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orwellOrwell got it partly right. But it’s not the use of two-way monitors that would impose social uniformity and mental numbness in modern society. Rather, I think it is the sheer ubiquity of the old-fashioned one-way TV set. Granted I’m not a Luddite. I love my DVDs. But the difference here is that I have control over what’s playing in my house.

The problem I’m talking about is finding TVs in banks, post offices, doctors’ offices, restaurants and even restrooms. My recent Orwellian experience was discovering that a giant TV had finally been installed in our employee cafe. I suppose we were simply behind the times. I used to take my lunch there before noon, to avoid the crowds. Now with the TV on it’s always crowded. The omnipresent screen is worse than physical claustrophobia; it’s mental suffocation. Worse yet, there is a kind of collectivism in that we are all forced to witness the same media pabulum 24/7.

Perhaps the real metaphor is not Orwell’s Oceania but Huxley’s Brave New World, with its comfortable big-brotherism enforced by mass entertainment. True civilization is only possible with civility. It cannot be enforced directly by the state, though it can be assisted by the old common sense laws that have fallen mostly into abeyance. As for the marketplace, it is no more than a mirror of a society’s morals. Yet it seems to me that real liberty is possible only where we draw a line as to where others may intrude in our personal space. I have nothing against marketing in a store, but I don’t like it on my doorstep or on my phone. As for public places, that becomes a little trickier. I’m not sure I can point to an objective standard here. It’s mainly intuitive.

But one thing I am sure of—a hallmark of totalitarian society is that the public sphere crowds out the private and it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve a degree of detachment in daily life where one’s thoughts are truly one’s own.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Mr Anger, well, quite! Years ago, puzzled by some American broadcast on only celebrities ('Entertainment Tonight'?) John Fund of the WSJ explained 'it's a rehearsal for news broadcasts when Big Brother takes over.' Rather prophetic. Craving the buzz, people will eagerly gobble down Huxley's Brave New Pills without any force required (the dry-run for that is Ritalin).

    You beg a question usually avoided by our type of conservatives, namely what if freedom and choice lead inexorably to Lotus-Eaters? What is the opportunities provided by a liberal and efficient economy encourage self-selected destruction and social disconnection? Liberals made their decision, and jam instruction and constraint down our throats as fast as a democracy will allow, viz the nanny-state. Conservatives such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew are unashamedly authoritarian in trying to stem the tide of selfishness and break-up. This was the subject of my first essay at TIC and nobody seems able to answer. Does freedom and prosperity encourage fragmentation and destruction? Can or should it be restrained by nannyism, or by planned economic inefficiency, or be left to run its course?

  2. Several things strike me about the narcotic effect of the television culture:

    – How atomizing it is. It's long been noticed that the neighborhood has fallen victim to the glowing allure of the one-eyed monster: people don't sit on porches, or stroll around to talk to neighbors, or chat over fences. Everyone is hypnotized by the flashing images on the screen. But now it's even worse: most homes have more than one television, so that if a family member doesn't like what's on, he can go elsewhere (probably to his bedroom) and watch what he chooses. No interaction or shared experience, and (possibly more importantly) no negotiation or compromise.

    – How it it encourages passivity. One does not /engage/ a television show, one simply absorbs it. Health experts lament the deleterious effect this sluggishness has on the body; we should be even more aware of how it dulls the critical and observational capacity.

    – How it encourages a selective outlook on life. This is related to question of atomization, and compounded by the explosion of technology that makes it possible for almost anyone to broadcast (YouTube is the current final expression of this.) This not only enables people to end-run the necessity of negotiation and compromise, but it permits people to choose only that visual input that aligns with their preferred world view. They needn't put up with hearing anything that unsettles their outlook; they can always change the channel until they find something more suitable. Chesterton once remarked that the English propensity for travel and vacations to exotic locations was not an expression of their desire for adventure – in fact, just the opposite. As tourist in far destinations, they could remain detached and aloof, observers who watched but did not engage the environment they observed. Had the English really craved adventure, he observed, they would have stayed home and tried to work things out with Mrs. MacGrunty who lived in back. THAT exercise would be an adventure, but because it was too adventurous, the Englishman packed his bags for the Kenyan safari. Alas, the non-adventurous Englishman of Chesterton's day had nothing on us: the television enables us to be that detached observer all the time, turning our back on true human interaction in favor of visual stimulation that does not disturb.

