My Valentine’s Day turned out to be more pleasant than I had anticipated. Seeking a romantic movie to watch (not too may of those in my collection; I’m a “let’s-blow-things-up” kind of guy), I pulled The Adjustment Bureau off the shelf and was once again completely charmed by the talents of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt (who sends me) to make me believe in the power of love to truly move the world. If you ever read Philip K. Dick’s original story, “The Adjustment Team,” I think you’ll agree that Hollywood goes it one better, giving much more depth to the characters of David Norris and his beloved Elise without simplifying the philosophical ideas Dick was playing with.
This morning, I noticed that the Books folks across the pond at The Guardian are rolling right along with their project of “The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time.” Number three on the list is No Logo, by Naomi Klein (1999). Robert McCrum gives the book a spirited review, but in doubting the validity of her quest from the outset and in later accepting the “Obama brand” from the 2008 Presidential campaign, Klein weakens her case to a considerable degree. I have to wonder why McCrumb and his colleagues didn’t seek out an earlier, more profound, and far more radical book: Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television (1978).
In it, one will find the very sources of Klein’s discontent with capitalism, consumerism, branding, and media, and some persuasive arguments for getting the primary mechanism for feeding them to us out of our lives. Mander, who was in advertising but had a Don Draper-like epiphany that drove him to his writing desk instead of to a commune in California, leaves no wiggle-room in his case against television. Many of us will find his arguments dated, but they only appear so. I remind you that computer screens, the Internet, streaming, social media, and virtual reality are all offshoots of the one central technological development of the consumer age: the television. Mander would say that if you accept his arguments that television damages our ability to think; deeply harms our relationship to the natural world; causes health problems; and distorts the balance of power in a democratic society, then those same arguments must apply to television’s offshoots.
I read Mander’s book in college and I must re-read it. One can pick at various parts of his evidence–question its validity–but the argument as a whole is one of the few I can think of that has the power to be life-changing. Why hasn’t it changed mine? Because I love sports; particularly baseball, which offers me a vision of something fundamental about humanity every time I watch it. And yet. . . other than baseball, you’d be surprised just how little TV I watch: Agent Carter on Tuesday night (the only broadcast network show I watch; and no, I don’t watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Game of Thrones on HBO. I do watch movies, but not on broadcast TV if I can help it. I do not watch network news. It would seem, therefore, that Mander’s book has had an influence on me, although I wouldn’t have said so in conversation. While I laugh at a clever commercial or admire one that connects a product to the way we actually live and think, I detest the 24-hour-a-day sales pitch, and Mander is spot-on in his criticism of television’s baleful influence upon our politics and our social life. The best solution–really, the only solution–to the problems that consumer culture causes is to get rid of the primary means by which we’ve been sold all these useless objects and meaningless ideas and thereby neutralize the influence of all those multinational corporations. If we won’t get rid of it, there is one other thing we can do: we can at least turn the damn set off and keep it off until we come back to our senses.