Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter
by Roderick P. Hart
Roderick P. Hart argues that television causes wrong feelings in viewers, feelings bad for individuals and nations alike, though viewers enjoy these feelings, at least in the short term. (Hart's vague, broad definition of feelings includes general thoughts.)
TV makes politics intimate in ways politics should not be, creating a gap between being informed and feeling informed: “Television miseducates the citizenry but, worse, it makes that miseducation attractive.”
Cynicism becomes fun. “Why do [citizens] feel so righteous when not voting?” The retreat from the public realm is seen as virtue. The tube helps many enjoy talking about politics, but keeps us from valuable knowledge and a good political will.
Citizens think they lack time or energy for policy issues, but have plenty of time and energy to examine the personal lives of politicians. Personality politics begets “[c]harm begets adoration begets disappointment begets cynicism.” Individuals often concoct enemies for the sake of having enemies--enemies often based on personality quirks rather than ethically relevant traits. Politicians spend far too much time fundraising, crafting images, and hyping trivial battles. Televised politics is a world of nice, friendly, terrible people (mixed with vicious, ruthless, terrible people).
Studies suggest the highly educated are more likely to choose candidates based on personality traits, little surprise considering the appalling state of American universities. Individuals with college degrees, thinking that smarts and credentials make them automatic truth finders, are easy to trick.
Our poorly reasoning and poorly educated experts fail spectacularly. One study claims that when 199 political experts were given either-or predictions, the "experts" were right only a little more than half the time. If their confidence in an answer was at or above 80 percent, they were right on a mere 45 percent of answers. As someone said, “The narrow specialist—cowardly, arrogant, dull, pedantic, and whining—is certified to be sent forth as a professor.” One scholarly text said something similar to “When I was younger, I had opinions on unimportant issues such as foreign policy. Now I’ve grown and don’t concern myself with such things.” Growing, apparently, comes from memorizing Kepler’s equations or writing biographies on lesser poets of 18th century Wales.
Some of my guesses why the highly educated choose candidates for personality and vague, lofty rhetoric: They have not learned how to weigh arguments, and they do not care whether they learn. They assume their intuitions about the "persuasiveness" of arguments is good enough. Laziness, heredity, and group pressures tug on them. So much psychobabble and mind reading fills the cultural landscape it becomes easy habit, passing for wisdom. Rhetoric, gossip, and psychoanalysis entertain better than policy. In addition, the highly educated are better insulated from the consequences of their faulty citizenship.
In the political landscape, Hart reports, interesting, marketable, and important are for practical purposes synonymous, a place where sometimes the only perceived wrong is wrong spin. Ephemeral scandals garner more attention than fifty years of bad policies.
The moral "expertise" of many citizens comes from popular media, which is worse than calling someone an automotive engineer because he reads the automotive section of newspapers.
Hart claims television encourages a laundry list of bads, including spectacle and escapism, melodrama and demoralization. Television discourages action, sacredness, and awareness of larger trends, keeping unwanted info out of the mind and unwanted thoughts from arising, especially unwanted thoughts about oneself. Imitation intimacy with the tube replaces intimacy with others.
Television wallows in, avoidance of anxiety, not to mention slogans and buzzwords. “That which appears is good.” Technophilia replaces love of the good. The great project of creating a self gets crowded out. Trivial factoids fill the airwaves. The petty historical, reruns of 20-year-old basketball games, replaces important history, a moral and pathos free history that instead concentrates on stories praising wealth, fame, and power. Phony victimization beckons while real victimization gets ignored. Moral equivalence replaces accurate moral distinctions. Issues seemingly having only one or two sides dominate coverage, giving some individuals feelings of certainty. Undeserved feelings of righteousness lure the uninformed. The three C’s (creeps, crime, and collisions) are bastions of infotainment. Manufactured competitions emphasize who wins what over what is right, especially on reality shows. Horse race reporting keeps viewers wanting more right this instant. Other nowness habits are even more petty. Skimpy coverage of issues leads to hasty conclusions, often from small and biased samples.
The TV viewer does not want claims that criticize the viewer, claims that require the viewer to act as a moral agent. They want information they can use to demonize out-group members, especially straw person information. Seducing America is a far from great "essentialism," especially in making prescriptions. Hart calls for a “New Puritanism” so dissimilar to the old Puritanism that he should use a different word. At the very least, he would avoid attacks that come with the word Puritan.
This New Puritanism is not much of anything. Like TV, it is big on rhetoric, short on policy. His prescriptions will not change bad media habits. He recommends reading more newspapers? Why? Newspapers reek. Sports, weather, perfidious pundits—what type of vision is that? The chasm between important knowledge and newspapers is nearly as great as the chasm between important knowledge and television. Being played is common to most forms of mass media. Most issues get sanitized for someone's protection.
TV land, Newspaper land, radio land, and magazine land are all on the same continent.
Seducing America, however, has many excellent ideas sprinkled within. Hart is best when quoting others. For example, Peter Sloterdijk: “The media are the descendants of both the encyclopedia and the circus.” Worth skimming. I reviewed the 1994 edition. 230p (H) 1998
—Book review article by JT Fournier, last updated July 25, 2009