“Just as a man’s denominational orientation is the result of upbringing, and only the religious need as such slumbers in his soul, the political opinion of the masses represents nothing but the final result of an incredibly tenacious and thorough manipulation of their mind and soul.”
-Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
In the late Sixties, Sam Youd (under the name John Christopher) wrote a science fiction trilogy about a future wherein the human race is enslaved by aliens who control human minds through a “cap” attached to the skull at age fifteen. It was a vivid depiction of a frightening eventuality which, except for the aliens and the bit about waiting until age fifteen, was already happening in real life.
How much of what you know about life, the universe, and everything comes from television? If you’re anything like the average American, the honest answer is probably “almost all of it”. Some people may retain a modest amount of “book learning” from school, and some are influenced by religion, but for the majority this doesn’t amount to much. Not only information and attitudes about current events, but the basic, unquestioned assumptions about what is important, how the world works, and fundamental values – the framework which the mind uses to comprehend its environment, solve problems, and exercise judgment – is almost entirely a function of what is seen on television. It is our self-chosen mind control “cap”.
Most people think they are not influenced by advertising they see on television, but of course they are – otherwise, no one would advertise. Television advertising does not even aim to persuade the conscious, rational mind anyway; it works on a deeper level to condition the subconscious mind directly. And even if advertisements do not change a person’s preferences for individual products, collectively they have a much more important effect: they teach us what is important and what our lives should be like. Advertisements (along with the rest of television) teach us to expect all people to be fit, healthy, and attractive, and to be young or at least to appear much younger than they are. We learn that life is principally a matter of acquiring material things, indulging in expensive leisure activities, and seeking “love” in the form of sexual encounters with new and attractive partners. We see crass self-interest – greed, lust, laziness, vanity, fear and insecurity – portrayed as not only acceptable, but as the norm. The overall import is not so much that we choose to spend our money on one luxury or another, but that we come to regard our choices of consumer goods as important life decisions and a major source of satisfaction.
Television frames our core attitudes about most aspects of life. It’s not which sport we follow or which team we favor, but that we care deeply about the outcome of these competitions in which we have no actual stake – we learn that winning and losing are important even in the absence of consequences. It’s not which celebrities we admire or scorn, but that we accept athletes and entertainers as people whose behavior and opinions are worthy of attention. It’s not the ostensible lessons of the banal “dramas”, it’s the appearance, lifestyle, concerns and values of the characters that tell us what we should look like, how we should live, what we should care about, and not only what values we should hold but, more vitally, what values we can hold. We are presented with an array of villains and heroes with various traits, but we are subtly taught that some values are optional while others are absolute – we never see a “good” character who is a racist or opposes popular democracy, for example, because those values are not permitted to be questioned or treated with any ambiguity. Some ideas are so deeply embedded that they are never challenged or named, even by villains; for instance, that the acquisition of wealth is a legitimate path to happiness, or that all problems have practical solutions.
Likewise, television may encourage us to fear the abuse of authority and to challenge it, but only in prescribed ways. By the publicity given to elections and protests, debate and discontent are diverted into these controlled, impotent channels, and few people even consider the existence of alternatives. Because television treats elections as meaningful instruments of popular sovereignty, viewers assume that they are. Television also decides what is controversial. It’s not which positions we hold on which issues, but that we consider only the issues and the positions that are presented to us. It’s not that we are told to vote for Demlicans or Repocrats or reminded of the chimerical alternative of “third parties”; it’s that we never imagine the possibility of real change in the political structure.
In any mental process, there are a vast number of hidden restrictions. Anytime we ponder our options, we have already subconsciously ruled out most of them. Our thought is conditioned by the automatic assumptions we make, by the things we already accept as cardinal reference points, and by the words and concepts available for our use. If you have been trained to predict celestial phenomena using the Earth as the center of the universe, you are far more likely to fit your observations to that model than to discard the “obvious” and construct a whole new system. If you have always treated gold as the standard of value, you will readily forget that gold itself is nearly useless. If you believe that “Freedom” and “Communism” are polar opposites, you cannot anticipate the rise of a totalitarian capitalist state.
