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A Fifth Argument for the Elimination of Television

· The Lede

Susan Zakin

America has produced a scant handful of seers. One was Jerry Mander, a Bronx-born ad man. In the 1960s, Mander went west, to San Francisco, where he used his skills to save the Grand Canyon when lunatics wanted to put a dam across the Colorado River that rushed through the canyon floor.

Jerry Mander became that Bay Area phenomenon, a visionary. In 1978, he published a book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Like Amusing Ourselves to Death, the seminal book by New York University linguistics professor Neil Postman that was published a few years later, Mander warned of exactly the phenomenon we witnessed in last Thursday's harrowing presidential debate. I discovered, unexpectedly, that television, which we have accepted as the medium for news, played a role in letting the noise overwhelm the signal. One has to include video in all forms, as even political canvassers get their news from TikTok.

I often talk about American politics with my GenZ stepsons, nineteen-year-old twins who are fairly recent immigrants from Kenya. Like most Africans, they are politically savvy, more so than many Americans. Africans tend to understand that they have a lot at stake when politics play out, while Americans have long been insulated from that reality, and as their delusion fades, they get angry, not smarter.

As we were driving back from a concert on Saturday morning, they asked if we could listen to Thursday’s debate. They’d seen snippets but not the whole thing. “Oh, God,” I groaned. “I don’t think I can endure that a second time.” But of course I did.

Listening to the debate instead of watching it was a very different experience. I still cringed when Biden mangled his sentences, but I realized that he was presenting facts and policies, making more sense than he had seemed to when I watched the debate on television. That’s not to say he wasn’t in bad form, or that it’s unrealistic to raise questions about cognitive decline. But he was right on the facts.

Listening to Trump was fascinating. Without the distraction of his horrific spray tan - if Biden was over-prepared with the facts, Trump had gone overboard with the tan, and what's with the hair, exactly? - the real nature of Trump’s appeal to voters became clear to me, clearer than it had ever been. With his Gish Gallop cascade of lies, lies even more grandiose and insane than before, Trump creates an alternate reality. Not alternate facts. An entire world where threats are external but within its confines you feel safe. It’s like a fairytale, in a vulgar sort of way. There’s a lulling effect, as there is with all good stories. And with TV. Because, of course, Trump is a creature of TV, while Biden is creature of the Senate, a politician who cut his teeth when print journalism was in ascendance, and when logic and facts and laws mattered. When you could talk for more than one minute.

Maybe Biden will step aside, despite the many logistical problems that mitigate against that decision. Maybe he won’t. I’m a sentimentalist, perhaps. Or a rebel. I trust Biden, and I think he’s earned the affection of the American people. That's why his poll numbers didn't drop in any meaningful way after the debate, and donations soared. I don’t think the liberal punditocracy is in touch with those people, or, frankly, with me. If you make less than $100,000 a year, Biden feels your pain. The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker don't.

I believe Biden is still the Democrats’ best chance to win unless something terrible happens. (And, yes, something terrible might happen.) I might be a little bit of a cynic, too, but I've covered D.C. politics and I know that a president's staff can carry the ball if the president falters. (Hell, they did it for the entire second Reagan administration and nobody noticed.)

I’d rather have a tired Biden with excellent advisors than take a chance on chaos if he withdraws. My longtime sources in Washington feel the same way. There are all kinds of logistical factors that mitigate against Biden stepping down, from the $91 million in campaign funds that would go to a PAC rather than a candidate, to the risk that there would be no Democratic candidate on the ballot in key swing states because of state rules and right-wing lawsuits.

Besides, who else would run? I don’t think Kamala Harris is a strong candidate, but African-American voters might fail to turn out if she doesn't become the candidate. Then there's name recognition: you and I know Gavin Newsom and Gretchen Whitmer, but a lot of people don’t. The divisiveness created by such a last-minute move would almost certainly be horrific. And none of the possible candidates have been vetted. In a word, chaos.

This is Biden’s decision. Nobody else can make it. I don't like the idea that the liberal media is trying to force his hand. New Yorker editor David Remnick called for Biden's withdrawal from the race without proposing any alternative or possible path to Democratic victory. The first time The New Yorker endorsed a candidate was John Kerry in 2004. He lost.

It's notable that principled ex-Republicans like Lincoln Project founders Stuart Stevens and Rick Wilson, and Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin are aghast at the Democrats who are wavering. Here's what Stevens wrote on Twitter:

"Don't day trade politics. It's a sucker's game. A guy from Queens out on bail bragged about overturning Roe v. Wade, said in public he didn't have sex with a porn star, defended tax cuts for billionaires, defended Jan. 6th. and called America the worst country in the world. That guy isn't going to win this race."

