Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

TV’s Contribution to Liberal Education

Last weekend, we had a profound, subtle, and well informed--not to mention "cool"--discussion of the politics and culture of what became precisely defined as "rock." This weekend’s topic is the place of television in American political and even liberal education. Arguably the most profound form of culture we actually share with at least our more ordinary students is television. There’s more there there than in popular music. Learned professor Paul Cantor (in his book GILLIGAN UNBOUND) has found theological depth in the X-FILES, complex moral psychology with a libertarian spin the in THE SIMPSONS, and the display of the Socratic conception of the soul in GILLLIGAN’S ISLAND.
And Cantor and the brilliant Diana Schaub have disagreed over whether STAR TREK is about life at the end of history described by Kojeve and Fukuyama or a defense of the noble meritocratic principles of the American founding.

In teaching the Tocquevillian view of the way individualism creeps in a democracy, what better resources do we have than Larry David’s wonderfully ironic SEINFELD and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM? Philosophic pop culture expert Thomas Hibbs’ criticizes SEINFELD as a nihilistic "show about nothing," but others disagree, reminding Hibbs that the show gets us to laugh at more than with pathetically self-absorbed human beings.

I could go on to say a lot about the conservative wisdom--even praised by the humor-challenged Crunchy Cons--of KING OF THE HILL and patriarchy night on HBO--which featured both THE SOPRANOS and the riveting, excellently performed and directed BIG LOVE. But mostly I’m out of touch and have little to say about, for example, the use of philosophers’ names on LOST (about which my students have asked me fairly often).

Can we conservative liberal educators afford not to be conversant about the most popular and accessible form of popular culture--a medium that is mostly, of course, but far from completely a wasteland?

Discussions - 24 Comments

Personally I think Nip Tuck is "conservative" in a strange way. I can’t stand the show at all... it is very painfull to watch and depicts human beings that are completly "alienated" and tied up in keeping up with apperances. The positive side of plastic surgery when it does surface just doesn’t seem to compensate for the smallness of the characters. If that is the truth about the plastic surgery industry...well it is almost enough to make me a full blown social conservative...or at least enough to make me condemn the Transhumanist vision. In a similarily strange sense I think Howard Stern is "conservative" in that by pushing the envelope on sexuality he finds the point where even prostitutes have a certain level of modesty. Of course neither Nip Tuck nor Howard Stern are conservative on purpose...

Another show with some pretty deep philosophy presented very lightly is Dead Like Me. One of the stars of the show(Ellen Muth) is killed in the first episode by a falling toilet seat from the russian space station. She then discovers that her role in the afterlife is to be a grim-reaper. It is actually a very interesting that it makes one question the meaning death gives or takes away from life...yet the fact that it is an HBO comedy of sorts...kind of changes things and puts out multiple spins. One of the co-stars Rube (Mandy Patinkin) both looks and acts like Dr. Vaungh(continental philosophy prof. at Ashland). In fact the entire casts is very good and works quite well together.

Not having watched T.V. on a regular basis since M*A*S*H* was on the air, I’m afraid I have nothing to contribute here...although Corporal Klinger did have a very nifty wardrobe.

Where would South Park stand? It seems no issue is safe from commentary (particularly attacks on Mel Gibson). I have used bits from the Joseph Smith/Mormon episode in class -strange how right on they tell the tale (dum, dum, dum dum dum).

And another show that has been rediscovered again and again by students is Python’s Flying Circus and filmography. Try not weaving the bit from Holy Grail into any discussion of Locke.

I’m a huge fan of LOST, and there’s enough use of philosophers’ names for characters that it must be more than coincidental. Particularly when the character named "John Locke" has a father who goes by "Anthony Cooper"--which was the same name as (the philosohper) Locke’s great patron, otherwise known as the First Earl of Shaftesbury.

