make work" for themselves, administrators submit teachers to endless after-school "teacher training" sessions. Such training -- a late 20th century form of dominance/submission hazing -- is supplied by yet another corps of well-coifed flunkies.
Although rarely acknowledged even by teachers themselves, the System infantilizes everyone who participates. Teachers, in particular, are kept busy with "chores" so that they have neither time nor energy to ask searching questions about the System that holds them hostage.
In China, public high school teachers are limited - by law - to teaching 3 classes per day. The Chinese recognize that a heavier work load short-changes students while fatiguing teachers. By comparison, the daily marathon of American public school teachers is deliberately pathogenic.
That American public school administrators eagerly lay weighty after-school burdens on already overworked teachers typifies a systematic (albeit unconscious) decision to suppress rebellion by subjecting teachers to perpetual exhaustion.
In many ways, our schools reflect the culture at large, a culture that is simultaneously over-stimulated and sleep-deprived. The situation recalls the Medieval myth of "The Mad Hunt" in which hunters, driven by the frenzy of bloodlust, forget their original goal while plunging headlong into endless pursuit.
Trained by Public Instruction's relentless "task masters," not one American in ten thousand is aware that "school" derives from the Greek word "schole" meaning leisure.
In the last 20 years, America's Fortune 500 companies have eliminated - on balance - three million jobs. In that same period, companies with fewer than 50 employees have created 20 million new jobs.
How do we account for the nation's adulation of Big Business despite downsizing, temporalization, diminished real earnings and the skeletalization of benefits?
Surely the difficulty runs deeper than the tendency of leftists to provide services, and the parallel tendency of conservatives to produce goods.
Having labored for ten years in the construction industry, I know how service providers underestimate (or ignore) the difficulties of bringing a product to market. On the other hand, the shadowside of conservativism was insightfully lampooned by Mort Sahl who characterized conservatives as "people who believe they deserve everything they've stolen."
Nevertheless, there is a bedrock distinction between the traditional attitudes of right and left that subsumes superficial polarization. It is this. Service providers' characterize capital as "funding," whereas producers of goods call capital "money." The Left is convinced that money can be sanitized by nomenclatural dodge. In fact, all money is - to a significant extent - blood money. We do well to call it by its true name.
In practice, the production of goods has infused "money" into economic systems far more rapidly than the production of services. This seems to be changing in the age of information, but without the eventual issue of a concrete product, there will be no core economy to service. Capital begins as "money", and only later is etherealized as "funding."
As much as I admired the Nicaraguan service providers with whom I worked in the late '80s, the socialist orientation of the Sandinista government tended to diminish the bedrock importance of material production. Educational and medical services abounded, but books and medicines became increasingly scarce.
Clearly the U.S. embargo and Washington's low-intensity warfare played important - even decisive - roles in degrading Nicaragua's economy.
Nevertheless, I failed to understand the Directorate's policy of opposing the "informal sector". (The "informal sector" is an economic term - quite common in developing countries - that refers to individuals, families and informal groups which provide small-scale goods or services. These micro-enterprises tend to elude governments' urge to certify, tax and otherwise control all manifestations of economic activity.)
When I first lived with Latin American peasants in 1967, I was struck by the vitality of the "informal" economic structures they had devised. (I believe the "informal sector" properly includes the peasantry, although the term is usually reserved for small-scale urban economic activity.)
Latin America's economic woes -- like the economic "hourglass" that now encompasses our increasingly bipolar world -- seem more attributable to red tape, dubious legal constraint and mandatory "professional" certification imposed by "the formal sector" than to uncontrollable irregularities arising from informal business (including agricultural) activity.
The overwhelming preponderance of The Formal Sector -- in developed and underdeveloped countries alike -- reinforces Big Money's desire to sequester ever more resource, while brazenly claiming to "set a place at the table" for anyone who "signs off" on cowboy capitalism. This "inclusive" agenda - operating as "economic globalization" - is as ludicrous (and as vapid) as the ubiquitous "smiley face," fittingly colored yellow.
The world's economic integrity will eventually depend on the ability of informal workers to generate sufficient clout so that public sentiment, public policy -- and public moneys -- begin to foster the "informal sector" rather than demonize it as is currently the case. Although such a transition seems unlikely in the current economic climate, prevailing winds are driving more and more people into the informal sector, thus creating (at least in theory) a populist base for such transformation. (In the 1980s, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto set out to write a book critical of the informal sector, and ended up writing a sterling defense of "little guys everywhere." His eye-opening volume - with a preface by Mario Vargas Llosa - is entitled "The Other Path.")
In the United States, the ongoing love affair of most Americans with Big Business reflects acculturative patterns laid down by America's Big Schools. Were we to set aside our pious credo that "the nation's public schools are built on hallowed ground" and, instead, acknowledge that K-12 education spends more money than the U.S. military, it would be evident that Public Instruction is the essence of Big Business.
In fact, no business is bigger.
Acculturated to Schooling-as-Big-Business, American youngsters grow into adults who are conditioned to support Big Business even when "the industrial wing" of Big Business cannibalizes the nation's work force through profiteering, temporalization and job loss.
Until we decentralize (and decertify) the nation's educational system, the populace will cling to the naive notion that The System will eventually "come around" since "it is surely comprised of essentially good people." (Schools staffed by certified teachers would still exist. However, they would no longer function as State-operated monopolies.)
Given the rapid merger of American political structures with the unbridled ambitions of the military/industrial/educational complex, it is a fit moment to ponder the nature of large organizations. As John Kenneth Galbraith made clear in his luminous writing, large organizations are autonomous organisms whose basic purpose is to insure their own survival regardless the cost to human beings or human societies.
Friend Diane McKenzie (Director of Acquisitions at UNC-CH's Health Sciences Library) and husband, Roy Wakeman (a woodworker retired from social service), raised their children without television.
Diane relates that their kids' teachers always surmised there was no television in the home "because your children respond to classmates, teachers and their environments far more than children reared on TV."
According to Roy, family life was so packed with shared activity that he can not imagine how television-viewing families find time to live without short-changing themselves.
Of course, heavy television viewers deny this.
Sadly, their denial both compounds and continues the tragedy.
I should comment on the role of computers in television-free schools. Although it would be preferable to eliminate all electronic "monitors" until the onset of puberty, computers may enhance literacy skills if use is limited to word-processing and non-"movie" graphics. "Still shots" can contribute to a child's educational process without creating an appetite for constant novelty and other forms of cultural acceleration.
