Television Justice

  • Posted: April 26, 2013
  • Category: Politics
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Daytime television. Over 50 years ago, Newton Minow made a speech in which he called television a “vast wasteland”. It gave us the memorable phrase still used today. It is hard to find a phrase that calls to mind something more desolate or more depressing than “vast wasteland”, but surely daytime TV deserves one. Even Oprah has abandoned the wasteland.

 The speech caused a stir at the time among the chattering classes. It would have caused a stir among the talking heads as well, but CNN was still some 20 years in the future, while Fox was still a simple movie studio dealing with the romantic entanglement of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the movie set of Cleopatra.

 To those of us who have abandoned or been cast out of the traditional routines of work and family, daytime TV exists as a place of both seduction and horror. It entices because it offers what every successful seducer offers, an opportunity to relax our virtue and enjoy the moment. It allows us to feel good about ourselves as we see the hapless misfits on display there. Watching daytime television is a bit like sitting in our easy chair and drinking too much beer. It is a relaxing way to spend time. As in our drinking, we by turns feel witty and confident as we laugh at our own jokes. We find that the world is actually pretty simple and easily understandable. We realize that our shortcomings are actually strengths, and in any case, easily fixed if we want.

 Then we turn off the television, and just like the morning after, a sense of dread appears later. While television spares us the sour stomach and aching head that comes with too much beer, we still are overcome with bad feeling. We know that we have wasted a big chunk of time. We have numbed our mind, abased our character and done nothing but depressed ourselves about the problems that nag at us. “What was I thinking? “ The hills that we worried about yesterday because we must climb them in the future now appear as insurmountable mountains. That depression, that sense of helplessness, passes as time wears on, but leaves us unable to resist the next time we feel the urge to turn to a television set during the day.

 Daytime television can be described as a wasteland because it is one. Yet while a wasteland may be a dreary and desolate place, it is not dead. There exists life, even opportunity, in a wasteland. A wasteland calls to mind a population of life that is both weak and vulnerable. That weakness, that vulnerability, offers opportunity to the vulture. We know in our bones that vultures and their close cousins, rats and dung beetles, exist in that wasteland.

 The commercials on daytime television contribute a great deal to the sense of helplessness and despair that characterize a wasteland. In those times that I succumb to the seduction, I am moved with pity for the intended victims of those vultures in the commercials. Yet in the back of my mind I recognize that I am sitting at a bar, drinking a beer, watching a homeless person through the window, who is outside begging loose change that they might join me at the bar. I cannot avoid the thought that, “There but for the grace of God am I”.

 All commercials are predatory. They exist to make us buy something. We know that. We understand the exchange for free entertainment. We try to minimize and evade those commercials but recognize them for what they are. Quid pro quo, this for that. I listen to your sales pitch because you will entertain me later.

 Commercials on television, or anywhere for that matter, are interesting on so many levels. They are interesting because they are so informative about us, the people watching them, as well as the people making them. In that understanding, we can see the predator as well as fresh insights into ourselves, the prey. It is no great leap of logic to understand that Bud Lite is not targeting soccer moms or New York intellectuals in their commercials. Just as unsuccessful vultures that do not find dying animals or garbage starve to death, so do unsuccessful commercials or advertisers disappear from our TV screens.

 A wasteland is an ecosystem. Whether in nature or in commerce, ecologies rapidly dispose of the unsuccessful. When we see something new in the ecosystem, it can be important. One of the bigger changes in television since Newton Minow made his landmark complaint is the appearance and rapid growth of legal commercials. Like weeds in an untended garden, commercials for legal firms have come to be everywhere on daytime television. Like weeds their commercials are everywhere; billboards, direct mail, websites, etc., but they especially flourish in daytime television. 

 Of all the predators on daytime television, legal ads are the least disguised. Perhaps they are the vultures of this particular wasteland ecology. Most predators engage in some level of deception or camouflage in order to get close enough to their victim to get what they want. But the vulture is undisguised. As it wheels in the air or waits on the ground beside its victim, there is no deception or disguise about its nature or its intent. There is no need. The vulture only preys on those without ability to resist.

