Craig Russell: Television and the State
- Television and the State
by Craig Russell
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing
that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the
water under the earth." ~ Exodus 20:4
Gore Vidal said once � somewhat jokingly but accurately nonetheless � that the
National Security State under which we now live would have been impossible
without air conditioning. It used to be, he said, that Washington DC would be
abandoned in summertime because it was simply too hot and muggy for government
workers to stay there, but with the advent of air conditioning, they could
comfortably remain to plan and plot and control year round.
There�s no doubt that the power of the State is fueled by oil and powered by
electricity. The State relies on technology. You could perhaps make the case
that the modern State is a direct result of technology, a logical extension of
its principles. Technology, of course, gives the State bombs, jets, and
satellites: in other words, its weapons and its modes of transportation and
But the most powerful and arguably most essential of the State�s technological
tools is the one that reaches directly into a person�s mind. And the beauty
part of it, at least for the State, is that it has no need to order the People
either to obtain one of these devices or to submit themselves to it. Americans
want them. They�re eager to have them. They want and crave them. Some will
spend thousands of dollars to have the biggest and most elaborate of them.
People voluntarily, willingly, eagerly, offer up their minds and their bodies
and their souls to it, exposing themselves for hours on end to its toxic,
Without televisions in every home in America � without so many watching them so
much � the power of the State would be greatly diminished, for its power in the
end depends upon the consent of the People, and that consent would not and
could not exist without the boob tube.
It is, perhaps, not a mere coincidence that the rise of television coincided
with the rise of what Vidal calls the National Security State . The State knew
very well that television had the potential to become the greatest mass medium
of all time. It could reach millions of people at the same time with the same
imagery. And it also knew that control of that imagery would give it
unprecedented power over the People because it would for the first time have
the ability to circumvent the troublesome, quarrelsome left brain � the part
that uses words, that parses and doubts, that questions, that makes curious and
sometimes highly individualistic connections, that uses logic and creates
meaning � because images are received by the accepting, holistic, unquestioning
right brain. And while it�s certainly true that pictures can be questioned or
interpreted, they don�t have to be questioned or interpreted and quite often
aren�t. But, even (or, perhaps, especially) unquestioned, they still remain in
the mind and they still have an effect � often a very powerful one because they
engage the emotions rather than rationality.
Have you ever wondered about the Second of the Biblical Ten Commandments? I
found this the most curious of them when I was a boy. It seems pretty clear
why God would want to prohibit murder and stealing. But why would God prohibit
�graven images�? The version in Deuteronomy is even more explicit than the
version in Exodus: �Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves�lest ye corrupt
yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the
likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the
likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, the likeness of any thing
that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters
beneath the earth.� Why does God have a bug up His butt about images?
In his intriguing book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain says
that �having discovered the immense utility of alphabetic writing, (the
Israelites) considered iconic information to be a threat to their newfound
skill� (p. 83) and explains that the first four Commandments reinforce �the
ability of a people to think abstractly, linearly, and sequentially. Together
they encourage a mindset that enhances the use and facility of alphabet
literacy� (p. 85).
Literacy gives us this ability to think abstractly, sequentially, and linearly
� literacy gives us the ability to think, period. And in the postwar era, the
State has systematically denied literacy to the People on one hand while giving
them television with the other. As John Taylor Gatto points out in The
Underground History of American Education, the illiteracy rate by 1940 was 20%
for blacks and 4% for whites. Sixty years later, �40% of blacks and 17% of
whites can�t read at all. Put another way, black illiteracy doubled, white
illiteracy quadrupled . . . . we spend three to four times as much real money
on schooling as we did 60 years ago, but 60 years ago virtually everyone, black
or white, could read.� And the cause of this? Gatto says that �one change is
indisputable, well-documented, and easy to track. During WWII, American public
schools massively converted to non-phonetic ways of teaching reading� (p. 53).
And television not only bypasses the questioning, literate left brain, it
apparently shuts it right down. Joyce Nelson reports in The Perfect Machine on
a researcher who in 1969 discovered that television �effortlessly transmits
information not thought about at the time of exposure� (p. 70). He and other
researchers, she tells us, found that �watching television tends to shut down
the left hemisphere, disengaging the information processing of this area of the
brain . . . . we must recognize that he is referring to logical-critical
thought � the thinking of the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere, which has
its own mode of thinking, stays tuned� (p. 71).
This ability to transmit �information not thought about at the time of
exposure� accounts, among other things, for the basic content change in
commercials since the Sixties. Then commercials tended to concentrate on the
left brain and tried to give viewers logical reasons for buying particular
products. But over the last 30 years, commercials have become increasingly
focused on the right brain, providing sub- or non-logical persuasion to
consume. Think, for example, of the recent Levi�s commercial in which a young
couple walking through an empty city withstand a charging herd of buffalo.
It also accounts for the State�s need for television, because it�s the power of
the picture, the unreasoning emotion of the right brain, that allows the growth
and acceptance of the National Security State . Television provides constant,
easily accessible pictures of danger that only the State can protect us from.
Nelson points out that one of the first functions of television was to create
fear of Communism and thus justify the permanent war economy by providing the
People with an enemy (p. 40-6). Today, from the drug shooting on the local
news to the latest episode of "NYPD Blue" and the nationally televised fall of
the World Trade Center, television continues to provide horror and tension much
more immediately and effectively than words ever could and in turn generates
the emotional intensity, the unthinking, visceral fear, that the State needs to
justify its actions to the People and take as much power as it wants.
Vidal was right about air conditioning. But that just set the physical stage.
Television has helped provide the unthinking, un-critical American mind-set
that has allowed the People to view the increasingly fascistic National
Security State as its savior and protector. And one of the first steps in
ending this virulent threat to our lives and our liberties is to deny
television free and unfettered access to our minds. Images are corrupting us.
If we want to begin to weaken the power of the State and start to re-establish
freedom in our lives, we have to �just say no� to the most powerful and
destructive drug of all: television.