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My thinking vacation

BY DEAN TREFTZ | JUNE 08, 2009 7:26 AM

Audio: The author reads his column


It being summer, I’ve once again traded mind-numbingly pointless homework for soul-crushingly repetitive work. This forces me to spend less time guiltily tabbing through Wikipedia entries that are at best tangentially related to my homework and more quality time with our good friend, the television.

Not that we were all that estranged, but I had forgotten just how easy television is. In fact, TV could be called the polar opposite of formal education. Instead of paying someone to force you to think for a set period of time, you are paying (with cable, anyway) in order to not have to think indefinitely.

After eight-12 hours of work with my brain half-on, that sounds pretty nice.

I think that’s the primary difference. While in school, I’d be forced on a regular basis to give at least a passing glance at complex ideas. Now, turning on my brain is my own job, which is fine when I’m feeling like it, but I’m used to school doing that work for me when thinking sounds about as fun as a hungover marathon.

Enter the blissful, flickering abyss of (soon-to-be-all-digital!) television.

The most dramatic evidence that unthinkingness is television’s primary service may be on 24-hour news. Even on the relatively balanced CNN, we are provided with good guys and bad guys brought on specifically to piss half of us off, which is a much easier reaction than reflection.

I’d even argue that it’s easier to live in a world where every stranger could be looking to molest/kidnap your child, every pro-lifer sympathetic to the murder of abortion doctors, and every Latino circuit judge an affirmative action recipient. The world’s a scary place, and if you can simplify it even a little, then it becomes that much more livable.

More subtly, TV offers social rules that have been pre-negotiated so that life doesn’t have to be all that complex/pointless (this isn’t to say that life is inherently without point, but meaning is something that is very personal and decidedly not easy). Even in the more nuanced shows, most characters usually have a drive or goal that they can work toward, be it love, sex, money, zany-antics-inducing fun, etc.

Of course, this is what TV is for. We would be fools to grovel up to Lorne Michaels et. al in search of a deeper understanding of life.

Still, I would love to see an existentially challenging reality/game show. Maybe something called Aristotelian Method Madness! in which the producers grab people off the street and aggressively force them into justifying every aspect of their life and worldview. Whichever contestant staves off a weeping descent into nihilism the longest wins a plasma-screen television. The losers receive complimentary new outlooks on life and a year of counseling.

Hopefully, the contestants would be Joe Sixpackish enough that the audience members would question their own beliefs, and then things could really get interesting.

If someone could pull it off right, it would be perfect for TV. Think about it — the viewers would be primed for a shiny, new product to make them happy. Also, provided they aren’t allowed to think for too long, the audience would be so grateful for the ensuing “life-affirming” episode of “American Idol” that they may just send in cash straight to the studio.

But that’d be a little too traumatic for TV’s prosaic pastures, wouldn’t it?

It’d also be way too easy. If television could knock us out of our respective ruts, even just for half an hour, then we’d probably have to invent something better to make said ruts more comfortable.


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