 Legal ads on television promise money and justice. The ads are not institutional in nature but feature the lawyer talking directly into the camera. The lawyer shown in those ads often has much in common with certain breeds of dog. Many lawyers, usually men, require very little imagination to see as a bulldog, jowly jaw and chest pushed forward in a display of machismo and aggression. Others, often of the feminine gender, remind one of a golden retriever. Compassionate and empathetic, but you know they are able to defend you. They offer money and justice to those who have been wronged. That is a natural enough offer. We are all open to the opportunity for gain. We all want to hurt those who have hurt us. Lex Talionis, an eye for an eye, is as old as humanity.  We are human beings and human nature is Lex Talionis.

 It is a given that the legal firm offers money to us as an inducement. Contrary to what Jimmy Fallon and Capital One might say, everybody wants free money. But the ubiquity of commercials in our culture have caused us to be wary such offers. As is true of any ecology, those who are susceptible to such simple offers become easy prey. Now only those who ignore such a simple predator strategy exist.  It isn’t that we don’t like free money, but now the offer must be more sophisticated.

 As we might expect, a legal firm offers the money we seek within the context of justice. They will fight for us and see that justice is done. We have been wronged. Justice is required and these warriors of virtue will ensure that we get it.  Drunken drivers, greedy insurance companies and scheming manufacturers of shoddy products will not only be made to give us money, but they will feel the lash of our righteous wrath. Justice will be served.

 This is probably the place to point out that there is no morality in an ecosystem. We do not like vultures or rats or dung beetles. We find them to be objects of disgust. But it is a fact that in this Universe, the dead and the rot and the decay must be cleaned up. Who else is to do it? An economy is an ecosystem. Success must be rewarded. Failure must be disposed of.

 The law, and lawyers, exists in order that there might be justice. It is one of the proudest achievements of our civilization. The law allows us to live together without killing each other. When bad things happen to good people, the law is there to fix the problem. Instead of vendetta and blood feud, we have the law. We can have an open society where we interact with strangers on a level that is only available to family in less trusting societies. We can do this because we are a nation of laws and can trust that we will be treated fairly. We are rightly proud of our nation because it is committed to justice. Justice will be done in our nation.

 But if our nation is in the business of ensuring that justice will be done, why are these ads on daytime television? They have grown in number so rapidly, almost without limit. There must be a market, a large market, to allow such growth. A large new successful predator in the ecology is only possible if a new prey animal is introduced as well. If the market for those who promise justice has grown so rapidly, one must presume a lack of justice in the past.

 Justice. It is a cold and hard word. As a concept, it is common to all cultures and nations on our planet. We in the West have a tradition of showing Justice as a woman. She is shown in many places and times as blindfolded with a set of scales in one hand and a sword in the other. All in all, it is a very good representation of what we believe justice to be. The blindfold and the scales show justice to be about the facts, with no deference to the position or wealth of those being weighed. The sword promises retribution. That Justice is shown as a woman carries the hint of mercy.

 We all want Justice, at least when we feel we have been wronged. At other times, we are more in favor of mercy. Because we are so much a product of our Judeo-Christian heritage, it is instructive to visit the Psalms of David in the Bible for insight into our human attitude toward justice. David experienced it all. He began as a shepherd boy at the very bottom of the social scale and became king. In the process he experienced both persecution as a hunted fugitive and the personal power of being a mighty king who founded a dynasty. David wrote many Psalms. Some were written while he was being hunted and persecuted. Those Psalms have the need for justice as a powerful theme. He wrote other Psalms when he was king. David was aware of his misdeeds while in power and those Psalms are cries for mercy.

 Allowing a short excursion down a rabbit trail, it is an interesting point that the Greeks and Romans, whose culture is the foundation of our own, had a prominent goddess of Justice, but not a goddess of Mercy. Nearly the reverse is true of China’s heritage, with a prominent goddess of Mercy, but a near non-existent representation of Justice among their pantheon.

 We all want Justice, except when we cry out for mercy. There is not one among us that has not felt the need for justice when we have been wronged. Just as there is not one among us who has not felt the need for mercy when we have wronged and been called to account. The power of David’s story and his Psalms are that they speak for us all. When we are weak and powerless, we are easily hurt. We have no power with which to defend ourselves and must seek justice outside of ourselves. The predators are out there and they search for those members of the herd that are weak or hurt, young or old. That is the way of the world.

