I just got back from the East Coast where I spent a week visiting my elderly mother. She’s 82 years old and has Parkinson’s disease, and as the things she used to enjoy doing become more difficult for her, she tends to watch more TV. She’s very liberal, and quite politically active. You will occasionally still find her behind the table, at public events, encouraging her fellow Virginians to vote Democratic, so of course, she loves The Daily Show, Late Nite with Steven Colbert, and Samantha Bee.
She watches plenty of news, and she also enjoys several British mystery and drama series. She especially likes the Big Bang Theory, a sit-com that revolves around the fictitious lives of four very brainy, but socially awkward young professionals. The show is very popular, has been on for a long time and now runs in syndication. I got the impression that if you have enough channels, you can find an episode of the Big Bang Theory to watch any time of day or night, and in the week I spent with my mother, I saw so many episodes of that show that the theme song, and it’s bizarre, objectified, reductionist myth about the history of the universe is still ringing in my head days after I’ve returned home.
I haven’t seen that much TV in a long time, and I noticed something interesting about TV programming in general, that lies at the root of what’s wrong with political discourse in America. It comes down to the difference between facts and ideas. You can learn a lot of facts by watching television. TV will give you historical facts and up to the minute facts. You’ll get scientific facts, medical facts, and even the facts of life. Not only will TV give you the facts, but TV rehashes the facts, debates the factuality of the facts and quibbles about the details of the facts.
Besides that, TV glorifies facts in fictional programs. Clues turn into facts that solve mysteries. In dramatic series, the hero pulls some obscure fact out of his deep memory and applies it to his current dire predicament to save the day, and in sit-coms, like the Big Bang Theory where four science geeks bludgeon each other with scientific facts as ridiculously as the Three Stooges did with face-slaps, head-bonks and eye-pokes. Even the commercials tell you to “get the facts,” because “facts matter,” and “that’s a fact.”
On the other hand, I saw very few ideas on TV. For all of the facts TV spews, they all came at me from within a very narrow perspective, divorced from context. TV does not present nearly enough ideas to make sense of the facts they bombard us with. We get the Republican perspective and the Democratic perspective, neither of which contain enough ideas to make sense of the world, both of which share the same fundamental belief system, which is always assumed, and never questioned.
You will see lots of programs on TV about the latest scientific breakthroughs, and we marvel at the new products they hope to create with them. Why do we never see programs about alternative economic systems or alternative political ideas, and marvel at the potential improvements in society? Why don’t we see programs about Social Ecology, or even biological ecology for that matter? TV buries this paucity of ideas beneath an avalanche of facts. As a result, instead of debating ideas in our public dialogue, we bicker about facts.
That’s why I don’t believe that journalists help us much. The facts don’t matter if you don’t have enough ideas to make sense of them. Without context or perspective, this parade of facts becomes a blinding snowstorm of distraction.
Meanwhile, this is what people have come to expect from political discussion, a rehash of recent facts, and two, superficially different knee-jerk reactions to them. While TV may have expanded our horizons, by showing us images from around the world, this constant barrage of information warps our perception of reality, narrows our perspective and diminishes our ability to think.