Introduction:Why Are We MeetingLike This?
In the summer and fall of 1993, like Sumer warrior kings, daubed with sesame oil, gorged on scapegoat, hefting swords and hurling anathemas, the attorney general of the United States, a tripleheader of headline-hungry senators and a noisy cohort of underemployed busybodies in the private sectorsocial scientists, tabloid columnists, antidefamation pressure groupies, religious sectariansstormed Burbank, California, as if it were Waco, Texas. According to Janet Reno, Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, Daniel Inouye, Paul Simon and the moralizing coalitions to which they pandered, we hurt one another because of...television! From a ziggurat in fabled Ur, Fritz warned readers of The New York Times: "If the TV and cable industries have no sense of shame, we must take it upon ourselves to stop licensing their violence-saturated programming."
Hollings and Inouye were co-sponsors in the Senate of a bill to ban any act of violence on television before midnight. Never mind whether this was constitutional, nor what it would do to the local news. Never mind that Fritz himself voted against the Brady Bill to restrict the sale of handguns. (Guns don't kill people; television does.) Never mind, either, that in Los Angeles that August, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, in front of six-hundred industry executives and a live CNN audience, the talking headsa professor here, a producer there, a child psychologist and a network veep for program standardscouldn't even agree on what they meant by "violence." (Is it only bad if it hurts or kills?) Nor on which was worse, a "happy"violence that sugar-coats aggressive behavior or a "graphic" violence that at least suggests there are consequences. (How, anyway, does TV manage somehow simultaneously to desensitize but also exacerbate; to sedate but also incite?) Nor were they really sure what goes on in the dreamy heads of our cabbage-patch children as they crouch in the dark to commune with the tube, while their parents, if they have any, aren't around. (Roadrunner? Beep beep.) Nor does a "viewer discretion" advisory apply to cartoons and soaps, pro hockey (white men beating up on one another), pro basketball (black men beating up on one another), Sarajevo or Oklahoma City.
Momentarily, after the election of a guns-and-God Republican Congress in 1994a Keystone Khmer Rouge pledged in its slash-and-burn Contract on America to cleanse Phnom Penh of every pointy-headed intellectual with a tutu in his closet, every parasitic lowlife painter who ever suckered a dime from the National Endowment, every third-world wetback here to steal a job and every child who was ever "difficult," not to mention their welfare mothers, crackhead fathers, shyster lawyers and other inconvenient codependents who ought instead to be growing rice and eating fish paste in the boondocksthe focus of tube-bashing switched from networks and cable, where "hidden persuaders" were accused of exploiting our vulgar appetite for blood and semen, to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where "liberal elitists" were alleged to promote their ulterior agenda of multiculti/feminazi/gay-pride/socialized-medicine/performance art. But by late spring 1995, Bill Clinton had recovered enough initiative to endorse a "V" chip with which worried parents could zap their children prior to unhealthy programming, and, that summer, language actually mandating such zap technology when the manufacture of new TV sets was inserted into the Telecommunications Bill by both houses of Congress. By August, Fritz and friends were in full cry again about the "family hour." That fall, warming up for the presidential politics of 1996, Bob Dole jumped on the sex-and-violence ban wagon with an attack on the vampire media elite, and William Bennett, former secretary of virtue in Ronald Reagan's Caligari cabinet, assigned himself to trash patrol among the blabbermouth Geraldos. Upon the signing into law of the 1996 Telecommunications Bill just in time for Valentine's Day, the front page of The New York Times reported an agreement among the four major networks to establishtheir very own ratings system, since PG, R and X seemed to work so wonderfully well for the Motion Picture Association of America. Simultaneously, without a single hearing to educate itself on the intricacies and intimacies of Internet, Congress voted in the Communications Decency Act to ban from cyberspace speech that was otherwise publishable in books, magazines and newspapers. Off-color? Not on our line. Hardcore? Not in our software.