Neil Postman writes that the United States is "quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world. I say this in the face of the popular conceit that television, as a window to the world, has made Americans exceedingly well informed. I will pass over the now tiresome polls that tell us that, at any given moment, 70 percent of our citizens do not know who is the Secretary of State or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Let us consider, instead, the case of Iran during the drama that was called the "Iranian Hostage Crisis." I don't suppose there has been a story in years that received more continuous attention from television. We may assume, then, that Americans know most of what there is to know about this unhappy event. And now, I put these question to you: Would it be an exaggeration to say that not one American in a hundred knows what language the Iranians speak? Or what the word "Ayatollah" means or implies? Or knows any details of the tenets of Iranian religious beliefs? Or the main outlines of their political history? Or knows who the Shah was, and where he came from?" ("Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business")
According to the invisible metaphysics of television, any searching attempt to reveal historic or cultural contextualization must be sacrificed to The Great God Novelty.
Like other forms of pornography, television feeds on prurience --- the constant itch for "the new face", the new twist, the new spin, the next hook; the bigger, the faster, the sexier, the more violent, the increasingly bizarre, the most up-to-date. Everyone gets "their 15 minutes of fame," and then it's time to sacrifice a new virgin.
If one of traditional religion's authentic functions is to sift through human experience to revere what is deep, sacred and lasting, then the inherent triviality of television is essentially sacrilegious. (Televangelism is the exception that proves the rule. Despite the vigorous thumping of Bibles, televangelists reduce God to an errand boy, a decontextualized "exclamation point" which serves as an "out-of-the-world" theater prop whose sole function is to help stage "the cult of the individual" (whether the individual-deity-in-question be Mother Angelica, Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker or Billy Graham.)
In Canada, students must pass a course in "media manipulation" to graduate high school. Although such course-work may become as meaningless as other routinized "graduation requirements," it is better to provide our young with a measure of dialectical savvy -- however slight -- rather than abandon them to The Disney Dark.
Neo-pagans -- and other animists -- may argue that Truth is accessible without research, debate and rational thought.
While I do not deny that Truth may reveal itself to anyone -- at any time -- revelation will be less frequent if rationality and deep literacy are not adjuncts to Paths of Heart.
What might result from a Constitutional Convention? Admittedly, the broad lineaments of the existing Constitution have proved serviceable for 200 years. However, the exploding number of radically new technologies -- each with its invisible metaphysics -- begs constitutional review.
For example: One can argue that the founding "fathers" --- how would the Constitution read if the nation's founding "mothers" had a hand in its composition? --- understood press and speech freedoms to be limited to the printed and spoken word. If so, the whole graphic revolution falls outside the purview of their "original intent."
In addition to first amendment clarification, a number of governance issues beg attention. Take the two-party system which has effectively separated the American political tradition from mainstream parliamentary democracy throughout Europe. Although every human institution is endowed with advantages and disadvantages, the parliamentary system -- unlike the winner-take-all philosophy undergirding our two-party system -- provides proportional representation for every political constituency. It is true that a minority party may never hold sway, but at least its voice resounds in the legislature. (Shortly before his death, British analyst Alistair Cook insisted that the most important function of the world's universities would be the institution of Departments of Comparative Democracy to insure that individual democracies not suffer the hubris of construing their own experience as "the only way" to manage a commonwealth. According to Cook's vision, no nation would be limited to the tunnel vision of its own experience, but instead, each would remain conscious of evolving democratic process in Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Belgium, Costa Rica, Uruguay, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Israel, Italy, Trinidad and Tobago, etc.)
A constitutional convention could also consider: 1.) the proscription of political advertisements using representational imagery; 2.) the reservation of sub-soil rights to the State, thus creating a national patrimony to finance elements of a meaningful Social Contract (such as a single payer health system); 3.) Bill of Rights disinvestiture for corporate entities; 4.) safeguards for community integrity carrying as much political and moral weight as current guarantees of individual liberty; 5.) a constitutionally-mandated accounting system requiring businesses to make ledger entries for both current - and eventual - environmental/human costs; 6.) mandatory voting - with "open" or "write-in" ballot options guaranteed - if one wishes to retain suffrage; 7.) a maximum income cap; 8.) reversion of vast real estate holdings to perpetual Land Trusts upon death of current owners; 9.) salaries for elected officials pegged at the legislated poverty level; 10.) the elimination of political action committees, etc.
In New York State, citizens are now debating the advisability of a state-wide constitutional convention. Interestingly, New York conservationists oppose such a convention for fear that hard-fought gains -- particularly the protection of the massive Adirondack wilderness preserve -- will be lost.
Although I understand the urge to cling to prior victory, it is too late in the game for fear-of-loss to prevent the embodiment of new vision.
Either the rules of the game change, or the game is over.
As the Biblical proverb puts it: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
The following quotation is excerpted from "America Skips School," by Benjamin R. Barber, Professor of Political Science and director of the Whitman Center at Rutger's University.
"For all the astonishing ("educational") statistics, more astonishing still is that no one seems to be listening. The education crisis is kind of like violence on television: the worse it gets the more inert we become, and the more of it we require to rekindle our attention. We've had a "crisis" every dozen years or so at least since the launch of Sputnik in 1957... Just ten years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned that America's pedagogical inattention was putting America "at risk." What the commission called "a rising tide of mediocrity" was imperiling "our very future as a Nation and a people." What was happening to education was an "act of war..."
The illiteracy of the young turns out to be our own reflected back to us with embarrassing force. We honor ambition, we reward greed, we celebrate materialism, we worship acquisitiveness, we cherish success, and we commercialize the classroom --- and then we bark at the young about the gentle arts of the spirit. We recommend history to the kids but rarely consult it ourselves. We make a fuss about ethics but are satisfied to see it taught as an "add-on"... as if Sunday morning in church could compensate for uninterrupted sinning from Monday to Saturday.
The kids are onto this game... They know that if we really valued schooling, we'd pay teachers what we pay stockbrokers... if we valued citizenship, we'd give national service and civic education more than pilot status; if we valued children, we wouldn't let them be abused, manipulated, impoverished, and killed in their beds by gang-war cross fire and stray bullets. Schools can and should lead, but when they confront a society that in every instance tells a story exactly opposite to the one they are supposed to be teaching, their job becomes impossible. When the society undoes each workday what the school tries to do each school day, schooling can't make much of a difference....
Dropping out is the national pastime, if by dropping out we mean giving up the precious things of the mind and the spirit in which America shows so little interest and for which it offers so little payback. While the professors argue about whether to teach the ancient history of a putatively white Athens or the ancient history of a putatively black Egypt, the kids are watching televised political campaigns driven by mindless image-mongering and inflammatory polemics that ignore history altogether. Why, then, are we so surprised when our students dismiss the debate over the origins of civilization, whether European or Afrocentric, and concentrate on cash-and-carry careers? Isn't the choice a tribute not to their ignorance but to their adaptive intelligence? Although we can hardly be proud of ourselves for what we are teaching them, we should at least be proud of them for how well they've learned our lessons.
