Homogenizing America

Behind that which is seen, lies something which is not seen. ~ Frederic Bastiat

We tend to think of technology as personal convenience, as something that makes our lives 'easier' and therefore 'better.' But we achieve that ease, that so-called betterment, at a very dear price ' one we don't see right away and have little consciousness of until much later, if we come to consciousness of it at all. Sure, we have shopping malls and automobiles, central air and Arby's, but mostly unnoticed and unappreciated goes the fact that we've obtained these 'goods' at the great and lasting expense of giving over the minds, the spirits, and thus the futures, of our children to the State.

Generally speaking, our lives as Americans depend upon technology and the mass production it provides. Our clothes, for example ' our blouses and skirts, our pants and our shirts ' are almost all machine made now, produced by the identical thousands. Walk into any Wal-Mart anywhere in the country and you'll find the same things ' different sizes, certainly, but the same styles, the same makes, the same colors and fabrics. Drive through any town and you'll see the same McDonald's, the same Wendy's, the same Burger Kings, offering the same food at the same quality for the same price. Walk through any supermarket and you'll see the same cans of Green Giant vegetables, the same Sara Lee pastries, the same Pepsi Cola soft drinks. Only through mass production can so many live so easily and so 'well' ' only through technology is such inexpensive abundance possible.

But the introduction in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries of mass production to American life required major adjustments to American thinking. During the Nineteenth Century, Americans tended to think and provide for themselves. By and large, they farmed their own land, slaughtered their own meat, made their own clothing. They cooked their own food and provided for their own health and their own old age. They even managed to entertain themselves. Very few of them worked as an employee of another. They depended only upon themselves. No one had a claim on them, and they had claims on no one. They had both freedom and the responsibility that goes with it.

But mass production requires mass consumption, and mass consumption requires mass thought, for if people remain unique and independent in mind and spirit, then mass production will fail. It can succeed only when the masses have the same tastes and desires, the same wants and needs and beliefs. It can succeed only when, in short, most everyone thinks alike.

The late Nineteenth Century surge of technology and innovation brought unimaginably great wealth to a handful of men and their families: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, Ford. But according to John Taylor Gatto in The Underground History of American Education, to secure their position and keep that constant flow of wealth, they had to control overproduction, 'a condition which could degrade or even ruin the basis for the new financial system.' They realized, however, that 'the ultimate source of overproduction in products and services was the overproduction of minds . . . real scientific control of overproduction must ultimately rest on the power to restrain the production of mentality' (155).

And what better way to do this than to order children from their homes and force them, under the guise of 'education,' into indoctrination centers where they would systematically learn not to think for themselves and to become totally dependent upon others? As Gatto says, 'through the dependence of all on the few, an instrument of management and of elite association would be created far beyond anything every seen in the past. This powerful promise was, however, fragilely balanced atop the need to homogenize the population and all its descendent generations. A mass production society can neither be created nor sustained without a leveled population, one conditioned to mass habits, mass tastes, mass enthusiasms, predictable mass behaviors. The will of both maker and purchaser had to give way to the predestined output of machinery with a one-track mind' (155-6).

Thus, argues Gatto, the modern school came into existence. America in the late 1800s simply had too many people from too many places reading too much and thinking too many different things. It threatened the idea of unity forged in the blood and horror of the War Between the States. And it threatened the profits of the Rockefellers and the Fords and the other capitalist giants. This society had to be controlled, and controlled in such a way as to yield to those men the profits for which they hungered and lied and schemed.

'School,' said Horace Mann, one of the founders of the American forced schooling system, 'is the cheapest police' (quoted in Gatto 256) and, according to Gatto, 'it was a sentiment publicly spoken by every name . . . prominently involved in creating universal school systems' (256). Forcing all children into schools helped to 'stabilize the social order and train the ranks.' Schools, he says, 'build national wealth by tearing down personal sovereignty, morality, and family life' (151). It teaches them the same myths about the nation, about its government's leaders and its history. Modern schooling in America , says Gatto, provides 'not intellectual development, not character development, but the inculcation of a new synthetic culture in children, one designed to condition its subjects to a continual adjusting of their lives by unseen authorities' (94). They 'train individuals to respond as a mass. Boys and girls are drilled in being bored, frightened, envious, emotionally needy, generally incomplete. A successful mass production economy requires such a clientele. A small business, small farm economy . . . requires individual competence, thoughtfulness, compassion, and universal participation; our own requires a managed mass of leveled, spiritless, anxious, familyless, friendless, godless, and obedient people who believe the difference between 'Cheers' and 'Seinfeld' is a subject worth arguing about' (43).