Those of us who suspect that a V chip will be about as helpful in reducing violence in the society as student uniforms are likely to be in reversing the decline of the public schools find ourselves in a strident minority. Everybody else seems to agree that watching television causes antisocial behavior, especially among the children of the poor. That there is more violent programming over the air now than there ever was before. That Beavis and Butt-head inspired an Ohio five-year-old to burn down his family trailer. That in the crepuscular blue gray cathode glow we have spawned affectless toadstools, serial triffids, and cannibalistic rapist-killers.
In fact, except for hospital shows, there is less violence on network TV than there used to be. Because of ratings, sitcoms predominate. And the worst stuff is Hollywood splatter flicks on premium cable, which the poor are less likely to watch. Everywhere else on cable, not counting Court TV, home shopping and the perpetual-motion loop of Ted Turner's westerns, and not even to think about blood sports or Pat Robertson, the fare is wholesome to the verge of stupefaction: Disney, Discovery, Learning, Family, History, Nashville, Nickelodeon. Since his Ohio trailer wasn't even wired for cable, the littlest firebird must have got his MTV elsewhere in the dangerous neighborhood. Besides, kids have played with matches since at least Prometheus. (I burned down my own bedroom when I was five years old. The fire department had to tell my mother.) And far from sitting at home like lumps of Spam, "narcotized by hegemonic manipulations of symbolic reality," as an academician put it, more Americans than ever before go out to eat in restaurants, see films, plays, and baseball games, visit museums, travel abroad, even jog. Even when we are watching TV, we do something else at the same time. While our kids play with their Quicktime software, Adobe Illustrators, Vidicraft CCU 120 Commercial Cutters and Domark Virtual Reality Toolkits, the rest of us eat, knit, smoke, dream, read magazines, sign checks, feel sorry for ourselves, think about Hillary and plot shrewd career moves or revenge.
Actually watching TV, unless it's C-SPAN, is usually more interesting than the proceedings of Congressor what we read in hysterical books like Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, George Gilder's Life After Television, Marie Winn's The Plug-in Drug, Neal Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and Bill McKibben's The Age of Missing Information. Or what we'll hear at panel discussions on censorship, where rightwingers worry about sex and leftwingers worry about violence. Or at symposia on "The Apocalypse Trope in Television News" and seminars on "Postmodern Transgressions, Gender-Bending and Unkindness to Small Animals in Heavy Metal Music Videos." Or lolling around the academic deep-think tank, trading mantras like "frame analysis" (Erving Goffman), "fake realism," (T.W. Adorno), "processed culture" (Richard Hoggart), "waning of affect" (Fredric Jameson), "social facsimile" (Kenneth Gergen), "violence profiles" (George Gerbner), "iconography of rooms" (Horace Newcomb), "narcoleptic joy" (Michael Sorkin), "glass teat" (Harlan Ellison) "thalidomide" (Robert Bly) and "masturbation" (Michael Arlen, Allan Bloom, David Mamet). Down among the mad hatters of critical theory, you'd think the looking glass was somehow entropic, a heat-death of the culture.
Of course, something happens to us when we watch television. Networks couldn't sell their millions of pairs of eyes to advertising agencies (at an amazing $40,000 for every second of the 1996 Super Bowl) nor would those agencies buy more than $150 billion worth of ad space and commercial time per annum if speech did not somehow modify behavior. But what happens is usually fuzzy, and won't be greatly clarified by lab studies, however longitudinal, of habits and behaviors isolated from the larger feedback loop and echo chamber of a culture full of gaudy contradictions. We are at least as imprecise in front of our talking furniture as Heisenberg was uncertain contemplating quanta. It is as preposterous to believe that all entertainment is hypodermic, directly injecting bad ideas into the innocent bloodstream of the passive masses, as it is to pretend that all behavior is mimetic and that our only models are Eliot Ness or Dirty Harry. What about Mr. Rogers and Jessica Fletcher? Every fifties sitcom celebrated the two-parent nuclear family, and the divorce rate soared. The most popular program in the eighties was The Cosby Show, and race relations have never been worse. Until 1996, every television movie and everyepisode of a dramatic series that ever contemplated capital punishment ended up opposing the death penalty, yet a bloodlust rose throughout the nation and we're happily back dispensing divine justice. Why, after so much M*A*S*H every week for seven years in prime time and every night in reruns ever since, aren't all of us tree-hugging wiseguy pacifists?
