Smoke If You Must, But Get Rid of That Execrable TV
TELEVISION IS WORSE THAN TOBACCO
Once, in a spirited debate at a party at our house, someone blurted out that he would rather have his kids addicted to tobacco than television. He was, of course, a smoker. There was only a heartbeat of silence before someone replied, “Surely, you wouldn’t!” Heads shook back and forth around the group: All agreed that an addiction to television would be bad, but, since it does not give you cancer or heart disease, television is obviously less damaging than tobacco. I remember wondering at that moment whether it really was that obvious.
The fundamental argument against tobacco is that it robs us of life. When I was a child, the Heart and Lung Association advertisements constantly reminded us that a smoker loses 10 minutes of life for every cigarette smoked. This was before public schools taught the “new math,” so we all could figure out that a pack-a-day smoker would lose eight years of life in exchange for 60 years of smoking. The years lost, we were told, would be our golden years when we should be bouncing grandchildren on our knees. This image held little attraction for us kids, but we got the idea. You work hard all your life, but, just as you are poised to buy your first Winnebago you are snuffed out by stroke, cancer, or heart disease. There was one caveat, usually not mentioned. As they say about mutual funds, these predictions are based on a statistical analysis of past results. The actual years lost by the individual smoker will vary. For one thing, you may not live long enough to lose those years. You could be run over by a car, or die from any of a hundred causes not related to smoking. You could simply quit smoking in midlife without consequences, or you could be one of those graced souls who puffs away for 60 years with no apparent ill effects. The truth is that taking up smoking in your youth does not guarantee a smoking death. The anti-smoking coalition naively let the cat out of the bag with a recent advertisement telling kids that one out of every three young people who takes it up will die a smoking-related death. Teenagers, who love inverting the admonitions of their elders, certainly turned this idea on its head: Two out of three young people who take up smoking will get off scot-free, or at least not die from it — not bad odds for those who can’t really imagine living past the age of 30 anyway.
Television, on the other hand, is not so forgiving. If we are honest, we must admit that the time we spend staring at the flickering screen is, in the words of media critic Michael Medved, “a colossal and irreplaceable waste of life.” It is time spent in a semi-somnolent state, when our brain wave activity resembles nothing so much as the brain waves of people who are sleeping. This type of dead time is worse because it is not a hypothetical loss taken in the distant future, but rather, time taken directly from life as it is happening. Television begins gobbling up hours, days, and weeks in our earliest years. In a society where the extended family has all but disappeared, the television is the babysitter of choice. Children, who would have been handed over to a grandmother or aunt for love and instruction while mom does her chores, are now placed in front of the television where they cease asking pesky questions and stare, slack-jawed, at the colorful, changing images. Preschool kids watch an average of three hours of television a day. By the time they are off to school, the habit is firmly in place. American students spend 900 hours in school, but 1500 hours watching television every year. The average American watches television 26 hours a week. By the end of a person’s life, 11 or 12 years have been consumed by television, up to 50 percent more than would be lost to the pack-a-day smoker. When it comes to stealing life, television beats tobacco hands down.
One reply to this is that not all time spent watching television is dead time. Brideshead Revisited and Kenneth Clark’s Civilization were seen by millions on television. We have documentaries by Ken Burns and nature shows about dolphins. It would be unfair to call these dead time. The only problem is that these offerings are insignificant when compared to the daily tsunami of junk programming including endless hours of soaps, sitcoms, gossip extravaganzas, reality television, shock television, celebrity news shows, and MTV. To figure out what people are watching, just follow the corporate money. Major corporations support nature shows with the gravity of old widows parceling out their estates to charities, but compete like commodity traders to hawk their wares during prime-time programming. The average American child sees 20,000 thirty-second television commercials a year, and the average adult has seen two million by the age of 65. These numbers were not racked up watching dolphins or Sir Derek Jacobi. And — how to put this diplomatically? — there is now some question as to whether a viewing public, in which 60 percent of the adults may have never read a book, possesses the vocabulary, much less the historical or theological perspectives, required to glean anything meaningful from a series like Brideshead Revisited. I remember an exchange in my office when Brideshead first ran. One colleague asked another what it was about. He replied: “I’m not sure, but it sort of follows some gay guys around Oxford, and one of them has this Teddy bear.” I think he eventually gave up on the series, and went back to Monday Night Football.
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