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The off switch

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 26 August 2009

One of the most enchanting figures of the moment in American politics is a young schoolboy named Damon Weaver. Damon is a 6th grade student at a Florida school who interviewed Joe Biden before the presidential election, and declared Biden to be his “home boy”. Damon then conducted a campaign to interview Barack Obama, and talked to the President about his education policy on August 13. Among other points, the President noted that parents had a big role to play in education, for example by reading to their children, and by turning off the television and putting away video games.

This is not just a throwaway line by Barack Obama, but reflects his longstanding hostility to the part played by television and video games in the lives of children. As long ago as his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama was urging his audience: “Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” As a presidential candidate, Obama rarely missed an opportunity to nudge parents to turn off the TV and video games in the interests of better parenting and of instilling a sense of excellence in children.

One or two commentators have remarked that photos of the Obama children show them doing many activities, but they are never pictured playing with video games. The Obama children are reportedly allowed a maximum of one hour’s television watching a day. This compares with the four hours a day watched by the average American, that is, the equivalent of two months of non-stop watching per year.


Given the blanketing of our lives by multinational media corporations in this way, it is difficult to understand why those on the left of politics have evinced so little concern about the issue of television. As Obama noted in a 2005 speech, “the concern shared by so many parents today - a concern that frankly hasn’t been taken seriously enough by some on the left - is that raising your children [well] has become exceedingly difficult in a mass media culture that saturates our airwaves with a steady stream of sex, violence, and materialism.”

In the same speech in 2005, Obama suggested simply turning off the television, given its effect on children and on the culture: “with all the time our children are spending in front of the television, with all the choices they have to see whatever they want whenever they want, the content of their viewing is not enriching their minds, but numbing them; not broadening intellectual curiosity or appreciation for the arts, but trivializing the important and desensitizing us to the tragic.” Or as Vernon Dickey, a character in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, succinctly puts the point: “Were people this dumb before television?” (It’s not really a question; Vern knows the answer.)

It is the standard retort of apologists for Big Media that if you don’t like it, you should simply turn it off. We turned it off in my house years ago. But it’s not that easy to escape television. I can’t go into a bank without a television screen blaring out inanities. You can’t travel on a plane without having to watch a television screen. People often keep their television sets on when friends visit. Some years ago, when I requested that the television be turned off at my son’s daycare centre, the centre director looked at me as if I had escaped from Witness to set up an Amish sleeper cell in Randwick. One parent at the centre asked, in disbelief, if it was true that I had “banned” television in my home.

Television is everywhere, and quite apart from its specific content, the very presence of the noisy screen blots out opportunities simply to do nothing but think and muse and dream. As William Deresiewicz implies in a recent essay The End of Solitude, television creates boredom out of idleness, a state it then proceeds to fill with raucous stimulation.

All through the 19th century, at times of revolutionary uprisings, the workers of Paris followed a strange but beautiful ritual of shooting at clocks, as if to shatter the rhythms of the old time. The writer Walter Benjamin, for example, marveled that as the revolution of 1830 began, “on the first evening of fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris”. These days, when those on the left are so often to be found praising if not watching television, I sometimes think and muse and dream about television screens being fired on from several places in Sydney. I’m not sure if the American president would approve, but I think he might understand.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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