On the other hand, I don’t see much in Locke the character that is comparable to Locke the philosopher. Locke seems to be driven almost entirely by faith, the result of his being miraculously cured of his disability during the airplane crash on the island.

The female character named Rousseau does, however, seem to have points of comparison with her philosophical namesake.

John Moser, Thanks for the excellent beginning to an analysis of Locke, Rousseau, and LOST. That Rousseau is a woman is worthy of further analysis.

Tucker, I don’t know where SOUTH PARK stands. There’s a book by Brian Anderson on South Park conservatives that claims that the show mainly strengthens the resolve of young, incipiently conservative iconoclasts skeptical of pretensions of liberal elitism. But you’re right to add that it attacks all pretensions (and maybe most vigorously those based on religion) with arguably a promiscuously libertarian sword. So the question is: Is SOUTH PARK conservative an oxymoron? Nobody with a funny bone can deny that they enjoy watching South Park sometimes, while also saying that in its own graphic way it becomes a tedious or preachy at times. On John Lewis, I have to agree that NIP TUCK is conservative in portraying contemporary alienation from our bodily limitations. Nipping and tucking originates not only from individualistic self-absorption but also from the need to remain competitively young in a pretty tough marketplace. I found MASH utterly condescending and unrealistic--with the exceptions of Col. Potter and Radar.

I used to enjoy SOUTH PARK; it watched it with the same guilty pleasure as I listened to Howard Stern. Of course it was fun seeing Barbra Streisand, Tom Cruise, and a host of other pompous windbags being skewered. After a while, though, it just became boring. One wishes that every now and again the show would affirm something, anything--but of course, as soon as it did so it would cease to be SOUTH PARK.

"Lost" sucks you down the rabbit’s hole pretty quick. Google the show or the scary shadow Hanso Foundation and you wil see how many people are devoting too much time to its many potential philosophic twists. I admit I am hooked. Check out this link. It will change every couple of weeks. It seems to follow along some bizarre subplot. And yes I am a teacher on summer break with too much time on my hands.

John M. -

Any early interpretations on the fact that Desmond’s full name is Desmond David Hume?

Can we conservative liberal educators afford not to be conversant about the most popular and accessible form of popular culture--a medium that is mostly, of course, but far from completely a wasteland

Yes, we can. I am mortified by every minute of television I have watched, and it would be healthy for students to know that there are people out there who are not being beaten into a listless stupor by the worst invention ever to beguil mankind. Sure, I like to watch TV, but I like to smoke cigarettes, use foul language, and do all kinds of things that are destructive and self indulgent. Marshall McLuhan was right - the medium IS the message, and no matter what TV is telling you, you have already agreed to the Babylon Box’s terms: total passivity in the face of a manipulative bombardment of visuals and sound. Implicit idolatry. Students are astounded when you tell them you do not have a television - and then they ask the good questions, like whether you think you are missing something (sure I am - not going to a strip club or an opium den is doubtless missing out on something, too) and what else you do with your time.

Film somehow seems better than TV, but rationally if you condemn one it is hard not to condemn both. I guess one had to go to some trouble for access to film, it was not just sitting in your living room lying in wait for your soul. With DVD (and VHS before it), that is hardly the case. I am beginning to wonder if I should not entirely forswear film as well for most of the same reasons I object to TV. I guess what stops me is the artistry in film that is absent in TV. But perhaps this is just an excuse. Some pole dancers no doubt are more co-ordinated than others, but that is not a reason to head down to the Golden Fox.

wm, Some might say you’re a bit extreme on this. But not me. Your position is controversial but most eloquently stated and makes considerable sense. (For a contrary view: Paul Cantor says GODFATHER II is comparable to Shakespeare in terms of literary excellence.) The point, maybe: Should we show students in every way that they miss nothing important by just ignoring TV altogether? (And so avoid, for example, getting sucked into that rabbit hole of LOST.) I will certainly now say in class that a wise person told me that watching TV and movies is like watching various forms of pole dancing. Although I will concede that all sorts of Americans--from politicians to evangelicals to power-point professors--are naive about how much the medium affects or corrupts the message, I’m not as sure as wm that the media IS

continuation of the previous message--long story! I’m not as sure as wm that the medium IS the message. (By the way, wm’s line of thought would be devastating for blogging and bloggers, but maybe next weekend...)