Of course, cultural referents are much older than television. Men have, for the most part, always been sharply limited in their thinking – much moreso than they are today, until just a few centuries ago. So what is it about television that makes it particulary insidious as a vehicle of thought control, worse than books, newspapers, schools, or even religion?
Television takes direct advantage of our biological weakness. The flickering, moving light, even without any content at all, is hypnotic in a way scarcely any live speaker could achieve. Television is very powerfully addictive, as can be easily learned by attempting to separate a child (or yourself) from it. Watching actually causes changes in brain chemistry, and the symptoms of withdrawal are similar to those of opiate withdrawal. The human brain responds to television at a very primitive level, more like the way it responds to music than the rational way it responds to printed material.
In fact, television temporarily suppresses the logical part of the brain, causing a major imbalance between brain hemispheres, and stimulates emotional response. Measurement of brain activity shows that viewers go into a trance-like state. In this condition, they are receptive and suggestible and have little capability for critical judgment – even if they are intelligent and otherwise clear-thinking. The combination of hypnotism and the realism and intensity of stimulation make the Boob Tube a direct pipeline to the brain’s emotive and conditioning functions, bypassing the normal barriers of reason.
As a tool for social control, television is ideal. It doesn’t have to be imposed on anyone – people will watch it voluntarily, pay for it, cling to it obsessively, bring it into every room of their home and give it most of their free time. They often can’t give it up even when they want to. The need for secret police, gulags, government control of the press, and most other embarrassing, expensive trappings of the police state is eliminated. Not everyone is controlled, of course, but the large majority is kept docile; those dissidents that exist are easily marginalized. They have no chance of competing with the compelling, hypnotic Eye of Satan.
Provided, of course, that they don’t have access to it themselves. Naturally, no state allows its citizens unrestricted use of such a potent weapon. The relatively high cost of producing and broadcasting video helps, as does the fact that nearly all broadcast outlets and production studios are owned by giant corporations who naturally use them to protect the status quo. Nonetheless, in this country as in others, the government licenses, regulates, and censors all broadcasters, reserving the right to impose massive fines or shut a broadcaster down for any number of vaguely defined reasons. Freedom of the press is tolerated because the press is no threat to the Videocracy, but freedom of broadcast could never be allowed, any more than a military dictator would hand out rifles to the general population.
Not that the power of video is solely used for nefarious ends. The dramatic decline in racism in America over the last two generations owes in large part to the fact that racism is never portrayed on television as anything better than reprehensible. Television also brought about the end of an unpromising war in Southeast Asia that could easily have gone on much longer with worse results – showing that the power of the media is not always aligned with the state on all issues. But television has also played a major part in the demise of traditional English liberty and the rise of totalitarian democracies, as well as social problems like runaway consumerism.
A basic premise and requisite of democracy is that voters have a rational preference for candidates based on meaningful knowledge of the candidates and the real-world situation. Television effectively prevents the acquisition of such knowledge. Responses to television are fundamentally emotive, and the producers of television are experts at exploiting this. Appearance is all that matters, and this is easily distorted. As far as accurate, concrete information relevant to public policy, none is to be found on television, though there is an abundance of propaganda and enough emotion and vaguely information-like distraction to make most people feel as though they have learned something. If you have doubts, try reading the transcript of a “news” segment you haven’t watched. Beyond the most elementary statement of the most general and obvious things – the kind of things they couldn’t prevent you from finding out even if they never reported them, like a major natural disaster – there will be nothing but innuendoes, unsupported opinions, factoids deprived of context, results of push polls, interviews with dubious or impertinent persons (even “man on the street” interviews!), unverified claims from biased or unspecified sources, and plenty of carefully chosen but totally inconsequential “human interest” and trivia stories. That, and outright lies on occasion. Television “news” has nothing at all to do with information; it is manipulation, usually subtle but never diluted with actual journalism. We scoff at the pathetically ignorant Arabs who get their information from Al-Jazeera, but our own image of the world comes mainly from sources that are no more impartial or honest, merely less brazen and with different goals.
