Friday, May 07, 2004

jerry mander has his four arguments, i have mine

Looks like someone poked Jake with a stick. Today she's got a rant up about people who define themselves by saying "I don't have a television," thereby apparently defining themselves as better than people who do own televisions.

I have to admit that my first response was pretty kneejerk. When I owned a car (and my current non-ownership of such a thing, incidentally, is not meant to suggest that I am a virtuous person so much as a poor one), the one bumper sticker I would sport read 'Kill Your Television.' I've very deliberately lived without a TV for fifteen years. Mom's tried to buy me one, my one live-in boyfriend tried to install one in the living room over my protests (we broke up, over other things, before it could happen), and I tend to gravitate to group living situations where if there's a television, it's in a roommate's room, and not in a common area.

So as you can imagine, I have very strong feelings about television. And it's safe to say that I do define myself as a person who does not own one, just like these people who are giving Jake such conniptions. I mean, it's not the first thing I'd say about myself to a stranger, but it does feature prominently on my on-line profile, and it's likely to come up in conversation pretty early in the getting-to-know-you phase.

But the reason I think it's important to know that I'm not a television person is that there is a lot of stuff I just don't know. There are things you can say to me that I just won't get: references, jokes, the names of celebrities. These things will blow right through me like the wind across the steppes. I am not conversant in much of modern culture; I haven't got the vocabulary. Which I imagine, in some circles, would make me look like an idiot.

I feel like one sometimes. Like maybe I'm missing something important because I choose to spend that time in more "banal" pursuits like reading biographies, going to dance classes, and trying to work my way through Shakespeare's canon (that last I have to do for work; again, not necessarily a mark of my virtuousness.) Sometimes I feel impossibly, hopelessly old because I don't know who Jessica Simpson is. For the longest time I assumed she was related to Bart, Homer, and Marge (I know who they are).

And then I spend time around a television--oh, say, because I'm in Michigan for a month, or there was the period where I was dating a guy who always had the TV on because he missed his big family and needed the noise, and I learned everything I know about Star Trek as a result--and I realize, no, I'm not really missing all that much. I mean, yes, I'm enjoying Third Watch, and I'm curious to see if Jan actually manages to trap Sean in that cage she welded around her bed on Days of Our Lives, but when I head home to San Francisco at the end of the month and stop watching these shows, there's not going to be a great big hole in my life. So there's one reason.

Another reason I avoid television is not because I think it's so terrible--there are things to recommend it, some interesting stuff going on--but because I know my weakness. If there's a television, and it's on, I'll get drawn in, and spit out hours later feeling weaker and as though I have lost part of my life that I will never get back. Perhaps I'm weaker because I've been yelling at the television, something to which I'm too prone. I'm certainly more hoarse, and to what end? THEY can't hear, and neither do they care. That's two.

I also feel like I got saturated early. When I was growing up, if my parents were home, the television was always on. We'd spend our evenings in their room, watching Hill Street Blues or M*A*S*H or the Gangster Chronicles (my mother complaining about inaccuracies; the story of why she would know will hold until another time) or St. Elsewhere. Dad would pick at his guitar, and Mom would do taxes or something else from her seemingly endless supply of necessary paperwork. Afternoons when I got home from school, there was Green Acres and Mr. Ed and so on. Friday nights when my folks were out, I'd watch Friday Night Videos, and Saturdays were the province of Love Boat and Fantasy Island.

I have watched, I think, enough television. Strap on the radiation counter and you'll see I'm close to redline, with only enough room left to watch all the Buffy episodes on DVD with AX, which is much as a social thing as entertainment. Three.

Four. I don't have a television because I don't really feel like I have enough time in my life for it. There is too much else to do. That too much else may not be any "better" than television by other people's standards. Obsessive statcounter visits, reading comic books, or sifting through the musty bins at the Goodwill As-Is warehouse looking for interesting things to cut into little pieces and make into scary dolls certainly aren't the cure for cancer (which believe me, I'd be looking for if I had that skill set, for obvious reasons) and may not float anyone else's boat--but they're better for me. Better because I don't come away from any of those things feeling like I've had my life force sucked out, which is the effect television usually has on me. And some of that time I actually do spend in productive pursuit--making things, mastering Arabic quarter-turns, dragging my friends out to see goats. Four.

So. Television may be fine for other people, but it isn't for me, and that's why my avoidance is so deliberate. Maybe I'm sanctimonious about it, that's entirely possible. And I bet that if I had a "real" job and worked hard during the day, all day, television could be a real godsend at the end of that day. But I don't, and it isn't, and that is why I proudly identify as a PWT.

Mander's arguments, incidentally, still warrant attention. Mander worked in advertising for many years before he wrote his book, and he has some salient points about television's role in creating need where none existed. I don't think, twenty-six years later, the elimination of television is remotely feasible--but it's still worth our being more proactive in our examination of what television has become and how it influences us. I don't agree with all of it, but I applaud the man for asking hard questions.