Moaner, thanks for reminding me about Desmond.

And wm, yours is a lovable viewpoint. At least nine-tenths of what appears on television is unadulterated crap. However, there’s just enough quality programming--LOST, HOUSE, KING OF THE HILL, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (on SciFi)--to keep me from canceling my cable service.

Does anyone enjoy the subtle legal complexities of Law and Order? Not CSI or any of the offshoots but the one original? wm, I agree that too much but might we insert some Marx here? Say, opiate of the masses? At least with sports.

Does anyone enjoy the subtle legal complexities of Law and Order?


You ever watch HBO’s Carnivale? reference to last weekend’s posts, here we have wm the fan of a few punk bands, the half-fan of ACDC, and the hearty enthusiast for the heroin/s+m chic Velvet Underground, telling us that TV is a uniquely corrupting art form, apparently because of the passivity in watching it, the way it sits "ready to entertain" the aimless and diversion-seeking soul, and even, most hard to understand, because it involves some kind of idolatrous stance. TV is so bad as a medium, says wm, that a show of theatre-level quality is little more than a superior pole-dancer. And entertainment fizz like Cheers or South Park or America’s Funniest Home Videos is as morally corrupting as a visit to the strip club.

Now as much as respect the essays by Schaub and Cantor, I honestly find it hard to get in the spirit of intellectuals analyzing television shows, and it has something to do with that passivity that wm dislikes. So I’m inclined, wm, to take you seriously here, but you need to explain your positions better, and without the hyperbole. Why is playing the Velvet Underground and Nico loudly in your living room a less morally problematic action than plopping down in front of the tube, and watcing an add with a hot woman in it, then flipping over to the last ten minutes of a Simpsons you’ve already seen, and then flipping back and forth between ESPN, Animal Planet, and WWF for an hour? Or why were the kids that attended those concerts you were a part of (which band?) spending their time better than if they had been watching the typcial night-time TV?

To put it in terms I think you can relate to, on one hand we have top-quality folks like Lawler, Nichols, Bayles, and the aformentioned scholars showing us just how thoughtfully put together some shows are, and then on the other we have the old lyrics from LA punkers Black Flag:

We’re gonna have a TV party tonight...Alright!

We’re gonna have a TV party tonight...Tonight!

We’ve got, nothing better to do,

Than watch TV and have a couple of brews.

Don’t talk about anything else...we don’t wanna know!

We’re dedicated, to our favorite shows!And then they hillariously shout out their favorite shows--"Hill Street Blues" "Jeffersons" culminating in an anguished punk-rock cry of ’QUIINNCCYY!!!"

I would be interested to know if anyone on this list finds Deadwood (HBO) worthy. Though I watch little TV, I have many conservative friends who think it is the best show--hands down (they also like Curb Your Enthusiasm).

ahh Black Flag. All they were missing was tunes....

There are three possible answers to your entirely fair critique of my thinking. I will give them in the order most favorable to least favorable to my arguments.

