Union University
Union University Dept of Language


Obama and James 1:27

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

January 9, 2009 - Among the challenges facing President-elect Barack Obama is the protection of the twentieth-century West’s version of “the opiate of the people” – the television! According to an AP report in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “President-elect Barack Obama is urging Congress to postpone the Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital television broadcasting, arguing that too many Americans who rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air channels won't be ready.”

Regionally, Michael J. LaBonia, president and CEO of WKNO-TV Channel 10, is on record as saying, “We certainly don't want to disenfranchise anyone from their TV.”

National concerns apparently echo the local as a recent Washington Post article includes this gem: “’I initially thought the digital transition would turn into a TV version of Y2K, but now it's looking more like Hurricane Katrina,’ said David Waterman, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University. ‘I think they're underestimating the impact this transition will have on people’.”

Apocalyptic concerns are motivated in part by the fact that “Federal officials said this week that the billion-dollar program to distribute $40 coupons to defray the cost of the boxes has run out of money and that the 1.1 million consumers already on the waiting list might not receive them in time for the Feb. 17 transition."

Of course, the 1.1 million include (according to a letter to Congress from Obama’s transition team) the “most vulnerable Americans” – i.e., those lacking sufficient educational and financial resources to obtain the conversion equipment and make the necessary installation.

Let us be fair. The ubiquity of television is such that it has become the principal vehicle for mass distribution of sometimes vital news and information. (Radios, however, still work.) Thus, the prospect that millions of Americans might be instantaneously (albeit temporarily) cut off from their lifeline of (we’re charitably assuming here) news and important public information should be a matter of public concern. As a concern of beneficence or charity, it is an issue (at least as characterized in the abstract) with which Christians ought to concern themselves as well.

But let us be honest. Disenfranchised from one’s TV set? Consequences of Y2K-like or Hurricane Katrina proportions? The citizens of New Orleans should protest!

The idea that the loss of the ability to watch television constitutes a form of class oppression or a cause for large-scale social disorder is absolute nonsense. If we have reached a point in our cultural history where we cannot fathom a properly functioning society apart from the wholesale intrusion of television into every nook and cranny of our lives, then we have, quite literally, lost our minds. (Or at least we’ve never read history.) After all, both small societies and magnificent civilizations have thrived for millennia without that small electrical box of which we are so fond.

Of course, we’re not those thriving societies and civilizations. This is the twenty-first century! And perhaps the prophetic pundits of doom are right. Perhaps President-elect Obama is merely displaying the wisdom and prescience for which he has received so much applause of late in calling upon Congress to reconsider its haste in bringing about such a seismic cultural shift. Perhaps social order literally depends upon warm glow of our favorite mindless sitcoms in our living rooms each evening. If so, then Obama’s proposed financial stimulus package (which, evidently, might include funds for more $40 vouchers) cannot come soon enough.

God help us!