But schooling only provides half the answer. After all, children can only attend school for so many hours in a day. Thanks to modern technology, however, the rest of the time the television can tend them and help keep their minds straight. After all, as Wes Moore said in his essay Television: Opiate of the Masses, television is 'one of the most potent mind control devices ever produced.'

Think for a moment about how American children spend those infinitely precious and irreplaceable twenty-fours they're granted every single day. If we assume they sleep for eight hours, they then have 16 remaining. Six of those they spend in school under the direct supervision of a State-certified employee learning State-certified things. That leaves them with ten. They have to spend some time with basic personal maintenance like washing up, getting dressed, and later getting undressed. And they have to spend some time eating. Let's conservatively allot a total of four hours to that. This leaves them with six hours. What do they then do with that remaining time? Maybe they'll talk some with their parents or their siblings or their friends. Maybe they'll take a walk or play a game. But chances are that they'll spend the majority of that time watching television. Wes Moore claims the average American spends four hours watching television every day. Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in their Scientific American article called Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor, claimed that 'The amount of time people spend watching television is astonishing. On average, individuals in the industrialized world devote three hours a day to the pursuit--fully half of their leisure time, and more than on any single activity save work and sleep.' Even if we accept the more conservative claim of Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, who talk about 'the industrialized world' rather than just America, then that time has dwindled to just three hours.

And what does television do to them and to anyone who watches it? According to both Moore and the team of Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, watching television acts exactly like a drug on the human body, producing endorphins, which are structurally identical to opium and its derivatives. Also, as if that wasn't bad enough, it also shuts down the questioning and critical left hemisphere of the brain, which controls our language and our logic, while emphasizing the accepting and non-critical right hemisphere.

And what do people see on that insidious device? Thousands upon thousands of commercials for one thing. According to Moore , watching television 'brainwashes consumers to throw money at the gaping void of their meaningless, terror-filled lives.' And certainly the shows they watch frighten them. I live near an elementary school, and at about 2:30 every afternoon, the streets by that school fill up with anxious mothers waiting to pick their children up and drive them home. What are they afraid of? There has certainly not been some rash of child kidnappings around here. In fact, I don't know of a single one that has ever happened around here. What else but television could have frightened them so? A one-time report, years or even decades ago, of the kidnapping of a single child at a single place in this huge, sprawling nation, and the cars and SUVs line up to cart little Junior and young Suzie those two or three blocks to home and the safety of the electronic hearth.

It's easy for people to read about the effects of school and of television and simply to deny them because they just don't want to believe them. Such beliefs can quickly become inconvenient. But we can't just reject things out of hand. We must think about the facts and the logic behind them. If we can show that the facts are wrong, or that the logic is flawed, then we can indeed reject those arguments. But if we can't disprove the facts, if we can't find holes in the logic, then we find ourselves faced, if we're honest with ourselves, with a very discomforting situation. Can we deny that we have become a nation which 'sits down each evening to commercial entertainment, hears the same processed news, wears the same clothing, takes direction from the same green road signs, thinks the same pre-framed thoughts, and relegates its children and old people to the same scientific care of strangers in 'nursing' homes and schools' (Gatto 224)? Can we honestly deny that our children spend most of their waking hours with school and television, just as we did when we were young? And can we deny that school and television have helped create the minds and the thinking that have put us into this situation?

If we truly want freedom in our time, we must find ways to minimize, if not totally eliminate, the exposure of our children to these two institutions of American life, for such exposure only strengthens the hand of the State. The more parents who home-school their children (who send them to private school where they have much more control over their education), and the more parents who keep both their children and themselves from mindlessly vegetating in front of the television, the better the chances of freedom become.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.