    – Mr. Anger makes the excellent point that the nonstop blaring of the tube crowds out silence. In this, it reminds me of Screwtape's description of hell as the domain of relentless noise. When my wife and I go out for an evening, we seek out places that don't have televisions mounted in the corners, because the flickering and blaring distract from our ability to interact. Sadly, such places are becoming more and more rare. Some have observed that it is possible to live a modern life without ever having to pass under the open sky: from house through attached garage to automobile into parking structure through walkway into office, and back again at the end of the day. By the same token, it is possible to live without ever hearing the sounds of breeze and birds – or the blessed sound of nothing at all.

    Of course, the essential work on the topic is Neal Postman's classic /Amusing Ourselves to Death/. I recommend it highly.

  3. Stephen, what is the link to your original piece? Feel free to contact me at You hit on a greater paradox that pure libertarianism could only be implemented by a dictator or benevolent despot – as in some of the free market zones set up in the Mideast and Asia. The more prosperous we are, not only do we abuse freedom but we take it for granted, hence many well-to-do whites in comfy areas of the US west coast who benefit greatly from the market are leftist! I doubt that any system, statist or anarcho-capitalist, can change the vagaries of human nature. I think philosopher Ed Feser does the best job of finding a middle ground between liberty and responsibility (since liberty cannot define itself; it has to be defined and limited by something higher).

  4. Matt, you can find my early TIC post here: It asks more questions than makes suggestions, but it might be original in suggesting a choice between nannyism and planned economic inefficiency each to curtail appetite.

    PrinceofTheWest, so many good observations and I too love GKC's paradox of modern travel. There is increasing medical literature online that on infants the flickering images of television causes lasting physiological damage to the brain, resulting in what we now call attention-deficit syndrome that is so endemic among the young and so often treated, Soviet-style as they did to political prisoners, with downers such as the modern Ritalin. Competent doctor-friends say it has reached epidemic proportions, chiefly in the West, and is chiefly due to television. Dr Kirk once told me, puckishly, that the agents of equality would eventually make us read Playboy magazine until we were all equally stupid – he reckoned neither that television would achieve the same ends both culturally and physiologically, nor that we would do it to ourselves with no force required!

  5. Russell Kirk once threw the family TV out of the second story of his country house in Mecosta, trying to keep it away from his young daughters. I now have a 7 year old boy, and I am quite convinced that there is a direct relationship between modern programming for children and a distinct inability for self control; Some of the shows seem to be hightly caffeinated, moving so fast, the characters jabbering nonsense and full of complete disregard for any authority, especially parental authority.
    The mind goes to sleep in a passive state, while the body seems to store energy in the young when they watch these shows. The end result is a deadening of sensitivity, the loss of inner quiet and understanding, and alethargy of spirit and mind, all for a bad mix of stupidity and restlessness. I have now banned most of the channels my son watches, and I noticed a significant improvement in his behavior within a week. He's now reading 100 page books in the first grade. Reading is elevating and an interactive endeavor;TV/Screen is a passive purgative of the spirit. Now, in the right time, I am not against TV or Film; One cannot be in a constant state of action, after all, and I am not nearly so against it as Dr. Kirk was, but when it becomes a substitute for reading in the young, it is, indeed, a lotus eater's pleasure without taming the more barbaric inclinations of children. And of course we do have the deliberate brainwashing that the networks engage in, both in their children's tv and other shows.

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