And while the brief of this book is less than imperial, it's worth noting a few discrepancies abroad. Japan is the only country in the world where they watch more television than we do (and you should also see their snuff movies and pornographic comic books), but their per capita rate for murder and rape is little league compared to ours. Some Indian critics earlier this decade sought to blame the surge in communal violence on a state-run television series dramatizing the Mahabharata. But many of the same critics had earlier blamed a fatwa-afflicted Salman Rushdie for subcontinental bloodletting, as in Bangladesh they recently sought to pin the rap on novelist Taslima Nasrin. (Since Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu, and Indira by her Sikh bodyguards, and Rajiv by Tamil separatists, maybe organized religion causes violence, in Belfast as well as East Timor.) No one blames German TV for neo-Nazi skinhead violence against Turkish migrant workers. Nor does anyone blame Lucille Ball for what Idi Amin did to Uganda, even when an entire video library of her sitcoms was discovered in the palace vault after he was deposed. Czech TV deserves partial credit for the Velvet Revolution, but not as much as Havel or Gorbachev. Though the mullahs in Iran complain about Baywatch by jiggle relay from the Great Satan, and the Ministry of Culture in Vietnam has banned videotapes of American TV programs as well as copies of Paris Match containing a photograph of model Naomi Campbell's bare breasts, Teheran and Hanoi are no more fun now than they were in the days of SAVAK and Ho. (There is, as a matter of fact, more pornography and less violence against women in Holland than anywhere else in the western world, while the exact opposite is true in Thailand.) And while Yugoslavia's disintegration may have been encouraged by hate television in several of the republics, we also know from the remarkable novels of Milorad Pavic that behind the eyes of every Serb there has been, for seven centuries, a rerun of the Battle of Kosovo, where the Ottomans died in Lazar.
But nobody normal watches TV the way attorneys general, congressmen, symposiasts and McKibbens do. McKibben and his friends taped 1,700 hours of television, on a single 24-hour day, on all 93 channels of a Maryland cable system. He spent six months watching all this tape, after which he took an Adirondacks hike. And then he wrote his book, explaining that television dumbs the Republic. What a guy. The rest of us must be less thrilling.
For instance: In a March, 1993, episode of Homicide, written by Tom Fontana and directed by Martin Campbell, Baltimore police detectives Bayliss (Kyle Secor) and Pembleton (Andre Braugher) had twelve hours to wring a confession out of "Arab" Tucker (Moses Gunn), for the strangulation and disembowelling of an eleven-year-old girl. In the dirty light and appalling intimacy of a single claustrophobic room, with a whoosh of wind-sound like some dread blowing in from empty Gobi spaces, among maps, library books, diaries, junkfood, pornographic crime scene snapshots and a single, black, overflowing ashtray, these three men were as nervous as the hand-held cameras, as if their black coffee were full of amphetamines and spiders; as if God Himself were jerking them around. Pembleton, who is black, played Good Cop. Bayliss, who is white, played Bad Cop. Then, according to cop torque, they reversed themselves. This bearded "Arab," a fruit peddler whose fiancee dumped him, whose barn burned down, whose horse died, was attacked for his alcoholism, his polygraph readings, his lapsed Baptist church-going and his sexuality. About to crack, he struck back. To Pembleton: "You hate riggers like me 'cuz you hate the inner nigger...you hate being who you really are." To Bayliss: "You got your dark side and it terrifies you...You look into the mirror and all you see is an amateur." Finally, the cops got a confession, but not to the murder of the girl to whom "Arab," as if from the prodigal riches of Africa, had given peaches and pomegranates and an avocado: "I never touched her, not once." Yet this Adena was indeed "the one great love" of an old man's otherwise wasted life.