According to Lifetime Learning Systems, an educational-software company, "kids spend 40 percent of each day... where traditional advertising can't reach them." Not to worry, says Lifetime Learning in "Advertising Age" promo: "Now, you can enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials created with your specific marketing objectives in mind. Communicate with young spenders directly and, through them, their teachers and families as well." If we redefine young learners as "young spenders," are the young really to be blamed for acting like mindless consumers? Can they become young spenders and still become young critical thinkers, let alone informed citizens?
The fundamental task of education in a democracy is what Tocqueville once called the apprenticeship of liberty: learning to be free. I wonder whether Americans still believe liberty has to be learned and that its skills are worth learning. Or have they been deluded by two centuries of rhetoric into thinking that freedom is "natural" and can be taken for granted?
The claim that men are born free, upon which America was founded, is at best a promising fiction. In real life, as every parent knows, children are born fragile, born needy, born ignorant, born unformed, born weak, born foolish, born dependent --- born in chains. We acquire our freedom over time, if at all. Embedded in families, clans, communities, and nations, we must learn to be free. We may be natural consumers and born narcissists, but citizens have to be made. Liberal-arts education actually means education in the arts of liberty; the "servile arts" were the trades learned by unfree men in the Middle Ages, the vocational education of their day...
Jefferson and Adams both understood that the Bill of Rights offered little protection in a nation without informed citizens. However, once educated (and not merely instructed in the performance of a trade) a people was safe from even the subtlest tyrannies. Jefferson's democratic proclivities rested on his conviction that education could turn a people into a safe refuge -- indeed "the only safe depository" for the ultimate powers of society. "Cherish therefore the spirit of our people," he wrote to Edward Carrington in 1787, "and keep alive their attention. Do not be severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to public affairs, you and I and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors, shall all become wolves."
The logic of democracy begins with public education, proceeds to informed citizenship, and comes to fruition in the securing of rights and liberties. We have been nominally democratic for so long that we presume it is our natural condition rather than the product of persistent effort and tenacious responsibility. We have de-coupled rights from civic responsibilities and severed citizenship from education on the false assumption that citizens just happen. We have forgotten that the "public" in public schools means not just paid for by the public but procreative of the very idea of a public....
At the most elementary level, what our children suffer form most, whether they're hurling racial epithets from fraternity porches or shooting one another down in schoolyards, is the absence of civility. Security guards and metal detectors are poor surrogates for civility, and they make our schools look increasingly like prisons (though they may be less safe than prisons). Jefferson thought schools would produce free men: we prove him right by putting dropouts in jail.
Civility is a work of the imagination, for it is through the imagination that we render others sufficiently like ourselves for them to become subjects of tolerance and respect, if not always affection. (As Cherrie Moraga points out - and as urban gangs prove daily - "It is not really difference the oppressor fears so much as similarity.") Democracy is anything but a "natural" form of association. It is an extraordinary and rare contrivance of cultivated imagination. Give the uneducated the right to participate in making collective decisions, and what results is not democracy but, at best, mob rule....
Finally if we were serious, parents, teachers, and students would be the real players while administrators, politicians, and experts would be secondary, at best advisers whose chief skill ought to be knowing when and how to facilitate the work of teachers and then get out of the way...
There are, of course, those who benefit from the bankruptcy of public education and the failure of democracy. But their blame is no greater than our own: in a world where doing nothing has such dire consequences, complacency has become a greater sin than malevolence..."
Although this essay is entitled "Bread and Circuses", it is not my intention to scrutinize the "Bread" component.
I would note, however, the Italian proverb: "A full stomach does not believe in hunger."
We Americans - whether right-wing "fat cats" or "lean/mean" leftists - spend ungodly amounts of time and energy discussing food or planning what we'll eat.
One curious manifestation of this national obsession with haute cuisine is that "The People's Republic of Berkeley" -- America's erstwhile breeding ground of political unrest -- has so many exotic eateries that its new name is "Gourmet Ghetto." (I'm reminded of a poster parodying Che Guevara in which the Argentine-Cuban rebel is pictured with a Chef's bonnet and barbecue fork. The caption reads: "Chez Guevara.")
While I revel in "Feast Days," it is equally important to recognize the indispensability of fasting. Without a measure of structured abstemiousness, we lose the fighting edge born of regular reminders that the poor are, in fact, hungry.
Americans would be much more "in touch" with the plight of the downtrodden, and would be better able to dedicate themselves to peace and justice, if their lives and larders were - to use Quaker terminology - "plainer."
Khalil Gibran warned of "that lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master."
(The following item appeared in Newsweek (April 6, 1998.) "Remember when vinegar was just vinegar? Now another cooking staple is getting a makeover: salt. Upscale varieties such as Grey Celtic and Fleur de Sel are flying off gourmet-store shelves. Despite the hefty price tag - up to $40.00 a pound for Fleur de Sel, versus 30 cents for Morton - real foodies won't cook without it. "It's the next balsamic vinegar," says Peggy Smith of Marin County, California's Tomales Bay Foods. Salt is pouring in from Japan, Sicily and Hawaii, whose alae (sic) salt's pink hue reflects its red-clay content. Soon stores will sell Danish salt smoked with wood, herbs and seaweed. Sounds yummy. Better stock up on your high-blood-pressure medication."
1.) Who "buys" this stuff? Why? And what is this crap except more "stuff?"
2.) What relationship do these "consumers" have to the Truth of Suffering? and,
3.) How long before a friend looks me in the eye and says, "You've really got to try this salt!")
As mentioned elsewhere in this essay, the recent introduction of television to remote Canadian Indian communities led to the destruction of traditional mores within months. No sooner had television seduced native Americans into wondering - "Who killed J.R.?" - than dog sleds went idle and neighborly visits came to a halt. Simultaneously, respect for elders disappeared, and with it the ancient sense of belonging to one's community and to the land.
The psychic colonization wrought by television allows a very limited number of wealthy people to get - not only "under the skin" - but "inside the neurosystems" of viewers. What is the result of synaptic manipulation? Viewers stare fixedly at a babbling box in rooms secluded from traditional venues of socializing. This isolating propaganda technique is so effective at manufacturing pseudo-consensus that political colonization - in the sense of physical domination - is no longer necessary. Under the sway of Orwell's "1984", Americans used to fear encroachment by Big Brother. Ironically, this anticipated incursion has disappeared from radar now that most Americans actively genuflect at the propaganda box -- the Secular Religion pulpit -- which enshrines "The Official Story."
