By John Whitehead, constitutional and human rights attorney, and founder of the Rutherford Institute.
Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility. — Professor Neil Postman
If there are two spectacles that are almost guaranteed to render Americans passive viewers, incapable of doing little more than cheering on their respective teams, it’s football and politics—specifically, the Super Bowl and the quadrennial presidential election.
Both football and politics encourage zealous devotion among their followers, both create manufactured divisions that alienate one group of devotees from another, and both result in a strange sort of tunnel vision that leaves the viewer oblivious to anything else going on around them apart from the “big game.”
Both football and politics are televised, big-money, advertising-driven exercises in how to cultivate a nation of armchair enthusiasts who are content to sit, watch and be entertained, all the while convincing themselves that they are active contributors to the outcome. Even the season schedules are similar in football and politics: the weekly playoffs, the blow-by-blow recaps, the betting pools and speculation, the conferences, and then the final big championship game.
In the same way, both championship events are costly entertainment extravaganzas that feed the nation’s appetite for competition, consumerism and carnivalesque stunts. In both scenarios, cities bid for the privilege of hosting key athletic and political events. For example, San Francisco had to raise close to $50 million just to host the 50th Super Bowl, with its deluxe stadium, Super Bowl City, free fan village, interactive theme park, and free Alicia Keys concert, not including the additional $5 million cost to taxpayers for additional security. Likewise, it costs cities more than $60 million to host the national presidential nominating conventions for the Republicans and Democrats.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with enjoying the entertainment that is football or politics.
However, where we go wrong as a society is when we become armchair quarterbacks, so completely immersed in the Big Game or the Big Campaign that we are easily controlled by the powers-that-be—the megacorporations who run both shows—and oblivious to what is really going on around us.
For instance, while mainstream America has been fixated on the contenders for the Vince Lombardi Trophy and the White House, the militarized, warring surveillance state has been moving steadily forward. Armed drones, increased government surveillance and spying, SWAT team raids, police shootings of unarmed citizens, and the like continue to plague the country. None of these dangers have dissipated. They have merely disappeared from our televised news streams.
In this way, television is a “dream come true” for an authoritarian society.
Television isolates people so they are not joining together to govern themselves. As clinical psychologist Bruce Levine notes, viewing television puts one in a brain state that makes it difficult to think critically, and it quiets and subdues a population. And spending one’s free time isolated and watching TV interferes with our ability to translate our outrage over governmental injustice into activism, and thus makes it easier to accept an authority’s version of society and life.
Supposedly the reason why television—and increasingly movies—are so effective in subduing and pacifying us is that viewers are mesmerized by what TV-insiders call “technical events.” These, according to Levine, are “quick cuts, zoom-ins, zoom-outs, rolls, pans, animation, music, graphics, and voice-overs, all of which lure viewers to continue watching even though they have no interest in the content.” Such technical events, which many action films now incorporate, spellbind people to continue watching.
Televised entertainment, no matter what is being broadcast, has become the nation’s new drug high. Researchers found that “almost immediately after turning on the TV, subjects reported feeling more relaxed, and because this occurs so quickly and the tension returns so rapidly after the TV is turned off, people are conditioned to associate TV viewing with a lack of tension.”
Not surprisingly, the United States is one of the highest TV-viewing nations in the world.
Indeed, a Nielsen study reports that American screen viewing is at an all-time high. For example, the average American watches approximately 151 hours of television per month. That does not include the larger demographic of screen-watchers who watch their entertainment via their laptops, personal computers, cell phones, tablets and so on.
Historically, television has been used by those in authority to quiet citizen unrest and pacify disruptive people. In fact, television-viewing has also been a proven tactic for ensuring compliance in prisons. “Faced with severe overcrowding and limited budgets for rehabilitation and counseling, more and more prison officials are using TV to keep inmates quiet,” according to Newsweek. Joe Corpier, a convicted murderer, when interviewed said, “If there’s a good movie, it’s usually pretty quiet through the whole institution.”
In other words, television and other screen viewing not only helps to subdue people but, as Levine concludes, it also zombifies and pacifies us and subverts democracy.
Television viewing, no matter what we’re collectively watching—whether it’s American Idol, the presidential debates or the Super Bowl—is a group activity that immobilizes us and mesmerizes us with collective programming. In fact, research also shows that regardless of the programming, viewers’ brain waves slow down, thus transforming them into a more passive, nonresistant state.
As such, television watching today results in passive group compliance in much the same way that marching was used by past regimes to create group indoctrination. Political advisor Bertram Gross documents how Adolf Hitler employed marching as a technique to mobilize people in groups by immobilizing them. Hitler and his regime leaders discovered that when people gather in groups and do the same thing—such as marching or cheering at an entertainment or sporting event—they became passive, non-thinking non-individuals.
By replacing “marching” with electronic screen devices, we have the equivalent of Hitler’s method of population control. Gross writes:
As a technique of immobilizing people, marching requires organization and, apart from the outlay costs involved, organized groups are a potential danger. They might march to a different drum or in the wrong direction….TV is more effective. It captures many more people than would ever fill the streets by marching—and without interfering with automobile traffic.
Equally disturbing is a university study which indicates that we become less aware of our individual selves and moral identity in a group. The study’s findings strongly suggest that when we act in groups, we tend to consider our moral behavior less while moving in lockstep with the group. Thus, what the group believes or does, be it violence or inhumanity, does not seem to lessen the need to be a part of a group, whether it be a mob or political gathering.
So what does this have to do with the Super Bowl and the upcoming presidential election?
If fear-based TV programming—or programming that encourages rivalries and factions—makes people more afraid and distrustful of one another, then our current television lineup is exactly what is needed by an authoritarian society that depends on a “divide and conquer” strategy.
Moreover, according to Levine, authoritarian-based programming is more technically interesting to viewers than democracy-based programming. War and violence, for example, may be rather unpleasant in real life. However, peace and cooperation make for “boring television.”
What this means is that Super Bowl matches and presidential contests are merely more palatable, less bloody, manifestations of war suitable for television viewing audiences.
This also explains why television has become the medium of choice for charismatic politicians with a strong screen presence. They are essentially television performers—actors, if you will. Indeed, any successful candidate for political office—especially the President—must come off well on TV. Television has the lure of involvement. A politically adept president can actually make you believe you are involved in the office of the presidency.
The effective president, then, is essentially a television performer. As the renowned media analyst Marshall McLuhan recognized concerning television: “Potentially, it can transform the presidency into a monarchist dynasty.”
If what we see and what we are told through the entertainment industrial complex—which includes so-called “news” shows—is what those in power deem to be in their best interests, then endless screen viewing is not a great thing for a citizenry who believe they possess choice and freedom. Mind you, the majority of what Americans watch on television is provided through channels controlled by a corporate elite of six megacorporations with the ability to foster a particular viewpoint or pacify its viewers on a large scale.
Unfortunately for us, the direction of the future, then, may be towards a Brave New World scenario where the populace is constantly distracted by entertainment, hooked on prescription drugs and controlled by a technological elite.
Freedom, as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, is an action word. It means turning off your screen devices—or at least greatly reducing your viewing time—and getting active to take to stave off the emerging authoritarian government.
Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and the countless science fiction writers and commentators have warned that we are in a race between getting actively involved in the world around us or facing disaster.
If we’re watching, we’re not doing.
As television journalist Edward R. Murrow warned in a 1958 speech:
We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.