You may think the culture doesn't really need another cop show. I would personally prefer a weekly series in which social problems are solved through creative nonviolence after a Quaker meeting by a collective of vegetarian carpenters. But in a single hour that March, for which Tom Fontana eventually won the Emmy he deserved, I learned more about the behavior of fearful men in small rooms than I had from any number of better-known movies and serious plays and modern highbrow novels by thelikes of Don DeLillo, Mary McCarthy, Alberto Moravia, Nadine Gordimer, Heinrich Boll and Doris Lessing.
This was an accident, as it usually is when those of us who watch TV like normal people are startled in our cool. We leave home expecting for a lot of money to be exalted, and almost never are. But staying put, wishing merely for a chortle or a pipe dream, suspecting that our cable box is just another bad-faith credit card enabling us to multiply our disappointments, we are ambushed into sentience. And not so much by "event" television, like Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, originally a six-hour miniseries for Swedish TV; or Zeffirelli's 1984 Easter mass in Rome for Italian TV; or Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity, conceived for French TV; or Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, commissioned by German TV; or from Britain The Singing Detective and The Jewel in the Crown. On the contrary, we have stayed home on certain nights to watch TV, the way on other nights we will go out to a neighborhood restaurant, as if on Mondays we ordered in for laughs, whereas, on Fridays, we'd rather eat Italian.
And suddenly Napoleon shows up on Northern Exposure frozen like a Popsicle, while Chris reads Proust on the radio. Or Law & Order decides to mix up the World Trade Center bombing and the Branch Davidian firestorm, to suggest that not all terrorism is fundamentally Islamic. Or Roseanne is about joblessness and lesbianism as well as bowling. Or Picket Fences has moved on from elephant abuse and gay-bashing to euthanasia and the Supreme Court. Or, on Mystery, there is enough static cling between Inspector Morse and Zoe Wanamaker to hydroelectrify the Yangtze. On The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, no sooner has Indy finished consorting with Bolsheviks and Hemingways than he is being advised on his sexual confusions in Vienna by Dr. Freud and Dr. Jung. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. on Showtime! David "Masturbation" Mamet on TNT! Norman Mailer wrote the teleplay for The Executioner's Song, and Gore Vidal gave us Lincoln with Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd. In just the last decade, if I hadn't been watching TV, I'd have missed Tanner '88, in which Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau ran Michael Murphy for president; A Very British Coup, during which socialists and Mozart took over England; My Name Is Bill W. with James Woods as a founding father of Alcoholics Anonymous; Roe v. Wade with Holly Hunter as a Supreme Court case; The Final Days with Theodore Bikel as Henry Kissinger; Common Threads on the AIDS quilt; No Place Like Home, where there wasn't one for Jeff Daniels and Christine Lahti, as there hadn't been for Jane Fonda in The Dollmaker or Mare Winningham in God Bless the Child; those two home movies on America's second Civil War, Eyes on the Prize; Sensibility and Sense, with the astonishing Elaine Stritch in Richard Nelson's post mortem on Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman and Diana Trilling; Separate but Equal, with Sidney Poitier as Thurgood Marshall;Seize the Day, the Robin Williams riff on Saul Bellow; Mother Love, with Diana Rigg warming up for the Medea she'd bring to Broadway; High Crimes & Misdemeanors, Bill Moyers' special on Irangate and the scandal of our intelligence agencies; Sessions, in which Billy Crystal used Elliott Gould to bite psychoanalysis in its pineal gland; not only Mastergate, Larry Gelbart's deconstruction of the Reagan-Babar text, but also Barbarians at the Gate, his sendup of vulture capitalism; Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash's painterly meditation on Gullah culture off the Carolina coast; The Boys of St. Vincent, about the sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests of Canadian orphans; a Caine Mutiny Court Martial set by Robert Altman on a basketball court; a half-dozen Prime Suspects; plus Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, Bette Midler's Gypsy, Graham Greene, Philip Roth, John Updike, Gloria Naylor, George Eliot, Arthur Miller, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paul Simon and Stephen Sondheim. Not to mention those hoots without which any pop culture is as tedious as Anais Ninlike Liz Taylor in Sweet Bird of Youth, the Redgrave sisters in a remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the loony episode of The X-Files in which a turbanned cult of vegetarians was blamed for kidnapping and terrorizing farm-town teenagers who turned out to have been doped with alien DNA disguised as bovine growth hormone.