 But as we gain power in this world, through wealth or politics or fame or position, we are less easily hurt. Our measure of power gives us the means to defend ourselves and ensure justice. In fact, we are prone to avoid mirrors at such times when honesty catches us unaware, for to look in the mirror would reveal the presence of a predator looking out at us. In such times, David serves again to give us a voice in his pleas for mercy, for we know there is always another more powerful than ourselves. We will be called to account. That is the way of the world.

 The world we live in is a hard and cruel place. The blind laws of gravity and thermodynamics punish our missteps. Our arc through life from infancy to old age ensures that we will be helpless at different times and different places. The ecology of our environment ensures that there are predators, ever present, to watch for their opportunity. We will be wronged. We will cry out for justice.

 When we cry out for justice, to whom do we cry out? It seems that daytime television has the answer to the question. We cry out to the law. We cry out to the legal profession. We may prefer the bulldog or we may prefer the golden retriever, but they are standing by their phones waiting to hear from us. We have a champion eager to take up our cause and redress the balance.

 We are conditioned by that same television to see the law and the legal profession in a certain way. From Perry Mason, to Matlock, to Asst. DA Jack McCoy and to Alicia Florek, lawyers are the good guys ensuring that justice is served. We may see the law itself as either too lenient or too severe, but we visualize the law as our ancestors did, a blindfolded judge enforcing retribution against those harming our interests. I think we all take comfort in that image and hope that the reality is close to the ideal.

 As in most of our hopes, reality bears the marks of a fallen world. Ideals are something to strive for, to believe in, as markers for our own efforts; but they are better seen in the distance rather than up close. Perhaps I have grown cynical about the law because I have had the misfortune to come too close.

 The last ten years of my life in the business world found me engaged in numerous business disputes that found their way into the hands of lawyers and the legal system. With no little degree of surprise, I found most of the lawyers, both ally and foe, to be agreeable and reasonable people. The legal system, including and especially the judges, more resembled the tale about the Emperor and his new clothes.

 In my own experience, I found the legal system, at least the civil legal system, to resemble a trackless maze through a swamp of sucking mud, home to impenetrable mists and clouds of hungry mosquitos. It is true that I found our nation’s legal system to be a workable system for resolving disputes, but it worked because it didn’t work. After we, the two sides of the dispute, would exhaust ourselves in the thickets of legal procedure and grew weary of the constant drain on our money and time, we would decide to bypass the legal system and settle our dispute over the conference table. At no time did we find that either truth or justice was to be found in the system. To be sure, this helped me as often as it hurt me.

 While my own up-close view of the legal system might be a special case, colored by my cynicism or outlier experience, I don’t think so. As I spent my time in the fetid swamps of the law while being slowly drained of lifeblood, I developed relationships with those lawyers who were my guides. Their stories and comments over the years convinced me that my own experiences were typical.

 It is time to return to those noble seekers of justice for the common man on daytime television. Perhaps the metaphor of dog breeds reveals the truth of the legal system. Alicia Florek aside, the golden retriever is an illusion. It is the bulldog, or the pit bull, which is the real face of the legal profession. The bulldog and the pit bull are marked by a fighting style in which they simply clamp their powerful jaws on their victim and hold on. There is no elegance to their style, simply a jaw that clamps and a singleness of purpose that allows no relaxation. Eventually exhaustion allows them victory.

 The legal system has evolved within our culture, just as life does within any ecosystem. And just as plants and animals give up those parts of them that do not contribute to their purpose, so too has the legal system. It is neither fair nor true to say that the legal system is no longer about justice. But it is both fair and true to say that it is no longer about Justice.

 Our legal system is a workable system and a broadly fair system for those who have the financial and educational means, as well as the experience, to work with it. My own experience is that it provides a rough justice. In the ordinary business disputes that I had the misfortune to experience, both sides had given either injury or damage to the other. Neither party was without fault. We exhausted our emotions over the course of several months, which allowed us to sit down and come to a resolution both sides could live with. Both sides walked away from the table feeling that they had lost, which is a reasonable indication that a fair settlement had been reached.

 But what about those who have been hurt and have neither the financial or educational means to work with the legal system? This returns us to daytime TV, which is the land of the lottery. My prejudices and my gut tell me that the people supporting the lotteries with their dollars are the same people who are watching daytime television. A brief excursion to the Internet and Google give support to that prejudice.