1. Music is theatre of the mind, and while it absolutely can be pummeling (my somewhat distanced appreciation of ACDC not only admitted this, it put it to the fore) it can never subdue the critical faculties the way the quick manipulation of images can. I genuinely believe this, usually. The Velvets, to give the other example you mentioned, are absolutely associated with heroin chic - but not, in my opinion, by people who are taking Reed’s words seriously. Look how drugs are often celebrated in psychedelic music and in popular culture, then look at the Velvet’s much more frank evaluation of heroin addiction in "Waiting for the Man." He goes to a terrible part of town; is kept waiting like the loser that he is by his dealer; while he is waiting he is accused of having a kink for black girls by the local pimp, and he shamefacedly denies this without admitting even to them what he is actually there for - calling the dealer who takes his money and keeps him waiting a "dear dear friend of mine!" After he scores he rushes back to his apartment, ignores the strident objections of a loved one, shoots up, and admits he puts all the rest of his life second to the drug. Not exactly Strawberry Fields Forever, is it? Likewise their music was what music grappling with urban modernity should be, driving and hostile, attempting the estrangement of the everyday, embodying the impersonal vastness of New York City. Reed’s visions are not lying fantasies but grim, at times mechanical dirges. I think "Waiting for the Man" is one of the best pop songs ever written. and yet...

2. ...only things which build us up in a traditional moral sense should be watched. That position addresses your objection to the two bands I praised last weekend and argues that one must pick and choose what TV and what music to watch with a view to moral clarity. Careful selection, this argument suggests, limits the harm and embraces the good. By these lights, it is hypocrisy to listen to the Velvets, who could be fairly dismissed as nihilists, albeit spectacularly honest ones. There is nothing silly about this objection, though I have never seen anything made for TV that I would rate as "theatre level quality," but it ignores the "medium is the message" part of my argument. Music is not television, Carl, it just isn’t; apples and oranges. Music cannot hope to neutralize thought with the efficiency quick cut modern television does.

I compared the "artistry" behind television to a strip club in part because I like hyperbole, but I will stand behind what I wrote. Ever met a stripper? Those ladies work hard, there is some technique to it, but at the end of the day what they are doing is unworthy of the effort they put in and pretty well morally irredeemable (and they know it). The same is true of "quality television programming." My point was not that watching the Simpsons is the moral equivalent to stuffing twenties in some girl’s G-string, it is that no amount of technical skill or cleverness redeems a medium which raids and plunders the psyche the way television does. Stripping debases the viewer, always, without exception, in part by coercing a certain set of visceral responses. It demands the participation of the viewer in the cheapening of sexuality and urges him to consent to the objectification of the girl. Television doesn’t just cheapen sexuality, it cheapens everything it touches. Maudlin shows cheapen family and religion, TV news cheapens tragedy and the serious issues of the day in turn for sensational pictues and over-simplification, TV preachers by and large cheapen Jesus. TV programs are deliberately designed for the purpose of total psychological absorption and viewer passivity. Furthermore, TV makes demands on our time which are socially destructive. Are you a Freemason, a member of the Lion’s club, a Rotarian, or active in your church’s outreach programs? What do all those activities have in common? The amount of time active members strategize about recruiting and retaining people. This was not true a generation ago. People did wonderful things with their free time. Fraternal orders, for example, in the post war era exploded in growth, charitable works consumed tons of time and money. Community happened. TV is such a powerful narcotic, it sucks us in and consumes hours of time which belong to God and our fellow men, to scholarship or to our family. Music can do this, sure, but I maintain that it does not have this power over most people to the extent that television does.

3. Arguing beyond your post and against me, more and more of the time I think your objection probably does not go far enough. I will argue here from a Christian perspective, which not everyone on this board may accept. We are commanded by the Apostle Paul to be in constant prayer and to battle against the flesh. Mass culture, TV, music, movies, all of it, is acid to the needful spiritual base of contemplation and quiet. TV is this way by deliberate design - TV wants eyeballs and will do anything to keep them. Tertullian understood this, without ever seeing a TV - he wrote of the Roman games: "There is no spectacle without violent agitation of the soul." Is there much television without this short-term, disposable agitation?

