I watch my fair share of TV shows, but not a lot of TV. Usually I just pound off a Starsky & Hutch or a classic Simpsons episode before bed via the Ukrainian spyware site du jour. But I recently found myself flipping channels in an LA hotel room on a Sunday morning, shortly before the hapless Atlanta Falcons would ruin my ten team parlay like Homer ruining a birthday cake. Sometimes I like just watching TV and taking time to stop and smell the infomercials.
Some say that TV has gotten better because they erroneously believe that shows like Breaking Bad and Dungeons & Dragons & Incest represent an interstellar leap forward from previous programs. The newer shows have a soap opera format, the characters say bad words and there’s a lot of violence. This combination is thought to instantly make newer shows better than Colombo or The Twilight Zone, as if by one of the magical spells cast by Peter Dinkling’s sinister elf. Even if it were true that some TV shows have gotten better, TV as a whole seems more poisonous than ever. Is this just more evident to me because I’ve been removed from it, or is it really getting worse? I don’t know for sure, but I do know that normal TV content in 2014 is so bilous that it finally helped me to understand the appeal of televangelists.
One thriving branch of TV is ignorant chatter. At some point, we decided that listening to people talk about subjects that they understand is boring. It’s much more fun to have ignorant loudmouths spout whatever pops into void between their ears on a given subject, like someone taking a Rorschach test who doesn’t really get it and keeps trying to get the right answer. The View, Bill Maher, Pardon The Interruption and scores of other variations specifically select people who do not understand the subjects at hand to confidently assert their opinions. I guess the idea is to simulate the conversations you have in day to day life, with coworkers, friends or family, where you just kind of yap at each other to kill time, but to replace the people in your real life with louder people who have had more plastic surgery because preening narcissists are our superiors.
Not really my cup of tea. I’m the type to steer conversations away from religion and politics and even sports. When it comes to conversations, I’m more of a This American Life or a Snap Judgement guy than a The View or Fox And Friends guy. Tell me about your job or an interesting thing that happened to you: something you know and I don’t. Who cares what you think about Obama? Not me. And I still wouldn’t care, even if you pretended to be a cowboy in a movie.
I bring all this up because on this Sunday I stumbled across a fantasy football show that followed this format, with a bunch of guys like Chuck Liddell yammering about their fantasy teams. Are we really this anti-intellectual? We can’t tolerate even the ivory tower egg heads who professionally write about their man crushes on Aaron Rodgers and Andrew McCutchen? “Oh my gawd this guy is talking about cornerback/wide receiver matchups like we all went to Harvard or something. Can’t we have a stand up comedian making jokes about white running backs instead?” I could only stand it for about a minute.
Now, I think there’s something insidious about all of this. It’s kind of a celebration of narcissism and ignorance and I wonder if our need for fake TV friends means a lot of people are lonely or something. However, the ignorant chatter shows are far from the worst. That’s a neck and neck race between advertising and the news.
Advertising, particularly on TV, is a finely calculated attempt to furtively inject dogshit into your soul. It’s a semi-necessary evil. We have advertising at Ruthless. We’ll probably get more of it. We want money. We want to reward people who write for us. At the same time, it’s one of those things that would be hard to explain to Vulcans.
“See, we have this multi-billion dollar enterprise that employs cutting edge research, deception and blatant lies to make everybody feel unhappy and inadequate. Also, dissatisfied, envious, old, unsafe, unattractive, unhealthy, afraid and insecure. It convinces people that they don’t have enough friends, don’t own enough, don’t spend enough, don’t fuck enough, and that the way they watch TV, eat, clean, drive, shit and shave is wrong.”
“Why do you do that?”
“So that they’ll buy stuff, which mostly makes things worse, in the false hope that doing so will make things better.”
“Why not put those resources towards making people happy, secure and confident?”
“Say, are you guys Commies or something?”
Thanks to Rob Lowe and Direct TV for illustrating this so beautifully. Are you not rich, famous, popular and good looking? Well, then you’re a piece of filth that the real people scrape from the bottoms of their shoes. But perhaps this can be cured by paying more money to watch more TV to hear this message even more so you spend even more.
The Peter Popoffs and Benny Hinns of the world are well intentioned amateurs compared to advertisers. At least the conmen of the cloth pray on people who are already in need and offer a placebo, which might inadvertently help. Magic God water, Axe Body Spray and Ebola-C are all the same thing. It’s just that the preachers haven’t yet figured out a way to convince average looking people that they are ugly, and to tell ugly, poor, old or shy people that they are worthless in a way that is socially acceptable, so as to create new customers for their magic beans. I guess they have the threat of eternal damnation and original sin to help with that, but those are blunt instruments.
Now we come to the news, which is another thing to watch on a Sunday morning. In fairness to CNN, they threw a monkey wrench in this article by interviewing a real scientist about the news coverage of ebola for a few minutes that Sunday. He said something like, “it’s unbelievable that our news networks broadcast such total ignorance.”
