from The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thom

Chapter : "The Power of our Point of View: Older and
Younger Cultures"

section: "We're not just asleep: we're intoxicated"

"As a teenager growing up in the 60's in college towns and San Francisco, I made the acquaintance of several heroin addicts. By and large they were nice people - not the stereotypes we see in TV and literature, but relatively normal middle-class kids who got in over their heads with a drug that was stronger than they'd ever expected or believed.
          Later, as I grew through my 20's and 30's, I met my share of alcohol addicts. Similarly, most were good people at heart, but had found themselves in the grip of a drug which consumed their lives. And I've known many tobacco addicts over the years, most similarly well-intentioned who always thought they could one day just say no, and then discovered that it was unbelievably difficult.

          One of the things I noticed about these drug addicts was that keeping the supply of the drug flowing into them had become the most important thing in their lives. It was at the core of their existence. They'd wake up in the morning and their first thought would be filled with that day's supply of their particular drug. The day was drenched with the drug. They'd go to sleep with their drug.

          Another thing you notice about drug addicts is that they will sacrifice things that they might otherwise consider important for their drug. They may have great plans for career, education, or relationships, but somehow those things end up subordinated to the enjoyment of their drug. Long after the drug has stopped producing a 'high', but is now just keeping them from flipping over into painful withdrawal, they're still spending hours everyday immersed in their drug.

          From the point of view of those running our culture, it's not clear that this has historically been considered bad - in fact there's evidence that people in power in Younger Culture governments have regarded it as desirable to get people addicted. For instance, consider that the U.S. government continues to give millions of dollars in subsidies (a nice euphemism for 'gifts' or 'corporate welfare') to tobacco producers. In the more distant past, thirty years after losing the American Revolutionary War, the British fought a war with China to protect their 'right' to sell opium to the more than 12 million opium addicts they'd created in China. They won the war, and took Hong Kong island as part of their booty, and the empire made billions on opium trade and opium taxes. Many historians believe that the British were successful in winning the Opium War in large part because so many members of the Chinese royalty and bureaucracy were themselves addicted to opium. This both reduced their effectiveness as military opponents, and also reduced their enthusiasm for making the British - and their opium - go away.
          In dominator Younger Cultures, the first goal of the culture itself, as acted out most often by the cultural institutions of government and religion, is to render the citizenry non-resistant. Earlier we saw what typically happens to peoples who won't 'adjust':  they're exterminated. This fate has been shared by many native peoples; the result is that the only
conquered peoples who survive tend to be docile. (If it sounds like conquerors treat the conquered like animals to be domesticated, you're getting my point
precisely.) As every heroin dealer, tobacco salesman, and liquor store owner knows, if you have people who depend on a daily dose of your product for their sense of well-being, you have people who are not going to give you much trouble. (They may cause problems for others, but generally the dealers are left alone.)

          Similarly, our technological culture has found a technological drug to maintain docility. One measure of a drug's addictive potential is what
percentage of people can take it up or put it down at will and with ease. This behavior is called 'chipping' a drug - occasionally using it, but also walking away from it without pain or withdrawal for months or years at a time. Research reported in Science News found that while large percentages of people could chip marijuana, and medium percentages of people could chip alcohol, cocaine and even heroin, very very few people (less than five percent) could chip tobacco. But imagine a 'drug' that fewer than even five percent of Americans could walk away from for a month at a time without discomfort. Such a drug, by the definitions of addiction, would be the most powerfully addictive drug ever developed.
          In addition to discouraging chipping behavior, this drug would also have to stabilize people's moods. It leaves behind the boredom or pain or ennui of daily life. It would alter their brainwaves, alter their neurochemistry, and constantly reassure them that their addiction to it was not, in fact, an addiction but merely a preference. Like the alcoholic who claims to only be a social drinker, the user of this drug would publicly proclaim the ability to do without it...but in reality would not even consider having it be completely absent from his home or life for days, weeks or years.

          Such a 'drug' exists. Far more seductive than opium, infinitely more effective at shaping behaviour and expectations than alcohol, and used for more minutes every day than tobacco, our culture's most pervasive and most insidious 'drugging agent' is television. Many drugs, after all, are essentially a distilled concentrate of a natural substance. Penicillin is extracted from mold; opium from poppies. Similarly, television is a distilled extract - super-concentrated, like the most powerful drugs we have - of 'real' life. People set aside large portions of their lives to watch a flickering box - hours every day. They rely on that box for the majority of their information about how the world is, how their politicians are behaving, and what reality is, even though the contents of the box are controlled by a handful of corporations, many of which are also in the weapons and tobacco and alcohol business.* Our citizens wake up to this drug, consume it whenever possible during the day, and go to sleep with it. Many even take it with their meals. Most people's major life regrets are not about the  things they've done, but about the things they've not done, the goals they never reached, the type of lover or friend or parent they wished they'd been but know they failed to be. Yet our culture encourages us to sit in front of a flickering box for dozens (at least) of hours a week, hundreds to thousands of hours a year, and thereby watch, as if from a distance, the time of our lives flow through our hands like dry sand."

*While it's beyond the scope of this book and would take too many pages to document the interlocking boards of the nation's media giants and our largest corporations, a detailed analysis is in Ben Bagdikian's book The Media Monopoly.