Aldous Huxley's late-life observation that we will be destroyed -- not by what we hate, but by what we love -- has made psychological and political conquest through televised bondage not only possible but inevitable.
Huxley's point becomes even more barbed in light of recent laboratory investigations. In one experiment, electrodes were implanted in the "pleasure center" of rats' brains. These rats were then housed with an ample food supply at one end of their cage, and a bank of pleasure-triggering levers at the other.
Ghoulishly, rats pulled these levers 'til death by starvation.
My college sweetheart insisted that "everyone is a genius at something."
The education of "all children" -- which is to say the liberation of each child's unique genius -- cannot be accomplished by "off the rack" educational "solutions."
Although America's lumbering, managerially top-heavy public schools perform a passable job meeting the instructional needs of those students destined-to-succeed regardless the obstacles systematically placed on their path, most students' experience of K-12 public schools is a Procrustean trial that effectively truncates their development.
With heads "severed," an untenably large number of public school "graduates" are too stunted to plead their own best interest.
With feet "amputated at the ankles," these same graduates are unable to flee a System uncannily adept at perpetrating - and justifying - massive amounts of gratuitous damage.
In large part, we created our educational system to take advantage of purported "economies of scale." These economies - recommended by "the best and the brightest" - have become the sacrificial altar for many of our young people. In view of the continuing tragedy in America's ghettoes, it is not inappropriate to employ the term "human sacrifice" to refer to the destruction that is taking place.
Highly trained educational "experts" have devised a system that stultifies, warps and routinely sacrifices children, while stonewalling urgently needed educational decentralization.
By reducing the scale of our prison-like schools -- now "made safe" by armed guards and metal detectors -- it would be possible to honor every child. By devolving educational responsibility to neighborhood mentors and small-scale "children's homes" (to borrow Maria Montessori's term) it would be possible to love every child.
Albert Camus observed that "genius is having a profound grasp of the obvious."
Who, but a madman -- or an "expert" -- would advocate the placement of 5000 teenagers under a single roof? (Not that a student body of 1500 is significantly less bizarre, although admittedly, large student rosters do field better football teams.)
If the money currently spent on each public school student -- approximately $5500.00 per year -- were supplied directly to teachers contracted to educate children in their own homes, or in students' homes, or in community centers such as Church halls, we could reduce the nation's student/teacher ratio to 5:1 and never again suffer a school bond issue. This single measure would also eliminate public instruction's bloated bureaucracy, a massive scam which currently dedicates half of all educational money to "administrative expenses." (In New York City, the public school system has sixty (60) times as many administrators per 10,000 students as NYC's vastly more successful parochial system.)
The following letter to the Chapel Hill News -- unpublished despite the paper's policy of publishing all letters -- addresses the way in which "the slow stain of the world" (to borrow Emily Dickinson's apt phrase) has insinuated itself into putative educational reform while most real questions go unasked.
Chapel Hill's willingness to surrender public school management to Chris Whittle is both sensible and tragic.
Whittle is the fellow who traded television sets for the "right" to broadcast daily news-and-commercials to captive public school students.
I wouldn't be surprised if Whittle raises Chapel Hill test scores.
I'm even less surprised that administratively officious, politically hamstrung Public Schools have failed to educate enough citizens to insure the survival of meaningful democracy. In fact, there is likely linkage between the national obsession with "test scores" - at which the Edison Project purportedly excels - and the fact that many citizens lack political insight and interest: everyone is just too damn busy --- young people "staying on task", adults just "doing their jobs."
However, Whittle's very success reveals to a Trojan horse.
We have entered a paradoxical era in which marketplace "success" regularly precedes human failure.
In analyzing the industrial "conquest" of America, Wendell Berry noted that "the only escape from the destiny of victimization has been to 'succeed' --- that is, to 'make it' into the class of exploiters, and then to remain so specialized and so 'mobile' as to be unconscious of the effects of one's life or livelihood."
Given that Chapel Hill High authorizes the operation of a Taco Bell franchise inside the school cafeteria, it is predictable that the Taco Bell on Franklin Street is the only downtown eatery with a booming business while nearby independent vendors tumble like dominoes.
The community is, of course, concerned about these changes, but is also debilitated by the carefully acculturated reflex that presumes "you can't argue with success."
However, it is precisely an argument with success that must be crafted. (Perhaps the crucifixion would serve as a starting point...)
Surveying the wreckage of public instruction, there is no shortage of blame. As always, the political Right prioritizes effective inculcation of the three R's with little concern for the Common Good. The increasingly fastidious "Left", on the other hand, categorically rejects any reform that would permit public financing of all meritorious educational experiments, regardless their aegis.
Amidst this political polarization, we have extruded two predictable systems of education. One is driven by Government: the other is driven by Big Business. (Forgive me for positing the fictive separation of government and business...)
The national debate on educational reform is oddly ignorant of the proven success of Friends Schools, Waldorf Schools, parochial schools, Yeshivas, home-schools and a rich array of private academies. Furthermore, these genuinely multi-cultural success stories have been "purchased" for less than half the per capita investment in public school kids.
While Chris Whittle's charges receive the same allotment as public sector students, The Public is blithely unaware that private schools would be delighted to expand their educational coverage if supplied only 80% of the funds dedicated to each public school pupil. (The remaining 20% could be reinvested in public schools to satisfy those educators who argue that transformation is hampered by lack of funds.)
To commit ourselves to educational transformation - and not just the mechanical processes of quantifiable instructional progress - we must overcome our hobbling obsession with the impermeable separation of Church and State. As evidenced by America's Congressional Chaplain --- whose invocation opens every session of Congress --- the founding Fathers were not apprehensive of public support for religious enterprise. What American revolutionaries abhorred - and rightly so - was the establishment of one particular religion (such as The Church of England) whose power was coterminous with the State. As John Adams -- co-author of the Declaration of Independence and author of the three volume "Defense of the Constitution of the United States" -- put it: "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
Only by healing the debilitating split between Church and State can we recognize the need for educational processes that transcend the technical. Only when this split is healed can we dedicate our educational structures to the creation of a compassionate citizenry focused on the Common Good. What we have developed is a self-serving, self-interested citizenry dedicated to the status quo.
