The Living Room War | News | The Harvard Crimson (2022)

OUR WATERS are brown, our skies are sulphurous, our fields devoured, and our people's screams barely audible beneath the tentacles of city traffic. Outside the project walls erected by the affluent, there is a curious peace of mind. At the same time, the churches are retrenching, the bureaucracies reexamining, armies resuming, bigots resurging, and political ghosts restalking.

But Michael Arlen's immediate subject in The Living Room War is not the staggering charnel house we live in and which lives on us. It is that small, luminous, oracular, electronic avatar called television. Arlen is in passionate agreement with Richard Goodwin who writes: "We pass through all this tumult seated before the inexorable shadows of a TV set-certainly the greatest psychic disturber ever created by man."

The reason Michael Arlen bothered to produce two years of weekly columns on TV for The New Yorker, and then publish the best of them as The Living Room War, is that one hundred million or more people feed on television daily. It hammers them like malleable gold; it takes and does not give; it bludgeons man, and voraciously relieves him of whatever sensitivity he timorously guards. Television has been described with varying enthusiasm as the great galvanizer, tranquilizer, hypnotizer, pacifier, stupefier, paralyzer, agitator, commentator, activator, adjudicator, erupter, corruptor. It provides a daily vindication of American technological genius, a daily spectacle of panoramic American social and political epiphanies, so that watching it is in part an act of self-congratulation. There is information given out in abundance. Yet consciousness of wrongs serves for moral conscience, and all social problems are expected to yield to a sufficiently brutal amount of revelation and analysis. There is a "special" for everything: possible life on the asteroids, the extinction of the sun, test-tube giraffes, housing, Eskimoes, hari-kari, cabbages, cornea transplants, insurance, ghettoes, suburbs, and Agnew. TV enervates us by its never-ending, relentless "exposure" of evils. Its documentaries and brooding newscasts are just as much entertainment as Jackie Gleason. Television regards social outrage-even in the euphemistic form of protest, irony, or bitterness-as intolerable betrayal of the public trust. It has profoundly affected us all, even as we move to criticize it, and reduced our spirits to onerous waste. Vietnam, the implicit subject of Arlen's book, has been turned, despite unprecedented "coverage," into a cause (somehow worthy) of America's fetid evangelical toil. The only thing that TV brings to us with immediacy is its own senescent code of ethics.

The principal argument of Arlen's book is that: "Television is not merely a box dispensing such commodities as 'information' or 'entertainment,' but something we are doing to ourselves." You can't simply praise or denounce the dissemination of information. But TV viewers extract their satisfactions in the pains of paranoia, and less dramatically, in an inexplicable feeling of frustration. Television may show us things we have never seen, sounds we have never heard, faces only imagined and opinions hardly imagined, but it makes its offering stillborn, draining off the wonder or outrage. We are made poorer by its dilating cosmopolitanism.

THE FIRST impression about The Living Room War is that Arlen writes around his subject with stunning circumlocutory adeptness. But the persevering reader discovers that the essence of the matter is precisely this elusiveness. We sense the devil, all right, and know he is traducing our life, but how he pursues his subterranean mischief is maddeningly invisible.

Arlen wrote me that he was not at all certain that his pieces were about TV. Perhaps they were about a great, white, ultratechnological superpower picking an out-of-the-way closet of the world in which to have a nervous breakdown- "like sending one's crazy aunt to Pernambuco... but Jesus, now the nervous breakdown seems to be here." His primary concern throughout the book is to present television as a dynamic power capable of fashioning human dreams and fears. He writes:

It's not so much that people don't get "content" from TV, or that the content isn't important. They do. But what people really and mostly receive is a sense of themselves. What it mostly gives us is some other world, the world we dream we live in.

While this is not a surprising statement, it has serious implications. The most significant is that television programming is not a benignly vapid mess. In fact, the vapidity of television's material is responsible for its deleterious influence, which is primarily the enervating substitution of inoffensiveness for reason. Arlen writes of the most obvious example:

It doesn't seem to get mentioned that "anti-personnel weapons," "delivery hardware," "pacification mission," "nation-building," are phrases that only a people out of touch with language would use with any seriousness.

