No longer do we learn through subject and verb, but rather through a verbal hybrid of images and slogans designed to spare us the rigors of closely examining issues for ourselves.
Our preoccupation with television imagery has helped make this generation curiously artificial and particularly susceptible to the counterfeit. Essayist Michael J Arlen has called it "The tyranny of the visual." And countless other critics have lamented about the perils of images supplanting words in this culture.
It has also made us susceptible to a new kind of bigotry. Television images have become remarkably successful at distilling complex issues into the broadest and most knee-jerk dimensions. This is particularly true of political programming, which has perfected the rapid fire style of discourse that leaves little time for thoughtful analysis.
My concern is that political debate regarding race has come to rely on images more than words. Our televisions are regularly studded with discussion of affirmative action, reparations, voucher programs, and other issues that have a particular relevance to the black viewing public. Yet the responses offered by the guests usually have only the most dubious relevance to the issues of race. More often than not, the rat-tat-tat style of the talking head format leads guests to perform-rather than talk. (In fact, I was recently told by a Network News producer that they probably weren't going to have me on as regularly in the future because I didn't yell and pump my fist enough). These purported experts on race simply don't have enough time in a given segment to discuss incredibly complex issues. So they take to throwing out charged terms like "racism" or "Uncle Tom" or whatever it takes to quickly shock the viewing audience into paying attention. This isn't political discourse. It's a quiz show!
The same black guests are trotted out to defend affirmative action. The same white guests are trotted out to oppose quotas. Any variance in that pattern and the other guests are on you like an animal, tossing out terms like "racist" or "race traitor" like popcorn to pigeons. TV debate gives us reality personified, and lumped into quickly identifiable categories designed to make it easy for the viewers eye's to absorb what's going on. Finally, the television viewing audience is left to judge serious issues like race not based on thoughtful discussion, but on a barrage of visual constructs.
A recent example: I appeared as a guest on "Live at 5:00 with LaToya Foster," a DC area radio call in show. One of her listeners phoned in and accused President Bush of being a racist.
"Why would you say that?" I asked.