What is the status quo? It is the shameless merger of a putatively democratic government with laissez faire plutocrats like Chris Whittle. As neo-liberalism sweeps the planet, it is increasingly evident that the merged interests of business and government comprise America's de facto State religion. In turn, this secular religion has become an overpowering threat to personal, social and political integrity. A meaningful separation of powers would sever these two constituents instead of flogging the dead horse of Church/State separation.
"Religion" derives from the Latin words "re ligare" meaning to "re-ligature." Viewed in this light, the purpose of religion is to heal the existential split that divides every human psyche. Whether one attempts to heal this split through sex, drugs or 'the almighty greenback' -- "In God We Trust" -- is, ultimately, no different from attempting to re-integrate through Buddhism (which is professedly agnostic), Jainism (which is professedly atheistic), Judeo-Christianity (the world's premier monotheistic value system), or Hinduism (whose profusion of gods is endless).
At bottom, any value system - theist, agnostic, atheist - fits the functional definition of "religion." This leveling fact should be axiomatic to the discussion of educational reform.
Tom Lehrer pointed out that "political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."
I would point out that the education of "John Doe" became obsolete when compulsory government schooling became a state monopoly.
In the end, I encourage public schools -- and Chris Whittle -- to take their best shot. However, if we valued the substance of multi-culturalism as much as we pretend to value its forms, the educational playing field would be leveled from sea to shining sea.
In this regard, it is notable that Holland publicly finances all educational efforts whether public, private or ecclesiastical. Is it coincidental that this even-handed, multi-cultural support for every social constituency has helped to create Europe's most tolerant society?
How did we ever persuade ourselves that government monopoly schools --- and their bedfellows in big business --- would aspire to any end other than perpetuating The Official Story?
In a culture driven by "sound bites" and the miserly allocation of "column inches", it is impossible to re-formulate the terms of any significant debate while cleaving to brevity. I refer any reader interested in a fuller examination of the themes discussed above to the writings of Ivan Illich, Neil Postman, and John Taylor Gatto.
To understand this "new moral order" we might re-consider the Mosaic Decalogue. Neil Postman notes that the second commandment "prohibits the Israelites from making concrete images of anything. 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.' I wonder, as so many others have, why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking. Iconography thus became blasphemy so that a new kind of God could enter a culture. People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centered to image-centered might profit by reflecting on this Mosaic injunction."
Television -- as a metaphor for the way we conduct our lives -- establishes not only the primacy of entertainment but the relentless necessity of entertainment. Entertainment has become the sine qua non of all human activity, the fundamental measure of human satisfaction.
Politics is an outpost of celebrity.
Religion - at least in its popular televangelical form - is modeled on celebrity worship.
Sexuality is modeled on "Bay Watch" where "Life is a beach" and "fucking is fun!" (Meanwhile, women grow dissatisfied with their less-than-perfect bodies; single person households burgeon as never before in history; and both sexes blithely abandon relationships when "the thrill is gone.")
Although educators also try to pass as entertainers, their attempts are hobbled by long exposure. How can hour-long classes - spread over 180 school days - contend with weekly "shows" comprised of 3 second visual clips? Nevertheless, teachers do their best, importing television (and other "monitor amusements") as the foundation of classroom activity. In fact, it has become impossible for teachers to manage students without help from electronic monitors and their tightly-edited, rapid-fire imagery. In the minds of most youngsters, "real life" -- unfolding at organic speed -- has become a colossal yawn.
On the industrial front, workers are increasingly confined to cubicles, each with its resident "monitor." This phenomenon has given rise to the quaint expression --- "cube farms." "Cube farms" are hive-like isolation chambers where individuals spend most of their waking hours staring at computer screens. Only extraordinary events provoke so-called "prairie-dogging" --- those rare occasions when "cubists" rise to their collective feet to memorialize an extraordinary event such as stock broker "cubists" jumping higher than their padded walls whenever the Dow reaches a new high.
It has become a matter of political and psychological concern to determine the threshold at which pollution of "the environment of consciousness" creates a public health threat.
There has been little, if any, examination of the suasive force built-into the context of compulsory government schooling.
What is the contextual effect of segregating children in large, industrial-style buildings where The State acts in loco parentis?
There can be little doubt that the context of compulsory government schooling enables parents to do less parenting, while children come to believe that mercenary caregivers appropriately spend more time with them than parents do.
Compulsory government schooling insures that everyone spends less time at home, thus normalizing - and conditioning - youngsters to spend their later years in physical plants where someone else owns the means of production.
Children spend disproportionate amounts of time in the company of age-identical peers, simultaneously losing contact with old people. Instead of the casual nurturance that formerly characterized the interaction of children intermingling from across the age spectrum, age-segregated children - being at the same skill level - are less able to help one another and therefore grow more dependent on adult mercenaries "to get the job done." At the elder end of the age spectrum, those who might have been wise counselors have become "zoo specimens" properly viewed at convalescent facilities.
Perhaps the most sweeping arc of conditioned response induced by compulsory government schooling is that children are habituated to view large-scale State-sponsored interventions as the appropriate way to manage social "problems."
Two decades ago, Rhode Island Representative David Carlin examined the motive force underlying decisions driven by conscience in comparison with the motive force attached to decisions driven by choice.
To feel the full impact of Carlin's argument, readers should be prepared - in theory at least - to bet the lives of their children on one proposition or the other.
First: imagine a modern American who has chosen to combat obesity through Weight Watchers. Now imagine this same American in a room full of chocolate eclairs, buttered lobster and avocado/shrimp salad dressed in a creamy sauce.
Now imagine a practicing Islamic or an Orthodox Jew both of whom have been fasting for weeks. At the end of their fast, they suddenly find themselves locked in a room crowded with delicacies all containing pork.
Keeping in mind that your children's lives are at stake, which person will eat first?
In the Gospel of Matthew, 15:18, Y'eshua the Nazarene observes: "What comes out of (a person) has its origins in the heart; and that is what defiles a person."
The "heart" is the environmental ground of behavior. If one's heart is polluted, one cannot do the right thing despite willful effort. Unless the "heart" is reasonably pure, any attempt "to do the right thing" will lack spiritual authority and may evoke more harm than benefit.
Prior to the modern world's saturation with electronic media -- and the resulting drift toward "virtual reality" -- systematic pollutants were seldom powerful enough to "turn one's head." This is not to say that people's heads were never turned, but that they used to be turned for far more personal reasons.
In many ways, virtual reality is the self-validating culmination of de-personalization.
It is likely that many Americans are depressed - or at least dispirited - because their addiction to televised entertainment prevents them from exercising real power. Television viewing erodes creativity, diminishes interpersonal vitality, and creates optimal conditions for chronic, low-grade despondency.