Arlen addresses himself to the weary antinomies of TV-relevance and impartiality, balance and accuracy, immediacy and taste, integrity and remorseless expungement of personality, news and entertainment, sobriety and effulgence, public service and self-service-and not surprisingly reaches the conclusion that television flaunts a "slick and greedy and mentally undemanding world."

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Commercial TV is what we live with... it provides the reflection that we all live with, and commercial TV is irredeemably and unalterably, implicitly and explicitly, a system for moving goods. It will take a few exertions of nothing less than a kind of anarchism of the soul to even postpone the desert.

THE HEART of The Living Room War deals with the farce of television news coverage in general and Vietnam in particular. Whether news broadcasts are viewed as welcome interruptions of family entertainment or as rude incursions of the real world, the fact is that television stands or falls according to its news. The insurmountable obstacles which vitiate TV news are the physical nature ofthe screen, the commercial basis of the industry, its time structure, and the vague consecrated code of democratic mediocrity usually referred to as impartiality. Television is commonly given considerable credit for generating national discontent over the war, It brought ten minutes of war in front of the chops and asparagus each evening, often adding an other hour of thoughtful commentary. No war had ever been covered so thoroughly. No war ever lasted so long, resisted explanation so obstinately, or became so hopelessly opaque in spite of the heroic agitation of television analysis. The point is not of course that TV is entirely responsible for this situation, but that it is responsible to a considerable extent for the special kind of frustration which the war has produced.

Television has not brought the war closer or made it more real, or even kept it constantly before the public's attention. Instead it has reduced the immediacy, ameliorated the intensity, and finally, almost removed the war from vivid human concern by repetitious, chaotic exposure. There is both the willful censorship which slaughtered the Smothers Brothers, and the structural censorship which the physical nature of TV imposes on the programs, the producers' intent, however noble, and the audience, however receptive and unsullied.

When we watch the typical war-coverage episode, we see, as Arlen says, "a picture of men three inches tall shooting at other men three inches tall." This episode is filmed and discussed by reporters man-handled by the military in Vietnam and edited at home by men consumed by the desire for "balance." Unfortunately, balance and accuracy are severely antagonistic. Instead of the balance of 365 five-minute bits, we would probably prefer an accurate, expansive evaluation of all these facts which have been presented as if they were equally important and commanding. The American desire for visible accomplishment demands a daily spectacle of military activities: hills taken are more important than towns lost. The fundamental fluid nature of all the military operations fails to force its way through the illusory impression that we are overwhelming the enemy.

TELEVISION periodically senses the amorphous confusion of its efforts and attempts to give us a perspective, Some reporter all too often will appear against institutional-blue studio flats and proceed to give us in-depth analysis. But these efforts often serve up only lead lines and inflated stories for the next newscast. The networks do not understand that by presenting Government statements at face value, they reinforce them. The questions which resonate weakly in every literate living room are not asked.

It is at this point that most of us assert our personal ability to resist the Insidious Tube. The reality is that we are all physically contaminated by it, since it represents one of our pathetically few sources of "information." We are corrupted by television even if we have never gazed upon it, for we must live among those who have gazed upon little else. I admit that it is difficult to abstract from those tiny colored images, largely static, to the minds of those who watch TV eight hours a day. Watch Hugh Downs or Ed McMahon punch those Concentration buttons, as they organize the soothing pairs to yield prizes and bathe pasteurized viewers in the emulsified applause of the studio audience. You are conditioned. You must react with considerable dismay, therefore, maybe even impulsiveness, when They try to integrate Your school.

Then that night Mike Wallace waltzes up grimly to tell us about CBW warfare. I saw this one. I sat there (waiting for Shanghai Express of course) watching all these flashes of botulin and anthrax, hearing them described as more humane than bullets and bombs. A liver-spotted general emeritus told me how germs give me (us-US) a bonus area of death, and how we had germs because the Russians had germs, and how we would like to fall back on gems if that would prevent nuclear holocaust. At the end of all of this Mike lowered his script and reassured me that this complex, emotional, controversial subject (his voice now granitic and beer dark) was being subjected to a general review by President Nixon. Dubious consolation.