 Almost everyone watches daytime television or buys a lottery tickets. But there is a strong demographic profile of those who do it regularly. Expressed in non-scientific terms, the audience tends to be in debt, poorly educated and down on their luck. In the Bible, they would be called the poor. The poor are with us, just as they were in the time of David, just as they were in the time of Jesus, just as they were in the time of Lincoln. We are assured in that same Bible that the poor will always be with us.

 Modern sensibilities and the Bible are in disagreement on many things, but a concern for the poor is an area where they do agree. Both the modern day liberal atheist and the Christian can agree that a fair measure of any society is its treatment of those least fortunate, of its treatment of its poor.

 Our modern culture in the West is about meritocracy. We no longer believe in the right of kings to rule. We no longer believe that sons should follow fathers into their trade with daughters sent into the kitchen with their mothers. We do believe that everyone has the right to be all that they can be. We believe that any child can grow up to be the President. The fact that three of the last five Presidents have risen from humble circumstance gives a measure of validity to that belief. We believe in the rule of merit rather than birth.

 It is the pride of our culture that these ideals are a reality. Merit is sometimes advantaged or disadvantaged by race or education or family. But more than any other place or time in the long history of humanity, our culture honors and rewards merit. I have only to look at my own life. Both of my grandmothers came to this country within the last century. Both came alone, without parents, the one being an orphan while the other a ward of her uncle. Both married men in circumstances no better than their own. Yet here I am, comfortable and with material possessions after a long career rich in opportunity. It is not that I am unique or possessed of remarkable skills, as I know many others with a similar story. Where else in this world is such upward mobility possible?

 Our nation can be proud of that heritage and that reality of merit over privilege. When we live according to our ideals we are a beacon of freedom and opportunity to the world. But daytime television shows us the dark side of that shiny ideal. The very nature of a meritocracy rewards those who make the wise choice, who can put off immediate gratification of their desires, who can navigate the complexities of a modern society. It also rewards those who come from strong families with a history of prudence, who are born with the right stuff, who escape the chance mishap or illness that shatters their life.

 But what about those of us who consistently make foolish choices, come from dysfunctional families or have bad luck and an inconvenient roll of the dice in their DNA? Meritocracy is a game, a game with winners. But it is a game with losers as well. While we see to the basic needs of those who lose, no one will starve or go without shelter. At least as long as they are capable of making good choices and can understand the rules of the game that they are forced to play.

 But the rules of the game and the outcome of the choices can be difficult to understand for those not suited to play the game. There are many who do not even want to play the game. Many simply want to live a quiet life, raise a family and enjoy simple pleasures of their lives. They do not wish to make life-changing decisions and climb the ladder of success. Solomon, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, reminds us repeatedly how blessed those people are.

 But meritocracy is a harsh mistress. Those who do not want to play are not allowed a choice. They are forced to compete and to make choices without safeguards. They lose and they continue losing. They lose interest in the game and withdraw to the seductive pleasures of daytime television where they fantasize about the lottery and disappear into invisibility, becoming visible only when their vote is needed.

 The traditions and moralities of earlier days provided a safe path through the dangerous wilderness of the world for those unsuited to win in the meritocracy, but those traditions and moralities no longer exist. We who chose to play the game grew tired of those traditions and moralities.  They cramped our style and we saw no need for what appeared to be training wheels as we raced to win.

 Meritocracy is indeed a harsh mistress, even for those whom she favors. Those who continue in the game have no rest. The pace becomes faster and faster with no letup. There is no time or energy to consider the faceless losers in the game. To lose focus on the game is to lose the game. We must run harder and harder, giving up more and more, to stay up with our competitors. We lose sight of the wasteland because it doesn’t affect us, at least not directly.

 But the wasteland of television is like any other wasteland. It is a fertile ground for corruption and disease. Degrading entertainment grows like a cancer on the morality of our people and our culture. Strange and deviant lifestyles on display erode and dissolve whatever guides to safe conduct through the traps of life remain for those least able to make coherent choices. Appeal to the base instincts of those least able to resist bad choices destroys lives and families. Those members of the legal profession that prey on the weak foster a corruption in the law itself, a foundation rock upon which our culture rests.

 Returning to the Bible, a recurrent theme of the entire book is the need to provide Justice for the poor. Daytime television gives us a picture of what we actually are in fact providing for the poor. We provide entertainment that seduces those least able to resist with ample opportunities for degradation and abasement. We provide lotteries that fund our middle class amenities with the most regressive of taxes. We provide justice that corrupts not only them, but us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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