The other day I watched the film “Good Night and Good Luck”. In the opening scene Edward R. Murrow, the famous World War 2 correspondent and television journalist stands at a podium to accept an award from his peers. The film then flashes back a few years to the time of the McCarthy hearings, and Murrow’s current affairs program exposing McCarthy, or more to the point, where he allowed McCarthy to expose himself. At the time CBS was under commercial and political pressure to toe the sponsors’ line.
The film is about a brief few years, a simpler time where truth seekers had a voice within the new medium of television, and where the forces that nourished and opposed them at the same time were easier to distinguish than they are now. But at the beginning of the film, at the podium accepting his award, Murrow laments the rot that has already set in. I am astounded, as he is speaking in 1958, soon after the beginning of the television age.
Today we still have the independent intelligence of the PBS network in the United States, and ABC and SBS in Australia, and shows such as Frontline, or Four Corners, amid the colorful and sugary riot on our screens, so TV isn’t a total narcotic, but these shows, though frank and well researched, seem less courageous and less effective than anything Murrow did fifty years ago, perhaps due to the heavily diluting effect of the garbage-choked media sea they swim in.
Bearing this in mind, I can think of two fundamental types of tyranny that exercise control through the medium of television. The first is a type easy to acknowledge as alien and hostile to our freedoms. It was the tyranny of Nazi and Soviet regimes. These days North Korea represents for us the nadir of this type of system. I call it Tyranny A.
Tyranny A is the old fashioned type: a regime that needs total control over information in order to remain powerful. All dissenting voices are suppressed.
In Tyranny A:
- On television no one is permitted to make direct or indirect references to any kind of tyranny, except to those in enemy territory.
- There may be no satirical references to power, nor any allusion to the state of things in fictional form. News organs are tightly controlled.
- The tyranny is effective in silencing physical dissent and overt expressions of alternative views. For the most part the population knows what state it is living in, and shares that knowledge silently, though most people believe little or nothing can be done.
- Nothing will change until this kind of tyranny becomes so vicious that effective dissent erupts due to extreme pressure, or the tyranny collapses due to economic and structural weakness, or defeat in war.
- This form of tyranny does all in its power to prevent a loss of control over the population in all areas of public and private behavior and ideas.
Let’s liken television, and the information it offers, to a table on which food is served. In a family, or in a country ruled by Tyranny A, where nourishment may be scarce, whatever is laid on the table is eaten up and appreciated. It doesn’t take long for people to get an idea of what’s missing, and to know the difference between what is good and bad to eat. Whatever is good is digested, and the bad spat out discreetly by those who can tell the difference. In such a regime, truth, when it gets out, has power, even if it cannot yet be acted upon.
The second kind of tyranny is the kind that stays in control through abundance. Tyranny B is a regime that does not need total control over information in order to remain powerful. Lies are sweet, supported by wealth, and truth seems hard to distinguish.
In Tyranny B:
- Dissenting voices in the news media are not suppressed, but not rewarded by the government or business.
- In the arts and literature, everyone is permitted to say just about anything they want.
- There is freedom to satirize the powers that rule us, which implies that these powers are benign.
- There are constant allusions to the state of things in fictional form, including exaggerations of, and fantasy about possible real events. Television shows involving the government and security forces in conspiracies (even with creatures from outer space!) and fictional stories exposing corruption in big business and government abound. Real stories of corruption are permitted, but not promoted the way officially sanctioned news is. News organs are profit oriented.
- This kind of tyranny does not need to silence dissent. For the most part, the population is sated with official news and entertainment. References to government conspiracy or official corruption that might trouble the mind can be dismissed as having no basis in reality. After all, are they not the subject of fantasy in many films and television entertainments? It is commonly held that those who carp and worry have been watching too many conspiracy TV shows.
- The population seems not to need to know what state it is living in. People mostly exist in social isolation, apart from the deluge of postings on social media sites, to be read or ignored, with little serious discussion going on between or even within social groups. The bulk of the population is so well fed that, apart from a frisson of concern at alarming news stories, it has little sense that anything might be going wrong.
In a country controlled by Tyranny B, where food is over-abundant, television is the cornucopia in the corner of our living room. Information is like the buffet table at a children’s party. The table groans under the weight of plates of junk food; hamburgers, chips, pizza, soda, cakes. On the table are also a few plates of celery and carrot sticks, apple slices, whole wheat bread with cheese, and other nutritious items that a few people have bought or prepared at home. Surveying the debris at the conclusion of the party, you see that nearly all the commercial junk food has been devoured, but the small plates of plain nutritious fare remain mostly untouched.
No one has been forbidden to eat healthily. But most people, especially children, wouldn’t consider doing so, and wouldn’t know what they were missing in terms of nutritional value until sickness set in.
Because this form of tyranny is apparently benign, nothing will change unless there is economic collapse and the formerly sated population becomes competitive and critical, and possibly fractious. At that point the tyranny will be forced to show its hand.
To prevent this, the tyranny does all in its power to prevent economic downturn, and may engage in activities and adventures that support wealth and distract the population.
Now that I have depressed myself with all of this, I am going to make a peanut butter sandwich and turn on the TV. There’s a new show on. It’s called Invasion.
Oh, and the following is a piece I scribbled out while watching the first night of the bombing of Bagdad in March 2003.
Shock and Awe
the clever men have had their say
the martial trumpet fades away
and now the curtains rise upon
the opera of shock and awe
a willing slave of our TV
anaesthetized by what we see
the promised firestorm begins
catharsis through passivity
it’s a precise and painless kill
claim the surgeons on the hill
and what we cannot feel or smell
might safely rouse a little thrill
night vision glowing black and green
fireflies circling on the screen
cloud stalks engorge as they explode
orgasms of sparkling gasoline
let these distracting flowers bloom
a thousand schools of thoughtlessness
contend for our attention span
to soothe away all sense of doom
complacency is our police
satiety our masterpiece
our freedom playing with itself
in this wasteland we call peace
yes, we are now the gods of war
but splendid gods have died before
and will again, the Goths* will come
and starving dogs will eat us raw
*By this I mean the forces popularly seen as the barbarians out to destroy our way of life, just as the Goths descended on Rome to destroy it.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org