The Regularizing Influence

I was a nerdy grind in my late 1970s public high school, but the television was on quite a bit at home, with the usual cycle: afternoon reruns of “The Rifleman” and “Ozzie and Harriet,” followed by evening news, a break for family dinner, a few mom-approved sitcoms and then, sometimes, nightly network news. 

Saturday and Sunday evenings were pretty much wholly given over to television. I studied a lot, too, up in my room, but I would walk by the big glass eye in its console and linger there for a minute or two, soaking it in without much comment or critique. It was a regularizing influence. It defined cultural normal, the Overton window of approved attitudes and fashions for any given season.

I can remember afternoons, in junior high, looking forward to grilled cheese sandwiches and the next installment of “The Six Million Dollar Man.” I wasn’t the dismissive cultural nag I have become today. I probably witnessed Fonzie jumping the shark without questioning the producer’s creative decisions. This was “Happy Days.” It was what it was. You don’t get to question these things.

When I went away to Stanford in 1978, I actually don’t remember a television anywhere in our freshman dorm. When I lived in a campus row house on Mayfield, a place called “Kairos,” there was one set in the common area that no one used very much.

So when I went back home, for the holidays, I had been weaned. I would go for five month stretches, at school, without a single sitcom or network news program. I can remember, after this television fast, feeling active contempt for just about everything I watched on television. The laugh tracks announced themselves awkwardly. The propagandizing and the pandering seemed obvious. I recall feeling contempt for reporters who wouldn’t ask rather obvious questions. It felt dishonest and shallow, good-looking but bland. It was a big lie seeking a broad audience.

One of my freshman friends had a European-born mother and I can recall her assessment of the thing, in a German accent. She was actually trying to be gentle: “In America, television is made for the working class, uncritical people.”

From then on, I was very cautious around anyone who seemed to believe television represented the core truth on any given cultural or political issue. Television was bad, but people who took pride in parroting it were particularly pitiable.

These days, people who watch television and then claim, proudly, they “follow the science” would be downright hilarious if their dimwittery weren’t so dangerous.

The truth is, we are what we read, what we watch, and the company we keep. For the last 18 months, if you’ve been imbibing the COVID fear-porn of CNN and MSNBC, I can understand why you would applaud vaccine passports and booster shots into the next century. The Overton Window is very, very narrow on this front. I just watched Gloria Allred affirm, without blushing, that, sure, you can opt not to take the jab, but you don’t have a right to keep your job. (Do people think these things through? “You can refuse the vaccine, but you don’t get to eat, OK? That’s only fair. Right?”)

In a roundabout way, I’m trying to articulate a broader problem, one that doesn’t bode well for our republic. We aren’t the sturdy, questioning New England types anymore. We aren’t reading the Bible at seven years-old, for the seventh time and making our catechism conform to scripture. We aren’t willing to initiate a difficult conversation, much less endure a raging debate. We let the internet “feed” (our own personalized version of it) regularize us.

A few months into the “pandemic,” I went to a dinner party, un-masked, and if something  had changed all of my friends into zombies I could not have been more spooked. One family had two standards for relatives visiting their children: one for healthcare professionals and “stand at the window” for people who weren’t. (Even though front-line healthcare workers were more likely to have and spread COVID, healthcare professionals seemed “safer” to them.) Some of my male friends, guys I previously thought fiercely contrarian, were walking around, heads down, in masks, sanitizing their hands at every turn. People who defined themselves, passionately, by their belief and their fellowship were proudly bragging about their church’s decision not to meet. The dinner party itself was a bit of a COVID-era miracle, with an aura of apology and self-loathing for having a social gathering in the first place.

Clearly, my friends were experiencing a different, regularizing, feed. Their feed was saying:

  • The experts know what they’re doing.
  • Masks and vaccinations are the least we can do.
  • It’s OK to lock down the economy and shutter schools.
  • This is not a constitutional issue.

My feed was saying:

Now, I’m not necessarily saying my sources and regularizing influences are infallible. I’m talking about our powerful ability, as human beings, to remake ourselves based on where our minds have been feeding over the last few months. Avoiding television during my college era intellectually reprogrammed me. I was no longer one of the television tribe and I had active contempt for those who were. 

In this era of Commie virus obsession, we are mentally eating our way into a state of impatient contempt for one another. Gloria Allred thinks I have the freedom to avoid the jab, but at the price of starving to death. I’m having trouble believing the faith of a pastor who believes Jesus would delay the great commission, or refrain from fellowship, in deference to a virus that kills 0.18 percent of the population.

We graze in such different intellectual pastures these days, that we sheep are beginning to see each other as wolves. We claim our own science as definitive and the opposition’s as no science at all. Some disciples of Fauci happily consign their fellow citizens to leper status as a necessary obligation of public health, and those of us in the “no jab” crowd may be nudged into irrational contempt for reasonable measures, simply because our opponents have been so overbearing in their demands. (When someone claims the bankruptcy of a small business—someone’s life work—is a “minor inconvenience,” that tends to be the last advice you will ever endure from them.)

Polarization itself is not the real problem. The problem is declaring iron inappropriate for sharpening iron. The sort of people who can’t stand a discussion for fear of disinformation are really the same sort of people who can’t defend their positions and impatiently plunge into one-solution fanaticism. Like Fauci, they can’t own their own mistakes and then turn a lab accident, or worse, into what may become a vaccine disaster and global economic catastrophe.

Fanatics rarely enjoy happy endings. If we haven’t learned anything from world history, we should at least understand that fear-driven public hysteria—the sort that can’t stand a discussion, the sort that won’t allow people to live their own lives, the sort that demands abject obedience to unelected authority—is foreign territory for Americans. Ponder the whipsaw “regularizing” of public opinion of 1937, and then 1947, in Germany, Japan, or Italy. Ideas that once seemed widely popular don’t always stand the test of time.

We need to look up from our television sets, our favorite internet sites, and we need to fall back in love with debate. We need to consider the other man’s plate, and share some of our own food as well—or we will all be shamed, silently, into a conformity that will starve us.

About James Patrick Riley

James Riley is the owner and operator of Riley's Farm in Oak Glen, California and the creator of "Courage, New Hampshire," a television drama seen on PBS stations across the country. The father of six children, Riley performs "Patrick Henry" and supervises a living history program visited by hundreds of thousands of school children. He holds a degree in history from Stanford University.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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