Death by Television

I was recently told a story — possibly true — about a girl in the United Kingdom who, on seeing her elderly grandfather collapse, attempted to call the ambulance service by dialing 911. The implication being, of course, that the proliferation of American television programs on British screens had led the young girl to believe that the emergency number used in the United States was the same as that used in Britain. I have little reason to doubt the veracity of the story given that the popularity of American crime shows such as CSI and Law and Order has meant that even some Australians are themselves unaware that 911 is not the emergency number here (for the benefit of any such people reading this article, the number in Australia is 000).

These stories highlight something that would be obvious to most of us: that television has become an increasingly important part of our lives and especially the lives of young Australians. We have, as TS Eliot ominously warned in 1950, become consumed by the “television habit”.

Indeed, it has reached the point where increasing numbers of people cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction (as evidenced, most recently, by surveys showing the percentage of people who believe the Da Vinci Code to be an essentially factual account). When a character in Coronation Street, Deirdre Rachid, was wrongly imprisoned on the show, the public outpouring of emotion led the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to intervene on behalf of a fictional character. One assumes that Blair was not himself deceived by his television set into affording an unnecessary level of importance to a fictional character’s access to natural justice, but rather he realised that political mileage could be gained by effectively pandering to the self-delusions of his constituency.

This is not something unique to the West but is a feature of every society on earth. One need only look at Arabic satellite stations such as LBC, MBC or Rotana to see that the Muslim world has also developed an healthy appetite for puerile, mind-numbing cinematic sewerage. In much the same way as the Japanese built a wealthy economy by copying and bettering the best inventions of the developed West, the broadcasters of the Muslim world have realised the best way to build their own personal wealth is by aping the most debased and crass offerings of Western television and rebadging them for an Arabic audience. Enter Star Academy, its various clones, and the Arabic version of Big Brother.

In 1985, the late Neil Postman raised the alarm on some of the effects of this ‘entertainment culture’. His book Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business should be required reading because it accurately describes the cultural trajectory that we now find ourselves upon. Postman contrasted Orwell’s vision, embodied in 1984, of the totalitarian society with Aldous Huxley’s vision, embodied in Brave New World, of a society that becomes a willing slave of triviality.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

It is perhaps true that the civil libertarians overlooked our “almost infinite appetite for distractions”. However, Islam did not. Consider, for example, the warning in Suratul Hadeed that, “know that the life of this world is only play and amusement…” And what better example of this than the 24 hour ‘entertainment culture’ that many of us are immersed in. We may have escaped unwilling enslavement to the state but how many of us — Muslim and non-Muslim — are willing slaves to the inane “centrifugal bumblepuppy” of television?