This fellow might know a lot about science, but he obviously doesn’t know how the American news media works. I heard a five minute piece on ebola on the BBC that explained why it can’t really be a significant threat in first world countries. But, if the American news media ran stories like that, how would they generate hours and hours of fear mongering content to draw viewers in so that advertisers could psychologically sabotage and swindle them? CNN, Fox and MSNBC exist to make money, not to inform, foolish science man.
So, during the CNN interview, they showed a lot of clips of journalists shouting stupid things about ebola, as per their job description. The scientist pointed out that this was happening all the time, even on CNN. The interviewer was like, “yes, we really shouldn’t do that.”
The interview was an example of a strange practice wherein, once a week or so, the news will briefly interview credible and level headed subject. But if you’ve watched much CNN, you know that it was only a matter of minutes before they went back straight back to warping viewers minds with fear over dangers like ebola, plane crashes, beheadings or children being kidnapped by someone other than their parents. Things that suck, but have a one in fifteen million chance of affecting you. This, in between advertising hazardous food, legalized loan sharks and the crooked politicians who made loan sharking legal but slashed your bankruptcy protections. All of which have more like a 14,999,982/15,000,000 chance of harming you if you come into much contact with them.
I switched to Fox news. Some guy was shouting stupid things about ebola. Or maybe how a ISIS, a rag tag faction in civil wars on the other side of the world, that we created, might somehow pose a threat to the security of The United States. The basic point was that something foreign and scary would kill you unless our country was ruled by corporations and there was endless war. The news!
So what else is broadcast on Sunday mornings? That’s right. TV church. And to my surprise, given all of the options, that was what I wanted to watch.
I watched a few different church talkers simply for a respite and I soon realized that I felt a sense of relief. The church chat was, in many ways, the opposite of the poison garbage water that flowed through the normal channels.
Now, obviously, there are a great many televangelists and churches and other such people who trade on fear and hate and cloak it in magic and sanctimony so they can claim it’s justified, like a kid who makes up new rules in the middle of a game of tag. But it just so happened that the Pat Robertson types weren’t the ones on the air at the moment. I’ll repeat this at least once, but I wasn’t taken in by the televangelists, I just saw their appeal for the first time.
The first difference I noticed on Church TV was that the people talking were, at least ostensibly, experts who had spent much of their lives studying the subject they were talking about. I don’t know a lot about the bible. And I realize that some guy on TV on Sunday morning is probably no Paul Tillich. But it seemed most of these people were really trying to understand and explain a complex subject. The went on at length and used details and explained their positions. Even the scientist on CNN, who represented the very best that channel has to offer, had no such platform. He had to get his point across in verbal tweets. You’d never hear anybody talk like these preachers about any subject on the news, or even when analyzing sports on TV. Even though I kind of wish religion would fade away, it was soothing to hear people who at least attempted to be experts, relaying complicated ideas.
Say what you will about Christianity and the bible, these are ancient parables, thousands of years old, from a world so far removed from ours that we struggle to even imagine it. And the church talkers had audiences of thousands of regular people in the palms of their hands as they delivered long, intricate discussions of these esoteric narratives. I was gulping it down, even though to me, it was like watching Kevin Smith characters dissect a Star Wars movie.
I had to wonder, if millions of people eagerly listened to didactic accounts of often bland events from over 20 centuries ago, is it really the case that nobody would listen to informed, intelligent discussion of important topics pertaining to the world they live in? Shit, not only was the audience enjoying the talks. Many of them would mail hard earned money to the preachers to keep them talking. But if you really explained how health care in other countries works and how Americans might be able to have full, hassle free coverage for less than half of what we pay now, we would lose interest in 20 seconds? I’m a bit skeptical.
The other thing I noticed is that much of the content was geared towards helping the audience to live better lives and find contentment. Again, the exact opposite of what was happening on every other channel. A black preacher, who borrowed a lot from stand-up comedy, did this routine about how he bought a cologne that smelled nice in the store, but made him stink once it got mixed up with his body chemistry. He was humbling himself so that he could get the crowd to feel comfortable admitting that they too have many shortcomings and limitations and that this was just a normal part of life. On every other channel, the narcissocracy was lording over the audience, inflaming their insecurities and fears about their shortcomings. This guy was saying, “sometimes you just stink. And that’s cool.”
This preacher’s message was that not everything is for everybody. It was even somewhat anti-consumerist, because he kept mentioning products and fashions and speaking of how the perfect products might not mesh well with our flawed humanity, but we could be happy anyway. Even though he didn’t talk about God much during the segment, he seemed like a foreigner in TV Land.
The last guy I watched before football started is called Joel Osteen. I could hardly believe this guy.