The notion that "tools are neither moral nor immoral except insofar as their use is moral or immoral" lies at the heart of the American heresy.
Given our philosophical surrender to utilitarianism, "the invisible metaphysics of technology" has become so imperious that anyone advocating caution - or suggesting review of the culture's technological trajectory - is tarred as a Luddite. (The actual history of the Luddite movement is very provocative: rarely has "the labor movement" been so insightful or determined.)
On the other hand, if the utilitarian bias of radical materialism were replaced by any traditional system of metaphysics, utility is suddenly defined as virtuous only to the extent that it serves The Common Good.
The present apotheosis of utility has caused the modern world to drop any discussion of the proper relationship between means and ends. In the relentless light of self-validating utilitarianism, we assume that "if a thing can be done, it must be done." For all our agitated insistence on freedom of choice, we actually choose quite little, preferring that the System -- predicated on a premise of automatic progress -- choose for us.
Although this surrender of autonomy is temporarily relieving, any assumption that progress is inevitable is antithetical to human freedom. Unless we relinquish our belief in "automatic progress" for the rigorous disciplines of freedom, we will discover that our birthright has been sold for a mess of pottage.
"The medical campaign to eliminate pain overlooks the connection between pain and happiness. As we decrease our sensitivity to pain we also decrease our ability to experience the simple joys and pleasures of life, the result is that stronger and stronger stimuli - drugs, violence, horror - are needed to provide people in an anesthetic society with a sense of being alive.. Increasingly, pain-killing promises an artificially painless life and turns people into unfeeling spectators of their own decaying selves.
The very idea of having pain killed by somebody else, rather than facing it, was alien to traditional cultures because pain was a part of man's participation in a marred universe. Its meaning was cosmic and mythic and not individual and technical. Pain was the experience of the soul's evolution, and the soul was present all over the body. The doctor could not eliminate the need to suffer without doing away with the patient." "Medical Nemesis", Ivan Illich
"Suffering is the source of all consciousness." Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
"In 1973 I helped organize an all-day conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by Ralph Nader on behalf of Indigena, an organization devoted to creating a pan-Indian movement in the Western Hemisphere. Indigena gives particular attention to the struggle of South American Indians, who are presently suffering a fate previously visited upon the tribes of our own Great Plains and elsewhere. They are being slaughtered and driven off their land or, in the more "enlightened" countries, driven onto reservations and forced to assimilate. Speaking in cultural terms, it's death either way. All of this is done to make way for mineral exploration and development.
Before the press conference Nader advised the Indians and sympathetic anthropologists to be specific: to give the names of the corporations doing the dirty work, name the government officials, offer details of actual events. Understanding the bias of the media, Nader advised (correctly) that the information should be short, specific and punchy.
However, the people from Indigena believed, also correctly, that the only way the members of the press could possibly care enough about Indian people to attempt to give a viewing audience a real sense of Indian-ness, and therefore what was being lost, was to attempt to convey some Indian-ness at the press conference itself.
So, ignoring Nader's advice, the Indians devoted the first hour or so of the conference to ceremonies, prayers, songs, stories, testimonies to the Great Spirit. About 90 percent of the press left during these goings-on.
Next, the anthropologists got up and told rambling stories about the impact on an Amazon tribe when helicopters start flying overhead speaking to the Indians via loudspeakers, or when machinery is brought in. They described how a culture that has been functioning well for 2000 years can be destroyed in only one generation of technological assault.
A little before the lunch break Nader spoke, rattling off the facts and figures, the corporate names, the government policies, the American collaborations and so on. It was too late, most of the press had left.
By the time the lunch break was over, the audience was composed mainly of Indigena supporters and friends. Four hours' worth of new information on the conditions of Indian people in Paraguay, Colombia and Venezuela was shared among these friends, but as far as the press was concerned it never happened. There was no press there at all.
The net result of the press conference, which had taken months to organize and cost thousands of dollars in travel, telephone and printing, was that not one story appeared on radio or television. Only two media outlets --- The New York Times and The Washington Post --- carried any mention of it at all. Both these stories were carried in the back pages of the paper, were about six inches long, and quoted entirely from Nader. In the case of the Times story, an equally long report ran alongside, quoting Brazilian government officials denying the truth of every single point Nader had made. The Great Spirit was not mentioned.
When I tell this story to political-activist friends, their answer, more often than not, is that the Indians have got to be trained in how better to get their stories through the media. In other words, they must drop one cultural mind-set and function in another. Only then can they preserve the former. And yet, in learning the linear model, the technological communication patterns, the objectified forms that modern media honor and disseminate, native Americans undergo internal change to fit the form.
The question is this: Is it possible to adopt the hard-edged, fact-fascinated, aggressive, gross form in order to preserve a way of thinking that is completely alien to this model and cannot be conveyed through it?
To use the computer, one must develop computer-mind. To use the car, car-mind. To build the bomb, bomb-mind. To manipulate the media, one must be manipulative. To use television, which broadcasts flatness and one-dimensionality, it is necessary to think flatly and one-dimensionally.
The struggle of Indian people today is as much a consciousness struggle as it is a civil rights battle. To the extent that it is framed exclusively as a civil rights issue, the Indians lose, at least in cultural terms. Individual Indians may win "a right," or a small payment for previous injustice, but their children and Indians of the future will not be Indians anymore; they will have been moved inside nationwide artificial reality with the rest of us. Since television itself is an outgrowth of the prevailing consciousness, it is logical that the outcome of an issue argued within it would be predetermined.
But imagine for a moment that television did not exist. Let's say that only print media existed.
It so happens that print media, while not perfect, can convey a lot more about Indian ways of mind than electronic media can because print can express much greater depth, complexity, change of mood, subtlety, detail and so on. Books, especially, can be written in much slower rhythms, encouraging a perception that builds, stage by stage, over the length of a long reading process that may take many hours, or days. Of course, publishers, these days, also riding the rapids of modern life and responsive to commodity-mind, discourage books that move at deliberate speed, preferring those that are punchy, fast-reading, highlighted, riding the tops of the waves, like television sitcoms, or advertising.....
This is not to say that.... books are sufficient. Only direct experience is. But if the battle were fought in books, Indians might win. If print were the only media in the world, the natural advantage of today's dominant forms --- corporate, military, technological, scientific --- over concrete ways of thinking would be vastly diminished. In a wider information field, the Indian mind would have greater validity. So people who are interested in celebrating and saving Indian cultures, like people interested in the arts or ecology or any nonhierarchical political forms, might be well advised to cease all efforts to transmit these intentions through television and devote greater effort to undermining television itself and accelerating the struggle within other information fields." "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" by Jerry Mander. (See Mander's account of a PBS special entitled "The New Indians," narrated by Robert Redford, a program that was followed by a Public Broadcasting apology for corporate America narrated by Ben Wattenburg. ibid., pp 328 - 334)
The following summary is excerpted from the "Postscript" of Jerry Mander's "Four Arguments for the Elimination Television." (1978, William Morrow & Co.) Mander's analysis confirms William Blake's observation that "We become what we perceive" --- serviceable advice for anyone determining which gods are worthy of worship.