Pop music is written around a "hook," an irresistable - the writer hopes - melody which will keep you coming back again and again to the song no matter what a lot of rubbish the singer is putting forward. Pummeling cutting edge music like Black Flag or the Velvets may portray honestly an aspect of the modern condition, but so what? Modernity is deeply hostile to putting on the mind of Christ, it celebrates the gods of the market place, it is not only idolatrous, it revels in the creation of idols (What’s the most popular reality show in America called again?") For every "hook" of a pop tune that gets stuck in your head, that is time not used in contemplation, there is a fragment which resurfaces as a distraction in meditation. Our faculties are limited, our time is short, why on earth should any Christian get mixed up at all with a popular culture which despises most of what is important? This summer I listened to virtually no music save Bach. I was shocked at how little I missed records I had heretofore loved. I can see a day when I will forswear popular culture entirely. Until then I insist that television is psychic polio to pop music’s common cold. Sorry for any spelling erors, it is long past sleepy time, and I cannot be internetting on the Sabbath.

Awesome post wm. But what if it is human nature to seek spectacle in the "violent agitation of the soul"?What if the opiates are ends in themselves? What if Rome is the Circus, and America is the Television?

I may not accept your "christian" perspective, per se...but I definately agree with your Apostle Paul. That is in order to be autonomous we must take control of the idols and not allow ourselves to be blindly controled by them. The Senator should understand the Circus, as he understands the mob...comprehend but not be part. The truth? Everything is a potential narcotic, everything is a potential idol...those who rule understand the effects of the narcotics and the idols without succumbing to them. Music and Television do maintain a lot of power over people...but the truth is that they don’t have to. We can choose not to watch them(as you suggest)... or we can watch them in a different manner. The fact that we are having this political conversation in the first place assumes that we are watching them in this different manner. It assumes that we are rejecting the deliberate design: "TV programs are deliberately designed for the purpose of total psychological absorption and viewer passivity."

In my book this means that we are already looking at Television as "Homo Invictus" and that in point of fact we do (almost always) in the end ground our discussions of morality from this point of view(Bill McClay?).

As Bart Simpson says: "It doesn’t seem possible, but I guess TV has betrayed me."

But perhaps wm and Bill McClay are right a second time...perhaps there is no way to watch television independently...either because television is set up against epistemic independence...or because Nature and History are. But if the later is the case..."Eat my Shorts".

Well, and I’m serious, wm’s third point might have the power to shame us all. Written at well after 2 a.m.! And second point hits home to the moral/cultural source of much of our self-absorption or individualism in the precise sense--although I, for one, have never met a stripper. I’m not up to responding, even or especially on the Sabbath. But thanks so much.

Many thanks, wm. Great points. Of course, someone could make a powerful defense of the film medium, and of television shows that really aspire to give film/theatre-level quality within the confines of a twenty-minute or forty-five minute program. Perhaps your most salient point is that "TV programs are deliberately designed for the purpose of total psychological absorption and viewer passivity." Whatever else Seinfeld or the Sopranos or even Ken Burns’ Civil War aspire to do, they’ve simply got to be able to stop the channel-surfer in his tracks and suck him into the proceedings. Better films seem more apt to absorb you the way a novel does, through the plot development, which is certainly less manipulative than the television medium.

Lots more to think about here, but you say that one of my arguments amounts to "only watch things which build us up in a traditional moral sense," which I think you realize I don’t practice with regards to the arts generally. I’m with Aristotle and Shakespeare on this question, and don’t think the sort of strictures one finds in Plato’s Laws or Rousseau’s Letter to D’Alembert are realistic for any regime outside a Spartan one. Exposure to comedy, tragedy, and realism seem necessary to fully grapple with the world we’re in, even if they expose us to the charms of fools and villains, and if over-indulged in they cultivate a taste for the soul’s agitation.

