The current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review provides independent confirmation of positions taken by two of the favorite people in my life – Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and my youngest son, Akiva .
It did not take Rav Moshe, the greatest halachic decisor of the last generation, too long to weigh in concerning television. In its earliest years, when sitcom families still had two parents, and their children brushed their teeth, made their beds, and lived in houses surrounded by white picket fences, you could also not find too much salacious material on the airwaves. There was suggestion, to be sure, but nothing explicit. So Rav Moshe’s objections to the new medium did not focus on titillation, but on values. How, he asked, can you watch something that turns murder into something frivolous?
Decades later my children found themselves in what was called the “Yiddish track” in their day school. Although theirs was (at the time) the only haredi school in town, the parent body evidenced a much more varied continuum of behavior than in the analogous schools in Flatbush. The administration would have liked to ban TV at home as a condition of enrollment, but they would have lost half the school. On the other hand, there was pressure to segregate the kids from the “better” homes (i.e. ones without TV) so that they could achieve more of their potential without being subject to the educational drag of children from less spiritually rarified families. (The assumption was a gross generalization, but it harbored a good deal of truth.)
The administration came up with a ruse. They formed a Yiddish track, knowing that none of the families who really valued TV would live with such an anachronism. It worked. None of the children enrolled in this track had televisions at home, and the track did turn out to be the “A” track of the school. They didn’t do all that much teaching in Yiddish either, and were able to drop the ruse altogether after a few years. It was sort of comical while it lasted – the young sons of Iranian rabbis who were often a large portion of the class proudly declaiming their Rashis in Hungarian Yiddish. Go figure.
One artifact of this arrangement was not so funny. The children from the different tracks merged on the basketball court. My son and his friends volunteered without any prodding that they could see the effects of television on their friends who indulged in that vice. Those children were more rude, aggressive, and their language was – shall we say saltier than that of the kids in the non-TV track. Of course no one conducted a controlled experiment, but it was intriguing to hear the children offer this social commentary on their own.
An article in the Columbia journal decries the manner in which the New York Times covers pop-culture, but says little about the growing concern with the effects of that culture upon society. Here are a few paragraphs that both Rav Moshe seemed to adumbrate, and with which my son Akiva will agree:
How might pop culture be covered differently? One place to begin looking for an answer is Orlando, Florida, which is in the heart of the Bible Belt and has a burgeoning population of evangelical Christians. Mark I. Pinsky has covered religion for the Orlando Sentinel for ten years, and he says he has been struck by how many evangelicals “feel besieged by a toxic popular culture. It’s public enemy number one. They see it as hypersexual and ultraviolent, and out of their control. These people are stuck in middle-class or lower-middle-class tract houses, and they can’t get away from it.”
Interestingly, Pinsky, the author of a forthcoming first-person book titled A Jew Among the Evangelicals, says he often finds himself in agreement with the evangelical critique of pop culture. He has a seventeen-year-old son and a fourteen-year-old daughter, and they are not allowed to watch TV on school nights. “I don’t believe kids hear or see something and then go out and do it,” he observes. “I don’t think that if they see a murder on TV, they’re going to go out and kill somebody.” But the literature “does suggest a desensitizing and normalizing of behavior that takes place,” he says, adding, “A friend gave me a DVD of Deadwood. I have no problem with my son watching that. But I won’t let him watch a dumb sitcom. We’re not prudish people at all, but I won’t let the stupidity on such shows seep into their minds. It’s attitudinal. Twelve-year-olds who watch TV begin talking like thirty-year-olds to their parents. You can see it immediately.”
Pinsky referred me to a recent article by a fellow Sentinel reporter, Linda Shrieves, about “sitcom kids” — children who mimic the behavior they see on TV. “Though most TV watchdog groups fret about violence and sex on television,” Shrieves wrote, “some parents say they’re increasingly concerned about TV’s attitude problem. From cartoons to sitcoms, the stars are now sassy children who deliver flip one-liners, put down authority figures and revel in a laugh track. And their attitudes are contagious. Formerly polite kids are smart-aleck, eye-rolling and harrumphing, just like the kids on television.” Douglas Gentile of the National Institute on Media and the Family was quoted as saying that “psychologists love to slice it up many different ways, but it boils down to this: Kids copy what they see on TV.”