In a democracy, whoever controls public opinion controls the government. Newspapers and stump speakers always worked hard to do just that, but for decades now, television has made it possible to control the masses consistently and thoroughly, without the barrier of rational resistance. The existence of vociferous differences of opinion on certain issues should not blind us to the fact that there is no significant deviation from Establishment positions on any important matter. We are allowed, even incited, to have conflicting opinions about gay marriage, capital punishment, abortion, or gun control – the tone of rhetoric over these issues often reaching hysteria. But there is no possibility of any policy change in any of these areas that could have a real impact on more than a tiny percentage of the population. We are encouraged to complain about illegal immigration, but any proposal to actually interfere with it is treated as inhumane fringe lunacy – so long as wages can be driven down by immigration, no public consensus will emerge to do anything meaningful against it. Nor will there be any significant pressure to reform the distribution of wealth in any way, or to curb the powers of large corporations and institutions (or of the government). The public as a whole is only capable of thinking what they are given to think, and that will not include any challenge to the “two” party hegemony, the plutocracy, or the status quo.
It wasn’t always thus. Before television, public opinion was volatile and intemperate. Immigration was repeatedly and severely restricted, in spite of the demands of business for cheap labor. Whenever times were hard, radical plans emerged to debase the currency, nationalize key industries, break up monopolies, grant radical powers to labor unions, or otherwise expropriate the expropriaters – plans that sometimes partially succeeded, but would never be allowed to enter into public discourse today. New political parties appeared from time to time and could not simply be ignored as they now are; more than once an established party fell apart. New England contemplated secession and the South actually did it. Our predecessors even managed to enact significant amendments to the Constitution, something that hasn’t happened since the advent of television. Ever since then, television has steered public debate toward increasingly trivial questions.
As well as bringing an end to substantive democracy, television has had a deleterious effect on the way people think in general. Besides consuming time that would be more productively spent doing almost anything else but heroin, television implants unrealistic ideas and expectations about life, and promotes unhealthy behavior. How much of our cultural degeneration is due to this influence is impossible to know, but television is certainly more effective in modifying attitudes and behavior than mere books are.
The fantasy world of television is flooded with the wildly unrealistic. This includes most of the parts that are presented as realistic, though young children can’t be expected to know the difference anyway. In the world of television, nearly everyone is healthy and doctors are usually able to cure patients. Violence is a quick and permanent solution to problems and never very messy. Every problem has a flawless solution and bad guys never win. Intelligence is treated as a mysterious, magical power that delivers impossible gadgets on demand. No one ever has less than a middle-class standard of living, even if they are supposed to be poor, and everyone, no matter what, is easy on the eyes. Romantic relationships are portrayed as being mostly about courtship and consummation – the “having a working relationship” part is usually avoided. Even though viewers (after a certain age) know that television is not reality, it’s hard to believe that the constant bombardment of subliminal messages hasn’t influenced the fantastic expectations, the inability to accept the limitations and imperfections of real life, the obsessive conformity, the reflexive materialism, the intellectual lethargy, the preoccupations with trivialities, the facile approach to sex and marriage and the consequent divorce rate, the sense of entitlement and – ultimately – the disillusionment, depression, and even suicide, that are so common in the West.
The Internet and the proliferation of cheap video cameras and software may have the potential to eventually undermine the conformity of thought created by the highly centralized control of television – if the government fails to gain control of it soon enough, which it might. But the replacement of centralized, consistent mind control with the competing efforts of numerous factions would not necessarily be an improvement. Manipulation by nonconformists is still manipulation and not a substitute for reason; moreover, the most persistent rivals to the status quo would inevitably be motivated by greed, power-lust, or – even more dangerously – ideology.
For those with sufficient power of will there is, of course, another solution, at least on a personal level. Television is a self-chosen imprisonment of the mind; you can always take off the cap and close the Eye of Satan. It won’t be easy – breaking an addiction never is – but it is well worth it. Perhaps you will be surprised at the possibilities you discover, when you have forgotten the constant clamor of the things you are supposed to take for granted, and perhaps you will not think differently at all, but at the very least you will have a great deal more time for thinking.