What all this television has in common is narrative. Even network newswhich used to be better than most newspapers before the bean counters started closing down overseas bureaus and the red camera lights went out all over Europe and Asia and Africais in the story-telling business. And what do we know about narrative? Well, we know what German novelist Christa Wolf told us in Cassandra. "Only the advent of property, hierarchy, and patriarchy extracts a blood-red thread from the fabric of human life...and this thread is amplified at the expense of the web as a whole, at the expense of its uniformity. The blood-red thread is the narrativeand struggle and victory of the heroes, or their doom. The plot is born." And we also know what Don DeLillo told us in Libra: "There is a tendency of plots to move toward death.... the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of the story, the more likely it will come to death."
In other words, either the Old Testament or the Iliad was the first western and the Mahabharata was no less bloody-minded. Think of Troy and Masada as warm-ups for the Alamo. This frontier sex and violence stuff runs deepfrom Hannibal, to Attila, to El Cid, to Sergio Leone. What all westerns have always been about is clout, turf, sexual property rights and how to look good dying. So, too, can the typical movie-of-the-week and miniseries be said to derive comfortably from the worldview of antiquity: from Ovid or Sophocles. At least since the marriage of Cadmus to Harmony, abduction and rape were not only what gods did constantly to mortals, but also the principal form of East-West cultural exchange in the ancient world, with Europa and Io and Medea and the Argonauts, poor Helen stolen, first by Theseus and later on by Paris of Troy, Ariadne in Argos and Naxos and Persephone in the underworld. But so far nobody in Congress or the Justice Department has suggested a Brady Ban on myth and legend.
Because I watch all those despised network TV movies, I know more about racism, ecology, homelessness, gun control, child abuse, AIDS, gender confusion and rape than is dreamed of by, say, Katie Roiphe, the Joyce Maynard of Generation X, or than Hollywood ever bothered to tell me, especially about AIDS. Because I've followed many of my favorite series over months, years and even, in reruns, decades, I have a lively sense of just what television has been trying to tell us about common decency, civil discourse and social justice. I am not one of those newspaper or magazine critics who think they're better than TV and should really be writing about something more importantthe theater, say, or foreign policyand who bring to their drudge a condescension like a prophylactic. Nor am I one of those swinging postmodernists who wear Heidegger safari jackets, Foucault platform heels, Lacan epaulets and a Walter Benjamin boutonniere to every faculty meeting as if it were a Paris Commune, for whom TV is a convenient opportunity to assert that the Enlightenment was a lie; that causality, continuity, history and morality are delusions; that such "master-narratives" as scientific progress, class struggle and the Oedipus complex are bankrupt; that books, films, comic strips, advertisements, TV programs and even authors themselves are "socially constructed" compost heaps of previous texts, at best unwilling stooges and at worst bad-faith purveyors of a "dominant discourse"; and that the rest of us, readers and watchers, are likewise each the helpless vector of forces we can't even locate much less modify, stuck in spectacle and juxtaposition, "life-styles" and language games, allegory and aesthetics. In my opinion, long before postmodernism, there had always been the blues. And on retro television, the Enlightenment is far from dead. Like the parent of any child, TV behaves as if we could assuage those blues. This book is about what we actually see on television, how we go about seeing it, why we'd want to and whether the meanings we attach so feverishly to our spectatorship are accurate, much less interesting. I argue that TV, however much a creature of the fastbuck media monopolies and quarterly-dividend greedhead crowd, is full of surprising gravity and grace; that where it departs in any significant way from the tenacious norms of the pop culture that long ago preceded it and still today surrounds it, those departures have been open of mind and generous of heart if also wishful and naive; and that we'd actually be a kinder, gentler, healthier nation if in fact we embraced the scruples and imitated the behaviors recommended by most entertainment programsmore welcoming of diversity and difference, more impatient with the routine brutalities of a master class and a mass society, more of a community than an agglomeration of market segments and seething sects.