"Television suppresses and replaces creative human imagery, encourages mass passivity, and trains people to accept authority. It is an instrument of transmutation, turning people into their TV images.
By stimulating action while simultaneously suppressing it, television contributes to hyperactivity.
Television limits and confines human knowledge. It changes the way humans receive information from the world. In place of natural multidimensional (multisensorial) information reception, it offers a very narrow-gauged sense experience, diminishing the amount and kind of information people receive. Television keeps awareness contained within its own rigid channels, a tiny fraction of the natural information field. Because of television we believe we know more, but we know less.
(On television, facts "work" better than art. Quantity is more appealing than quality. Information is more packageable than wisdom. The finite is more accessible than the infinite. Prurience is preferable to satisfaction. Conflict is more appealing than peace. Death is more attractive than life. Narrowness and superficiality are more "showable" than breadth and depth. Hatred, hedonism and nihilism receive higher Neilson ratings than mystical rapture or the fulfillment of "agape.")
By unifying everyone within its framework and by centralizing experience within itself, television virtually replaces environment. It accelerates our alienation from nature and therefore accelerates the destruction of nature. It moves us farther inside an already pervasive artificial reality. It furthers the loss of personal knowledge and places most information gathering in the hands of a techno-scientific-industrial elite.
Television technology is inherently antidemocratic. Because of its cost, the limited kind of information it can disseminate, the way it transforms people who use it, and the fact that a few speak while millions absorb, television is suitable for use only by the most powerful corporate interests in the country. They inevitably use it to redesign human minds into a channeled, artificial, commercial form, that nicely fits the artificial environment. Television commoditizes human beings, who are then easier to control. Meanwhile, those who control television consolidate their power.
Television aids the creation of societal conditions which produce autocracy; it also creates the appropriate mental patterns for it and simultaneously dulls all awareness that this is happening."
It should be pointed out that if we tried to build education on the single pattern of the scientific idea of man, we could only do so by distorting or warping this idea: for we should have to ask what is the nature and destiny of man, and we would (then) be pressing the only idea at our disposal, that is the scientific one, for an answer to our question. Then we would try, contrary to its type, to draw from science a kind of metaphysics.
From the logical point of view, we would have a spurious metaphysics disguised as science and yet deprived of any really philosophical insight.
From the practical point of view, we would have a denial or misconception of those very realities and values without which education loses all human sense or becomes the training of an animal for the utility of the state. (Emphasis mine)
From "The Terry Lectures",
delivered by Jacques Maritain
Yale University, 1943
The materialist axioms of modern science -- even if true -- lead to the progressive commodification of culture. By the commodification of culture, I refer to the ongoing replacement of value by price. This reductionist tendency not only destroys Value, but gradually converts commodity consumers into the very cynics whom Oscar Wilde categorized as "know(ing) the price of everything and the value of nothing."
The wounds opened by the ongoing dismemberment of Value are simultaneously stanched by the proliferating consolations of consumer culture. Any assertion that "we humans are not are own, but are ultimately possessed by a dharma/God/Light that transcends the human condition" is a laughable anachronism in a culture centered on purchasable pleasure.
Traditional culture -- which is to say cultures rooted in transcendent value -- cannot survive the assault of over-productive technopoly.
Ironically, scientific materialism will - in the end - fall prey to the same assault it has launched on "the spirit". ("Not by bread [nor 'designer salt'] alone...")
First, we will become increasingly clever monkeys. Then -- under the aegis of technocratic Statism -- we will directly or indirectly kill one another.
"Without the inner beauty of a free and harmonious life, (fine food) and eau de cologne can become merely forms of barbarism.
Without tolerance and broad spiritual understanding, hygiene will only make for clean animals, very clean and very healthy, but also very animal. External riches will merely smother us, if we do not cultivate inner riches." Miguel de Unamuno
The following passage is taken from "Raising Happy, Healthy Children" by John Rosemond, professor of psychology in the Pediatrics and Family Practice departments at Charlotte Memorial Hospital.
"Since the average American child spends more time watching television than doing any other single thing during his formative years, we must conclude that television has become a primary environment for our children and will, therefore, influence their development in significant, far-reaching ways....
(Most parents say that their) child watches no more than 15 hours of television a week.... I'm going to burst your bubble. Studies have shown that most parents tend to underestimate their children's television viewing time by approximately 50%. So, if you think your child is watching 15 hours of television a week, the actual number is probably much higher than that - perhaps as high as the national average of thirty....
In order to see firsthand what I'm talking about, the next time your child is watching television, look at him instead of the program... What is your child doing? The answer, of course, is, "Nothing." Not one competency, skill or gift is being exercised.
Regardless of the program, therefore, television-watching inhibits the development of initiative, curiosity, resourcefulness, creativity, motivation, imagination, reasoning and problem-solving abilities, communication skills, social skills, fine and gross-motor skills, and eye-hand coordination.... Because television causes the child to stare at, rather than scan, the environment, it's safe to add that visual tracking skills are not being strengthened.
Television is habit-forming... The flicker is there to maintain the interest of the viewer. It "hooks" the viewer's attention and holds him in its seductively hypnotic embrace. The constant flickering of the screen is stimulating in a pleasant sort of way, and positive stimulation amounts to reward. In effect, each flicker is the equivalent of an electronic M&M, positively reinforcing the viewer for his increasing passivity. When we say that a person is "glued to the tube," we aren't far from fact.
In the language of psychology, television puts the viewer on a "variable interval schedule" of reinforcement. Variable because the interval between flickers isn't constant, reinforcing because each flicker is pleasantly stimulating. Now, listen to this passage from a contemporary psychology text: "Research indicates that learning under variable reward conditions lasts longer than learning under any other reward schedule." In other words, variable rewards result in the formation of persistent and possibly lifelong habits.
(Furthermore,) because television programming shifts constantly and capriciously backward, forward, and laterally in time (not to mention from subject matter to subject matter), television fails to promote logical, sequential thinking, which is essential to understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. This causes difficulties in both following directions and anticipating consequences.
