The Altruism Industry – Part I

Each generation that comes along has the comical notion that they are the first to discover sex. The generation of the 60s thought it was the first to discover  America’s materialism and complacency. It was not; we inherited that awareness from the Beats and other less theatrical critics of the 1950s.

A golden moment

We came up in a golden moment of postwar prosperity. There was enough money to pay for tuition at the best schools. We had great teachers, the best libraries in existence, music and food in abundance, and friends with whom to enjoy them. We were excused from military conscription and protected from anti-drug laws. Our parents, after the deadliest war in history, seeing life as something of a miracle; sent us love upon request.

In short, we had a complete economic and emotional foundation to indulge in the natural rebellion of adolescence. We felt we could kick against out situation with no danger to ourselves. Like children who scream at their parents, “I hate you!” knowing he will get the usual supper and sleep in his familiar bed, we could not imagine any risk to our sustenance. We saw it as a virtue, and still do, to indict our country for its social injustices. We could afford to turn indictment into recreation.

Onto this picture insert the television. Ours was the first generation to receive the full impact of the most pervasive and effective device for manipulating consumer choices and political perceptions ever devised. The same television that sells soap, refrigerators, and cars, sells us the rest of our obsessions.

Most people only dimly realize that there is not a moment on television which is not both entertaining and selling. Merely putting an image on the screen gives it a heightened reality. Whatever its impact —positive or negative, humane or cruel, healthy or perverse— the object on the screen makes it more real than anything not seen there.

Edward R. Murrow’s ingenious gamble

On November 25, 1960, CBS aired “Harvest of Shame,” on the subject of Appalachian poverty, marking the television industry’s acknowledgment that not all America was white and middle class. This was touted as a courageous move; but, far from being an offense against the public’s expectation, Murrow’s program was a stroke of business genius. Social conscience for middle class viewers, identity itself for people in need, and a novel form of entertainment, keeping eyeballs in thrall to advertisers; all blended into a seamless whole. Nobody saw any danger in this marriage of elements—on the contrary, we felt ourselves the more virtuous for having watched.

Economic injustices there were, to be sure, and they needed to be addressed. It is not necessary to doubt that to mark the beginning of an insidious process; a crescendo of self-flagellation which has not abated to this day.

By the time our age cohort hit college, practically all of us knew  Jim Crow was wrong. By 1964 we had the Civil Rights Act. It passed Congress, not because people were opposed to it —that is not the business Congress is in— but because most of us wanted it passed. By that time, however, we had also learned not only to be informed and persuaded, but gratified by images of bad guys (southern sheriffs) against good guys (children entering school), and violence between them (fire hoses and dogs). Irresistible.

Leave a Reply