First let me say that I was unfamiliar with Osteen, but looked him up later. It turns out that he is very famous — not a surprise given the size of the audience at his sermon. He’s also worth something like $40 million and lives in a 17,000 square foot house. Many consider him to be a “prosperity Protestant” which is just what it sounds like. It’s a bit hard for me to imagine a spiritual or enlightened person even wanting to live in a house that big. I guess he would say that it’s a demonstration of the glory of God or something, but I don’t know. I didn’t read much more about him. I’m not really talking about these guys as being bad or good here, but about what they offer to the viewer. Oh, it looks like Osteen doesn’t hate gays. Well, isn’t that special?
This is what I saw of him on Sunday. First off, this guy is so smarmy that he seems like a comedian playing a TV preacher. Atop his slim body sits a giant head and atop the head is a tsunami of gelled hair. He fashions a sprawling grin, squints his eyes and the blinks them rapidly whenever he speaks.
I’m surprised I didn’t get more results for “Joel Osteen Reptilian.” But somehow this makes him charming and kind of convincing. It’s almost like a reverse tell. You think, “there’s no way someone overtly displaying so many signs of hucksterism could be dishonest.”
So, on the Sunday when the Falcons cost me $8,200, Joel was talking about not allowing the negativity of others to hold you back. Really, nothing he said was that original. Much of it was just cut and pasted: “there’s no point in explaining yourself to someone who is determined to misunderstand you.” He said that we should simply accept the fact that about 25% of the people we meet will never really like us and not fall into the tar pit of trying to win them over. He conveyed his points well. He used the same tactic as the black preacher, telling stories of his own foolishness so we would be comfortable admitting our own.
Osteen said that God had created us with wells that poured out creativity, drive and energy that we could use to better our lives. But that when we lose sleep over something someone has said to us, or sit around plotting our revenge, we have allowed them to plug those wells. He compared this to ancient siege tactics, in which stones were used to block a city’s water supply. In other words, haters gonna hate. However, the good news is that your adversaries can only affect you to the degree that you allow it. You can “build up your walls,” as Osteen said, and work on the project of building your life within those walls. Unlike a besieged city, we can unclog our wells just by ignoring the stones. He encouraged us to forgive our rivals and move on.
Again, this isn’t a unique revelation, but it isn’t really meant to be. The idea of these sermons isn’t that every word will trigger a life changing epiphany. It’s to remind you to stay on the right track and to give you some pointers for doing so. And, Jesus or no Jesus, we’re all prone to confusion and complacency and taking things for granted and need to take time to explicitly remind ourselves to stop being self destructive monkeys.
This led to a discussion of being offended and, at that precise moment, the world finally turned upside down. Osteen talked about how being offended was a subjective reaction and how being easily offended was like allowing your adversaries to drag you down. Instead of seeking out reasons to be offended and wallowing in aggrievement, we should accept that there is a lot of stuff out there that we don’t like and strive to not let it bother us. To be strong and confident in our own perspective, rather than constantly worrying about what everybody else said and did. Then he said something else that was cut and pasted. It had taken him some work to get there, he said, but he declared that, “you cannot offend me!”
Now, I don’t know the origin of that phrase, but I am aware of it because it used to be on a button that punk rockers wore back in the last century, when Pat Robertson and Tipper Gore were constantly melting down about dirty songs on their mission to be perpetually offended. So, here I was in 2014. The kids are lined up around the block to sign up for the Junior Anti-Sex League. They look for secret racism and sexism and whateverism like 700 Club listeners playing records backwards in search of Satanic messages. And this Southern preacher is on TV reciting, from old punk rock buttons: “you cannot offend me.” I was like,
When I searched Osteen, I even found a video of another preacher saying that he was an agent of Satan. That has to make him at least a little cool, even though the other preacher owns Joel pretty hard. Another thing I noticed is that even the preacher who accuses other preachers of being Satanic is obviously a very intelligent person explaining a relatively complex, well argued position. No matter how crazy they are, I enjoy hearing people talk like this:
Anyway, I shouldn’t just point the finger at millennial pseudo punks. We’re all out to be offended these days. Fox News and MSNBC constantly point the finger across the isle, demanding apologies for the misappropriation of some sacred image or phrase or a trumped up instance of disrespect. Those ignorant chatter shows pour over the words and deeds of every public figure, looking for something to take offense to and demand an apology for. A drunk, 20 year old athlete says or does something stupid and 45 year old men spend hours talking about how it has wounded them and justice must be served.
My all time favorite was when LeBron James decided to use his free agency decision to raise $2 million for poor children, but did so in a way that offended a bunch of giant little boys who think that sports entertainment is real life. Even though Lebron has been magnanimously forgiven by most of these self-absorbed tools, few of whom have ever lifted a finger to help the less fortunate, it is still the official position in the sports chatter clown community that helping to furnish underprivileged kids with a safe, productive place to go after school was a horrible wrong because grown men who have sports posters on their walls were offended!