We were a violent culture before TV, from Wounded Knee to lynching bees, with a bloodier labor history than most any other nation in the industrialized world. Slave rebellions, railroad strikes, mountain blood feuds, night riders, vigilantes, and, from 1830 on, urban mobs rioting against Negroes, Catholics, Jews, Chinese, abolitionists and the draft...the Knights of Labor and the Ku Klux Klan...the Haymarket riot, the Homestead strike, Harlan County and the Black Hole of Ludlow...Rangers, Pinkertons, Jayhawks, Blacklegs, Flatheads and Slickers...Liberty Boys, Molly Maguires, Regulators, White Caps, Bald Knobbers, Know Nothings, Copperheads...Tulsa, East St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Harlem, Newark and Watts...the Ghost Dance Wars and the Mountain Meadows Massacre...Hell's Angels and Black Panthers...Atticaand Altamont. Before television, we blamed our public schools for what went wrong with the little people, back when classrooms weren't overcrowded, in buildings that weren't falling down, in neighborhoods that didn't resemble Beirut, and whose fault is that? The A-Team? We can't control guns, or drugs; and two million American women are annually assaulted by their male partners, usually in an alcoholic rage; and three million children under the age of three, one quarter of our infants and toddlers, grow up each year in poverty without adequate adult supervision, intellectual stimulation, a decent diet or health care. Whose fault is that, Miami Vice? The gangbangers menacing our city streets aren't home watching Cinemax. Neither are the psychopaths who make bonfires in our parks of our homeless, of whom there are another million, a supply-side migratory tide of the deindustrialized and dispossessed, angry beggars, refugee children and catatonic nomads, none of them traumatized by Twin Peaks. (They were traumatized instead by down-sizing light manufacturers and utilities companies, by the flight of capital to third-world sweatshops and by baby tycoons in the real estate racket who wanted their neighborhoods for condo conversion.) So cut Medicare and kick around the Brady Bill; sacrifice music appreciation, arts education, chess clubs and computer classes at P.S. 69, so that property taxes will never go up on those summer homes from which, in letters to Janes and Fritz, we animadvert TV movies about Amy Fisher and commercials for killer sneakers. But children who were loved and protected long enough to grow up liking themselves as adolescents and young adults, in a society where schools prepared them to find jobs with a particle of meaning, wouldn't riot in the streets. Ours is a buck-grubbing, status-grabbing, commodity-obsessed tantrum-yoga culture that measures everyone by his or her ability to produce wealth, and morally condemns anyone who fails to prosper, and blames its own angry incoherence on the very medium that faithfully reflects these appalling values. Why not wrathful gods, recessive genes or Arab terrorists? The Mafia, the zodiac or the elders of Zion? Probability theory, demonic possession, original sin? Alien abduction! Madonna! Tofu! And, of course, the Designated Hitter in American League baseball.
