The Stranger
In Our Midst
"When the stranger first came to our house, we thought that he was merely stupid, with his song-and-dance, vapid words, the silly things he did to make us laugh. But we noticed that the longer he stayed, the more angry he became. First there was the yelling and the fist-fights, but soon enough there were shootings, knifings --- even murder. He had a strange fascination with seeing people get hurt.

"We would happily have run him out of the house but he had brought something else with him. It was a kind of void. By the time we realized what he had done, he was so deeply entrenched in our world it was too late to be rid of him. And ever since, we've not been able to free ourselves from the cruel violence he brought with him into our once peaceful home."

--- "Our First Television Set"
Jesús came over the Mexican border not long ago. He doesn't have the necessary documents, so we had to sneak him over. He says the passage wasn't dangerous. He and his "coyote" lay all night in a drainage ditch until the INS agents went off to breakfast. Then the two of them ran a mile to a gas station in the mountains and I went over and picked him up.

This was his first time in the United States. His friends on the other side ask me how he's doing in "Gringolandia." "He's dyed his hair blonde," I say. "And he speaks perfect English, and he's found a rich American woman to marry."

The truth is he has become enculturated. His favorite occupation is going to Wal-Mart or Costco and spending his hard-earned money on Jeans, T-shirts, and Adidas. He also brow-beat me into buying a $99 Goldstar TV for him to take home to his Mum when he leaves next month.

The other night we were watching television. It was one of those low-budget action films made in Hollywood, dubbed into Spanish, with noisy electronic music noodling about in the background. Three men rob a bank, shoot eight tellers, run away, stop a high-school bus, murder the driver, grab several hostages and race off into the woods where they threaten everyone and manhandle the girls. The police come and, after some yelling into bullhorns, pick the robbers off one by one. I thought of it as a Bellow movie, and not Saul. Almost everyone bellows: the police bellow, the chief bellows, the robbers bellow. Only the girls scream.

I scarcely ever watch this stuff, but I realized what I was missing: a concentrated lesson in crime and, to a lesser extent, punishment. It romanticized guns: they get waved around endlessly, became a powerful tool for creating respect from strangers, hostages, the girls, and the police. It taught us how to rob banks most effectively (kill all the witnesses), how not to escape (they used a VW Van!), how to grab hostages (find a gaggle of high-school kids) and how not to deal with the police (don't waste your time dickering --- shoot to kill). It was a 90-minute audio-visual presentation of the Do's and Don't's for would-be felons.

The only thing missing was the follow-through, for if any of the robbers had survived the final gory massacre, they would have been shipped off to Graybar State U. There, they would have a chance to hone down their knowledge with expert teachers: techniques of use of guns and shivs, how to buy and sell heavy dope, how to indulge in rape and other acts of violence against their peers.

I was watching Jesús watching the movie --- wondering what would have happened if he had come across to the U.S. on his own. He would have spent a great deal of time here looking for a job. He would have stood about on street-corners with thousands of other unemployed Mexicans, willing to work for very little money, being hungry.

He would live in a very crowded apartment where his only diversion would be watching TV. He might well have drifted into what the sociologists and social workers like to call "anti-social behavior patterns." The educational programs on television would have shown him how to buy or steal guns for protection, respect, and survival.

He would also have learned pure Adam Smith capitalism through street drug-trade --- where supply always meets demand, price goes up and down according to availability, a marketplace free of taxation, paperwork, and the heavy hand of regulation (the only "Invisible Hand" being snitches and undercover police agents.)

Too, he would have learned, and learned well, the pitiless hunger created by television. In its commercials, he would see constant visions of what all need to be happy in America: credit cards, stereo systems, fast, sporty cars. The how-to-get-them programs would blend with the ads, making a perfect psychological double-bind: the advertising agencies provide masterful representations of need, and Hollywood provides masterful lessons on how to end these needs. The rest of us get to live with the dividends.

Much of the populace of America believes that loss of family values, loose morals, and not enough Bible study has driven our fall-apart world. They look everywhere for the source --- divorce, the lack of God in the schools, ignoring the Ten Commandmants, gays --- to find the blame. And all the while the beast squats there in the living-room, daily grinding out his artful lessons in murder and thievery. He's so large and so omnipresent that no one sees him.

One recent study that appeared in the Los Angeles Times said that every four minutes, there is another act of violence committed on one of our television networks. It also pointed out that in the homes and apartments of the very poor, television --- our 21st Century babysitter --- is going ten to twelve hours a day.

We must pity our poor battered America, brood on our willingness to give free rein to this Godzilla that rapes the hearts and souls of our innocents every day. All we can hope is that, in the ideal world, one fine day those who create, fund, and purvey these programs will be tried for their crimes against humanity.

The producers, the directors, the advertising agency heads, the TV network owners and the cable operators will be subject to a "one strike" law that will place them in TV prison for a few eternities. They will be permitted nothing more than a bare room and a giant screen (no on/off switch) where their movies and commercials will run, larger than life, at full volume, day and night. There, perhaps, they can learn first-hand the terrible message of rapine and cruelty that they have laid on our hapless world for so long.

--- Carlos Amantea
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