What a tragedy it is that astronauts have set foot on the moon before Nixon has set foot in a ghetto. That is what tears and burns: the invisible pain ignored, the visible pain ignored, leaders genuflecting before our conquest (Agnew raising a martini to Mars) of rock so far away, and the humiliating xenophobia which followed. There is no escape from the feeling that the war coverage is stylized and vacuous, that the painstaking objectivity is little more than censorship. Information is valuable only insofar as it educates and therefore changes and refines minds; but since TV will not offend its market with opinions, its objectivity is impenetrable conservatism.

TELEVISION, by pandering to America's absorbent cultural monocracy, makes obsessions of social problems, but produces an incapacitating delusion of anxieties. Arlen writes:

"Television's war" is a prisoner of its own structure, a prisoner of such facts that although TV is the chief source of news and information for the majority, the News and Information Act is still just another aspect of the world's greatest continuous floating variety show.

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Intelligent viewers must draw their conclusions from the interstices between the impartial statements and the muteness of our antagonists.

The TV merchants realize that the floating variety show is the best way to maintain the integrity of the land. The fashionable theorists, particularly McLuhan, speak of the unprecedented-rate-of-apocalyptic-change. Yet after the Beatles, Che Guevara, the Civil Rights Act, and even the moon landing, social conscience may be developed so far beyond the power of people to change anything that the fiery political frustration is being mistaken for the reform. And television may be the cardinal source of this paradoxical feeling of unprecedented turmoil throughout an essentially sullen and unmoving nation. Arlen's most moving pages try to capture this sorrowful ambivalence:

People look at Vietnam... the figures shadowy, mostly out of sight; the voices indistinct, isolated threats without meaning; isolated glimpses, part of an elbow, a man's jacket (who is the man?), part of a face, a woman's face. Ah, she is crying. One sees the tears. Two tears. One counts the tears. Two bombing raids... I wonder what it is that the people who run TV think about the war, because they have given us this keyhole view; we have given them the airwaves, and now, at this crucial time, they have given us back this keyhole view.

His pessimistic conclusion is that TV may have even pitilessly deluded us into thinking that we are free to change all of this.

The best essay, Grief speak, touches lightly the days of the assassinations, the tedious reporting maligning what had been lost, the mediocrity of the industry in a moment of human want.

"The question," the announcer said, " is how much the train has been slowed down enroute from Newark." No, The question all along (we had known three days ago who was killed) was who was dead.

Then the Miami seance and Chicago bloodletting, and the profane act of seeing such things on such a mechanism. The dim realization wends upward that the blood on these domestic streets and the blood on those faraway oriental hills flows through common vessels.

Television does not suggest this. It gives us Eric Sevaried, that sallow Odin, reading one hundred sensible words as insurance against controversy, never mentioning that Chicago, or the capture of Hill 881 was an unconscionable waste of life. It gives us commercials of flagellating concupiscence so that, after twenty years of them, we begin to view the whole world as a commodity, the uncommitted and benighted as the greatest consumer product. As it crowds more harrowing specials into the week, we turn away with less and less hesitation. It is possible that if Jesus Christ had spoken only on television, Christianity would have died with the emptying coffee cups. Television neither informs nor entertains but inters us.

Still, perhaps one a year it inadvertently reveals what we need to see and hear. One example which Arlen describes was the irony of a Vietnam special by CBS newsman Morley Safer. As Westmoreland asks about basic training and remarks about the high morale, a soldier tells Safer that he dislikes riding down people's gardens. Safer then routinely asks him about the war. The soldier looks melancholy (did we see it?) and then, in one of those moments when everything comes alive in a gesture, tells Safer passionately: "The country's so beautiful, fertile, and everything."

Perhaps we have made a melodrama of television's effects on us just as we used to make a romance of its possibilities. Nevertheless, I feel that it reflects the contemporary human heart's division against itself, and divides that heart more seriously. Unless television's discreating capacities are stressed, social revolution may only stoop down to gather up the fragments of a shattered mirror.

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