No surprise from a culture where, when someone lights a cigarette 500 feet away, we fall to the ground, flailing our arms, feigning suffocation. And, of course, this all fits in perfectly with TV. Because being offended engages us, and when we find something offensive, we love to hear a hot air balloon like O’Reilly or Olberman pretend to yell at the people who offended us. We love to go to social media and bask in our aggrievement as a horde. And before we know it, we’re seeking out opportunities to be offended so we can enjoy the catharsis of blame and recrimination again. And TV and blogs and social media are all thrilled to feed this cycle because it keeps us plugged into them so they can tell us to spend money to repair our countless deficiencies.
Who is the voice of reason in all of this? A fucking televangelist! And I finally understood why people watch this stuff. If you are an American and you want to hear intelligent discussion, your options are limited. If you want to take in content that can help you on the question of how to live, you probably have even fewer options. And these few options exist in a sea of content that is carefully designed to make you a worse person so you can be more easily exploited. One of these options is church and TV church, which is also among the most easily accessible. So, that’s what a lot of people go with. Obviously, they have a lot of other reasons for following a religion, but the preachers who chose to take advantage of it have a huge share of the markets for positivity, reflection and intelligence, mainly by default.
The church schedule is also revealing. There are 24/7 church channels for the die hards, just like there are people who can regularly spend free time reading Aristotle. But for most people, absorbing and processing that kind of content takes some time and energy. It’s best saved for a designated occasion, like Sunday.
You go about your drudgery all week, you get angry over nonsense, you forget how lucky you are to have enough to eat and a place to live and not live in a war zone or a refugee camp. All the stupid shit we do. Then, on Sunday, you take in a good dose of intelligent, edifying material and you spend the rest of the next week trying to carry it with you as you deal with work and family and traffic jams and basketball players switching teams. When you get frustrated or start reverting to pettiness or complacency, maybe you remember what you heard in church and catch yourself and then you start to feel better and then you start to make better decisions. At least, that’s how it is supposed to work.
For those of us who do not attend church or regularly watch it on TV, hopefully we go through a similar process. You behave like the crazy, idiotic monkey that you are much of the time, and get upset because someone dented the new car that you own because of the decent job you have in the rich country you live in, but then you pull back and fall into a more high minded perspective which you might have gotten from philosophy or some self-help person or just a good conversation.
This runs back to the way our media are constructed. People who advocate the garbage water model will point to ratings and say, “that’s what people want!” But this is a circular coil of dogshit. Just because something is easier to consume, or just because it pushes our buttons, doesn’t mean it is what we really want. TV ratings indicate how valuable a show is to an advertiser, not to an audience.
Truly valuable content might be fleeting and useless to advertisers. The BBC explained how ebola is spread and why this should prevent it from being a problem in the first world. That took about five minutes and was all I needed to hear on the subject. That was valuable to me, but it wasn’t valuable to advertisers. The reason it was valuable to me was that, in a few minutes, I learned what I needed to know about the issue and I didn’t need to listen to any more content about it. Instead, I could use that time to do and think about other things. For this same reason, the report was of no value, or maybe even a negative value to advertisers. I got accurate information efficiently and nothing about it was scary or upsetting. There was no time drag me into some pitch about how I am ugly but might be able to change that by giving money to a corporation.
A commercial news station might intentionally misinform me about ebola so that it can suck me in with a lot of scare stories. That is not valuable to me, but it is valuable to advertisers. Now that I have my lips wrapped around the garbage water hose, they can try to convince me to take out a payday loan to buy a digital toy made with slave labor. I suspect that the people who run big media companies and big advertising companies are smart enough to realize that, apart from holding my attention, content that makes me angry, insecure or fearful makes me more vulnerable to advertising that has the same aim. So when the news or other programing promotes fear, ignorance, anger and hatred, it not only helps the programmers, it leaves the viewers more receptive to similar messages from advertisers.
Back to the church stuff. We might need those kinds of messages for an hour a week. Maybe a few hours a week. We have to process it, and figure out how it fits into our own lives, which takes time. Then, when we need some wisdom because we run into a problem, we can think back to what we heard earlier. It doesn’t need to be constantly piped in. Regardless of if we’re talking about a church talker in a blue suit, Buddha or some guy in Ancient Greece who liked hanging around teenage boys, you absorb the content occasionally and spend the rest of the time processing it and trying to work it into your life. That makes it bad for ratings. That makes it bad for advertisers. And again, the reason it is good for you is the exact same reason it is bad for advertisers.
I’m back to just watching old shows on the internet and reading philosophy once in a blue moon and listening to Snap Judgement and some sports yammerers. When I think back on my visit to TV church, it still doesn’t seem all that bad compared to the regular shit.