In the Great Depression year of 1933, there were 9.7 homicides per 100,000 Americans, an all-time high until the 1990s, whenafter a doubling in two decades of teen joblessnessthe murder rate reached 10 per 100,000. Can it be that poverty contributes to violence? TV certainly thinks so. It's suspicious too of war, since the far-off killing fields are such excellent training for the unlicensed violence of everyday life. How odd that while the rest of the popular culture still loves war, in comic books, country music and Rambo movies, on series television since the late-sixties demise of Combat and Rat Patrol, what war has looked like is M*A*S*H and China Beach. When a reporter like Michael Herr went to Vietnam, as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocket full of pills, he found our first rock and-roll war, some "speeding brilliance" and "all the dread ever known." A black paratrooper told him, "I been scaled, man, I'm smooth now." "Disgust," wrote Herr, "was only one color in the whole mandala, gentleness and pity were other colors, there wasn't a color left out. I think Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods." When a novelist like Robert Stone went to Vietnam, he found "cooking oil, excrement, incense, death...the green places of the world on fire...a kind of moral fascination." One character explained: "When I decide what happened, I'll decide to live with it." When moviemakers Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma went to Vietnam, they found a splatter-painted Jackson Pollock mandalastreaks of brilliance, trickles of dread, childhood, hell and Joseph Conrad. And when network television went to Vietnam, what it found was China Beacha dream ward where the wounded went after the jungle. In the jungle were the ghosts: unknowable history. On the beach, if the wounded were lucky, there was music and booze and they would be patched up by the black Irish nurse McMurphy (Dana Delany). Or they would buy the services of K.C. (Marg Helgenberger). If they weren't so lucky, they met Beckett (Michael Boatman), a dark prince of body-bags. On China Beach, as in any community beseeching an absent God, they had learned to live with what happened through pagan ritual. When Miss America refused to visit them, they staged their own mock beauty pageant. When Dr. Richards's stateside ex-wife remarried, they staged a "black unwedding," part Templar mystification, part Viking burial and part Wagnernian bonfire. When McMurphy was captured by the Viet Cong and forced to operate on the enemy, in a candlelit underground tunnel, we saw suddenly in those catacombs somethinglike a sacrament. And they took the war with them wherever they went after Vietnam, to biker bars and Republican conventions and an Indian reservation, where McMurphy stopped drinking; to Hong Kong, where K.C. disappeared into her money, after the fall of Saigon and the parcel-posting of her child; to Montana, where Dodger found God in a converted school bus; and finally, all of them, after a reunion to mourn the loss of their innocence, their youth, faith, purpose, intensity of feeling and vanished community, after circling and staring and stuttering their emotions, after posing for snapshots and hiding in lavatories and singing a strange anthem and fighting off flashbacks that arrived like seizures, color-saturated, as if the past were modern art and the future merely televisionto the black marble wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
A medium capable of China Beach, M*A*S*H, St. Elsewhere, Northern Exposure, Homicide and The X-Files has less to be ashamed of than many of its critics do, and most of its competition. Nor has it taught us how to hurt each other.
Violence, television, culture and America are all lots more complicated. A friend of mine, a professional musician, attributes the recent quadrupling of young females who have chosen in our schools to learn to play the saxophone to the fact that the cartoon character Lisa plays one on The Simpsons. After more than a quarter century of writing about the medium, it is my strong feeling thatexcept by accident, and in conjunction with various other fevers of the swampy moment, complicated by the vessel of desires and desperations we bring to our watching as individuals and social subsets, compounded and confounded by power relationships and interlocking monopolies in the commodity culture that X-Files FBI agent Fox Mulder has so memorably called a "military-industrial-entertainment complex" and in the larger society of which that complex is a nervous component, a dependent ward and a fax machinetelevision is not a Pandora's box, an hallucinogen, an erogenous zone, a Leninist plot, Prozac or the dark side. Partly a window and partly a mirror, and allowing for the messy software in our own systems as we sit down to process what we see, TV more resembles a household pet, like a loyal retriever, or a kitchen appliance, like a microwave oven, a vacuum cleaner, an Exercycle or a night-light, as well as a department store and amusement park. We gather like Druids to partake of blue magnetic light, in various states of readiness. We are at times just curious: an Oscar or a Super Bowl. We are at times compelled: a Watergate or Berlin Wall. We may hope, at exalted moments like a moonshot, and on dreadful occasions like an assassination, to experience some virtual community as a nationmessage center mission control, Big Neighbor and electronic Elmer's Glue-All.But more often we go to television because we're hungry, angry,lonely or tired. And TV will always be there for us, a twenty-four-hour user-friendly magic muffinmaker, grinding out narrative, novelty, empathy and distraction; news and laughs; snippets of high culture, remedial seriousness and vulgar celebrity; a place to celebrate and aplace to mourn; a circus and a wishing well.
THE SPEARS OF TWILIGHT
LIFE AND DEATH IN THE AMAZON JUNGLE
By Philippe Descola
THE NEW PRESS
Copyright © 1996 The New Press/HarperCollins Publishers.All rights reserved.