But such strictures might be realistic for those who believe, as I do, that God has prepared a heavenly city for his saved ones. And on that count, you quote St. Paul, and tellingly, on the issue of prayer and grappling with the flesh. I feel humbled by what you write, and admit I’m disobediently lax regarding Christian discipline, but I will also note that St. Paul and our Lord reject attempts to totally remove temptations from our lives. The Pharisees’ approach to the Law, or the Wahabbi approach to the problem of male lust, are not Christian ones. I think this is relevant to the question of our engagement with pop culture and the arts. Did Jesus approve of the Puritans’ efforts to shut down the Globe? Did Jesus approve of the (seemingly few) monks who consigned pagan writings to the fire instead of copying them? If the answer is yes, our whole project of Christian liberal education must be wrong. But the "no" answer, which I honestly think is Jesus’, by no means gives Christians a free pass down to the Globe, let alone to the Savoy, to CBGBs, to the Simpsons’ Springfield or the Sopranos’ New Jersey, or even, down to the Agora for endless discussions with you-know-who.

On an anticlimatic note, wm, you give Lou Reed’s "realism" defense too much credit--look at the way the gangsta rappers have used the exact same excuse--"we’re just reporters" with devastating effectiveness, with the result that two generations of African-American and Hispanic youth have been plagued with an epidemic of wanna-be "criminality as identity." Reporting in a report, and "reporting" onstage midst torrents of amplified sound and the spectacle of Warhol’s stage show (which featured dancers with whips, BTW) ain’t at all the same thing. Reed’s songs suggested that there was something nobly authentic, even glamorous, about his addicts. Since he got hooked to heroin himself, he apparently knew what it was, all sober lyrical reporting aside, "to make love to the scene."

Lest my quibbles and concerns mislead, wm’s are the superior posts here, and I’m largely just trying to draw out and build upon his thoughts.

no way, you make good points and find the weaknesses in all my arguments. Exposure to comedy, tragedy, and realism seem necessary to fully grapple with the world we’re in, even if they expose us to the charms of fools and villains, and if over-indulged in they cultivate a taste for the soul’s agitation. True enough.

I am an Anglican, not a Puritan, and as a Christian humanist I read much that would not make it on a Baptist Parson’s night stand. I appreciate a good deal of stuff that does not really belong in Church - thus the rock posts. I have watched a ton of movies. Only recently have I started "media fasting:" I did not know that was what I was doing until my sister hipped me to the term.

I guess it is my desire to refocus on my particuar objections to TV - I would never object to Shakespeare, for instance. In fact, I have acted in Hamlet. I must insist that the core of my argument is the special insidious character of television. It sits right in the living room, it is so absorbing that hours and hours drop away before we notice, and it robs our family and our community. We get almost nothing of value in return for all the time it devours. Take PBS -the classic shield of TV’s defenders- as an example. Is it better to watch a PBS documentary on Shakespeare, or re-read Hamlet? We all know the answer to that.

I believe television is uniquely stultifying and uniquely anti-social. Lots of people have social gatherings with music on in the background. Want to kill conversation at a social gathering? Turn on TV. That is a pretty good indication of their relative power and impact.

John - Everything is a potential narcotic, everything is a potential idol... .. agreed. Our idols are almost never wood and stone.

Peter - thank you very kindly, coming from you that means a lot.

John M. - My wife just loves "Lost" - you must both have better taste than I do!

The blog medium at (or near) its best: informative, personal, civil, constructive, enjoyable.

One little quibble: depending upon the BBC performance, one of their productions of Shakespeare could beat any particular private reading. But one should boycott the BBC on (political) principle.

Thanks to Paul for his gracious close (which is not to say you can’t keep chatting, but we do now have a story with a beginning, middle, and end), and his BBC dilemma: to which I respond, you should (almost) never let political principle get in the way of your (relatively private) pursuit of truth and artistic excellence. How could you both boycott the BBC and read Heidegger, for example? This was one brilliant and morally serious discussion, often over my head. We need to continue our techno-explorations next weekend. Any ideas on how to focus the topic? I will also be away at the political science convention, and so I wouldn’t mind a volunteer to write some kind of opening statement, which I will gladly post.

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