And this: "For those who think replacing Biden would help defeat Trump, here’s a question: How long has it been since a party in the WH held on to the WH without incumbency? 36 years. Good luck, guys."

Rubin called the notion of replacing Biden "political suicide."

The consensus among these folks? Toughen up.

Smart people can disagree. Principled people can disagree. Friends can disagree. And we do. Because nobody knows for sure what will happen over the next four months. What I do know is that the forces that elected the pathological vulgarian of The Apprentice have already hopelessly corrupted our political process. And as the Long Tail of ever-narrowing niche audiences combined with ineluctable corporate consolidation hollow out media and the arts, it will get worse.

Jerry Mander said this:

1) Television conditions us to accept someone else’s authority by replacing reality with an artificial environment;

2) television colonizes our experience by letting the media, banks, and corporations control the narrative;

3) television physically conditions us to accept authoritarian rule (“…a hypnotizing, energy-sucking, brain-washing, vegetative, concentration-killing, addictive, zombie-like, mind-destroying, mind-numbing dream-state that is a stupefying, cognition-killing, mesmerizing, colonizing, isolating, meditative, and yet somehow relaxing activity. And so we like it,”) and, finally,

4) TV is inherently biased: “The most effective TV messages are linear, gross, and simplified to fit the purposes of its commercial controllers.”

A few weeks ago, one of the producers of The Apprentice wrote a behind-the-scenes take on how he and others created the illusion of Donald Trump. Trump had already worked on creating that illusion, pretending to be a publicist named John Barron who vastly exaggerated his wealth to get him on the Forbes magazine billionaires list. Trump named his youngest son after this imaginary self. Illusion piled on illusion.

Mander’s underlying message is that technology is not neutral. When I listened to the debate in my car yesterday, realizing how different the experience was from watching it on television, I feared that we had already capitulated. Who, after all, can compete with an illusion? I learned long ago that illusions are what move us.


On the other hand, GenZ may be particularly well-positioned to counter the Illusion Industrial Complex. After we listened to the debate, I asked the twins what they thought. Biden, they said, was talking about facts. Trump? "He's a liar."


Perhaps the pundits should have faith that the American people can make judgments as wise as two nineteen-year-old boys.

The Fifth Argument that I want to make is that television, and its Internet corollaries, will speed the impoverishment of the vast majority of us, and those already poor will suffer most. Hunter gatherers used every part of the animals they killed. Now we are the animals, and every part of our lives is monetized. We stare for untold hours of our lives at messages seducing us into colluding with our own commodification.

Trump is merely the pitchman.

Susan Zakin is editor of Journal of the Plague Years.

CBS News Post Debate Reactions from Black voters:

1. Debate Performance - Who Won: - Biden: 39% - Trump: 25%

2. Better Debate Performance - Told the Truth: - Biden: 63% - Neither: 19% - Trump: 10% - Both: 8%

3. U.S. Democracy and Rule of Law: - Only if Joe Biden wins: 60% - Only if Donald Trump wins: 12% - It will be safe if either wins: 13% - It will not be safe either way: 14%

4. Better Debate Performance - Addressed Important Issues: - Biden: 42% - Both: 21% - Neither: 21% - Trump: 15%

5. Mental and Cognitive Health: - Only Joe Biden: 38% - Neither: 31% - Both: 15% - Only Donald Trump: 16%

6. Biden Should Run for President: - Biden should be running: 55% - Biden should not be running: 45%

7. Trump Should Run for President: - Trump should not be running: 74% - Trump should be running: 26%

8. Better Debate Performance - Appeared Presidential: - Biden: 42% - Neither: 27% - Both: 12% - Trump: 19%

9. Financial Condition if Biden Wins: - Stay about the same: 54% - Financially better off: 28% - Financially worse off: 18%

10. Better Debate Performance - Explained Plans and Policies: - Biden: 38% - Both: 23% - Neither: 25% - Trump: 14%

11. Better Debate Performance - Inspired Confidence: - Neither: 42% - Biden: 28% - Trump: 17% - Both: 13%

12. Better Debate Performance - Presented Ideas Clearly: - Both: 21% - Neither: 30% - Biden: 27% - Trump: 22%

13. Financial Condition if Trump Wins: - Financially worse off: 56% - Stay about the same: 21% - Financially better off: 22%