(The detrimental effects of television watching are) the same regardless of whether the child is watching "Sesame Street," an adult movie on late-night cable, or a video rental. In each case the child is watching in the same passive manner. This means that for the preschool child, program content is a largely irrelevant issue as far as the child's development is concerned. (An interesting note: "Studies have consistently failed to demonstrate that "Sesame Street" imparts any lasting academic advantage to its young consumers. In fact, a 1975 study conducted by the Russell Sage Foundation concluded that heavy viewers of "Sesame Street" demonstrated fewer gains in cognitive skills than light viewers.... Watching television is a passivity, not an activity. It does not properly engage human potential -- whether it be motor, intellectual, creative, social, sensory, verbal, or emotional. By its very nature, and regardless of the program, television is a deprivational experience for the preschool child.)
Since 1955, when American children began watching significant amounts of television. scholastic achievement test scores have steadily declined. As a nation, our literacy level has declined as well. Today, nearly one of every five seventeen-year olds in this country is functionally illiterate, meaning he/she cannot read with the comprehension at a fifth grade level. The functionally illiterate individual cannot read a newspaper, a recipe, or a manual for operating a power tool. Both of these trends become even more alarming when one considers that academic standards are lower today than they were in 1955. Today's fifth-grade reader, for instance, is comparable to a third-grade reader from 1955.
Since 1955, learning disabilities have become nearly epidemic in our schools, both public and private.... Some researchers estimate that as many as three out of ten children in our schools today are learning disabled to one degree or another. Interestingly enough, the symptoms that characterize a population of learning-disabled children and the list of developmental deficiencies inherent to the television-watching experience are one and the same....
... an almost perfect parallel exists between the list of competency skills that television fails to exercise and the symptoms characteristic of a population of learning-disabled children. But learning disabilities are just the tip of the iceberg. Again and again, veteran teachers - those who are in the best position to have seen the steady decline in competency skills I've been talking about - tell me that today's children are, as a rule, less resourceful, less imaginative, and not nearly as motivated as the children they knew and taught in pre-television time....
I know a woman who taught second grade in public schools for 44 years - from 1934 until 1978. In her early years, she would bring her students back from lunch and read them stories from books that had few, if any, pictures. Up through the 1940s and early 1950s, her story time lasted one hour. In the late 1950s, however, she began noticing that most of her children were no longer able to sit still and pay attention for that length of time. So, around 1960, she cut her story "hour" to thirty minutes. By the mid-1960s, even though she was now reading from books that had pictures on every page, she again cut story time to 15 minutes. IN 1972, because her students were unable to sit and pay attention for longer than 3 to 5 minutes, she eliminated story time altogether.
.... You take a child whose formative years have been dominated by television - a child whose skills are weak because television has pacified nearly every aspect of his inborn potential for competency - and you put that child in a classroom where the learning expected of him demands resourcefulness, initiative, curiosity, motivation, imagination, eye-hand coordination, active listening, adequate communication skills, functional reasoning and problem-solving skills, and a long attention span, and the distinct possibility exists that that child is going to have problems....
A vicious cycle quickly develops. The more the child watches television, the more television pacifies his or her initiative, resourcefulness, imagination, and creativity. When the television is off, instead of finding something with which to entertain himself, he looks for Mom to take over where the television left off. He complains of being bored, he whines for Mom to find something for him to do, he demands that she become his playmate. Partly out of fear that the child will interpret any denial as rejection, Mom is at first likely to cooperate with these complaints and demands. But when it becomes obvious that the child can't get enough of her, Mom begins looking for an excuse to let him watch television. Any excuse will do, but "Sesame Street" is one of the "best."
The child becomes increasingly addicted to watching television and his mother becomes increasingly addicted to letting him watch...
Before television, children went outside to play.... It is the television-generation who complains of having nothing to do... This is not a coincidence....
.... the fact that Charlie can watch television for two to three hours doesn't contradict a diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder... Furthermore, television's constantly shifting perspective is perfectly suited to a child with attention-deficit disorder.
Charlie can watch television for three hours and not have to watch any one thing for longer than ten seconds, four seconds being the norm. In other words, television is actually reinforcing Charlie's short attention span. The longer he watches, the more his short attention span becomes habit.
Where else in the real world does the scene in front of you flicker every few seconds. Nowhere. So, the perceptual habits Charlie develops while watching television will be worthless, even harmful, in other environments, particularly school.
(European children watch less than five hours of television a week, and American children watch between 25 and 30. Can large amount of television cause learning disabilities? Developmental theory strongly suggests it can.... The more creatively active the child is during his or her pre-school - or formative - years, the more talented he or she will eventually be.)
After reading Marie Winn's eye-opening book, "The Plug-In Drug", my wife and I moved the television out of our children's lives, and eventually ours as well. After about three months of hearing what mean parents we were, we began to notice a definite change for the better in both children's behavior and attitude. To begin with, they stopped complaining of having nothing to do. They became more outgoing, communicative, and affectionate. They became more active socially, and we saw marked improvement in their social skills. They stopped bickering at each other as often. We saw a marked improvement in their senses of humor. They began reading more and even asking to go to the library. When we'd go to the shopping mall, they'd ask to go to the bookstore instead of the toystore. Their grades improved.
But by far the very best result of removing television from their lives was that both children began acting like children again. Their play became more creative and imaginative...
Within a year, both kids had developed hobbies which they are very much involved with to this day...
Over the years, I've talked to many other parents who've had the courage to remove television from their children's lives. They all say basically the same thing: The children become more imaginative, resourceful, self-sufficient, conversational, interesting, and outgoing. Never have I heard anything negative.
VIDEO GAMES: .... At the very least, these devices are worthless. At most, they are dangerous.... Not only are video games noncreative and nonconstructive, they're also stressful.
I've watched lots of children, including my own, "play" video games. They don't look like they're having fun. Typically, the body is tense, the facial expression strained. Then there's the howl of protest, if not temper tantrum, when the "Game Over!" sign flashes. If this is fun, things have certainly changed since I was a kid. I'd call this "Type A" behavior.
In the second place, video games lead to addictive behavior. In this case, the "high" is the score. The problem is, no score is every high enough. As in a drug addiction where the addict must constantly increase his dose in order to feel satisfied, the video-game addicted child becomes obsessed with constantly increasing his score.
... Put a child, or any human being for that matter, in a stress-producing environment for long periods of time, and you're going to see negative behavior changes. Prolonged stress lowers an individual's tolerance for frustration and increases the likelihood of conflict in relationships as well as other acting-out behaviors. Eventually, the individual's coping skills break down completely. Keep in mind also that children are far more vulnerable than adults to the effects of stress."