Sunday, October 21, 2018

Propaganda Review: 'Saturday Morning Mind Control' by Phil Phillips (1991)

In which we revisit one of the greatest anti-consumerist screeds of all-time (which, naturally, is all but ignored for being, allegedly, nothing more than the maddened rantings of a hyper-religious Christian nutcase.)

By: Jimbo X
The Internet Is In America on Voat

Back in the day, my mom used to frequent this one "Christian" book store in town and it was fucking fantastic. They had Jesus action figures and copies of all the Wisdom Tree NES games and a whole bunch of video tapes that told you how musicians like AC/DC and Janet Jackson were actually secret agents of the devil himself, and I loved it all. Even as a kid I never really bought into the supernatural dynamics, but I absolutely adored the brass-balled countercultural agitprop. The movies and videos absolutely shat all over then-contemporary popular culture and it was a sheer delight "learning" how bands like Slayer and movies like Friday the 13th were furtive ploys to turn teenagers into Satanists. Again, I never bought any of it — ideologically or economically — but I still loved watching and listening to those long-winded rants and ravings against the prevailing tastes of society.

Indeed, even now I have a particular fondness for entertainment-condemning evangelical Christian propaganda. Something about it just feels so warm and cozy, like a hot blanket wrapped around my soul on a cold winter day. I mean, how can you not be entertained and amused by videos saying Final Fantasy and He-Man action figures were going to turn your kids into God-hating cretins

Of course, the funny thing is that, over the years, I've gone from ironically appreciating such hysterical Satanic Panic propaganda as unintentional comedy to philosophically approaching them as inadvertently correct sociological investigations of the impact on hyper-consumerism on the hearts and minds of children. Say what you will about stuff like Deception of a Generation, but the fact of their matter is that their core theses on the residual impact of pop cultural absorption are 100 percent on the money. All that vaunting and celebration of commercial brands and franchises as children HAS carried over into adulthood, only instead of rejecting formal religion for pagan hedonism, they've rejected the typical Judeo-Christian faiths for mega-materialism and practically religionized identity politicking.

Which brings us to one of the many magnum opi of the early 1990s anti-pop cultural zeitgeist evangelical screeds, Saturday Morning Mind Control by Phil Phillips. If that name rings a bell (and no, it's not because it's also the name of a more famous singer), it's because Phillips was the co-host of Deception of a Generation, which was pretty much inspired by his two Turmoil in the Toybox tomes. Now old Phil has written a lot of stuff — some of his other books have taken a hard line stance against Halloween and the presentation of dinosaurs in children's entertainment, among many other oddly specific pet peeves — but Saturday Morning Mind Control is probably his most famous (or infamous) work. I mean, the front cover alone - which features Raphael of the Ninja Turtles zapping three kids with mind lightning while they eat Smurfs cereal and play with Batmobile and Slimer toys - is already one of my ten favorite works of art ever, probably right up there with the box art for StarTropics and this Shasta advertisement tie-in for Jaws: The Revenge. I've you've been around the 'net long enough, you've no doubt encountered at least one or two enlightened leftist "comedy writers" who have taken the book to task, usually cherry picking sections about Phillips' belief that Smurfs contain secret Satanic symbols, or that Care Bears are meant to turn children onto homosexuality or something along those lines. But the fact of the matter is that, as outlandish in part some of Phillips' assertions may be, taken as a whole his much, much maligned book actually makes quite a bit of sense, with an unquestionably sound premise that has pretty much been scientifically proven by what Millennial America looks like these days. But don't take my word for it — how about we give this almost 30-year-old treatise the fine combing it deserves?

Not that you necessarily needed me to tell you this, but Phillips' (presumably) tax-free organization Child Affects is long gone. Granted, I didn't call the telephone number listed above, but holy shit, what I wouldn't give to have an hour-long Skype session with this fella.

Those of you expecting outright ding-battery from the get-go will be sorely disappointed. Indeed, the first half of the book is shockingly level-headed, with the author throwing out a ton of findings from studies demonstrating the negative impact of excessive television watching on the social development of children (i.e., how it deters tykes from engaging in "sociodramatic play" and short circuits their "decoding and loop feedbacks.") Of course, even this early on Phillips' penchant for suspicious stats is evident, however, as he states oh-so-matter-of-factly that the aggregate child in George H.W. Bush's America was destined to watch 11,000 hours of TV just sitting in school alone. I mean, even factoring in Channel One, that seems like a pretty inflated number, don't it?

So yeah, there's a lot of stuff in there about "input reference" and how TV mars children's cognitive development because it has no "sensory meaning" attached to it (and, to his credit, he does a pretty good job explaining precisely how a few pages later.) Then he talks about how TV reinforces "modeling" behaviors and tells an anecdote about this one time his dad pretended to be from the local TV station and called him to tell him Lassie was OK.

Now, even if you think Phillips is a crackpot through-and-through, his passage on the repetitive nature of children's television is pretty hard to dispute. Indeed, as he chides the industry for utilizing generic plots and relying on spin-offs and branded franchises instead of opting for original ideas, his ranting and raving almost seems eerily prescient.

The psychological problem with cartoons, the author suggests, is that they rely on visual impact instead of context. Citing stuff like Pac-Man and Go-Bots, he said the 'toons of the day encouraged subconscious social reinforcement through nonstop music (which he rather brilliantly describes as a form of "artificial emotion"), bombastic sound effects and laugh tracks.

Basically, Phillips argues that the heavily conflict-based story lines and constant commercial interruptions in kids-targeted television programming prevents them from forming full-fledged emotional responses to what it is, precisely, that they're watching. There's no deeper meaning to the flashing lights, high angles and close-ups, he contends, and there's very little presented for the children to cognitively interpret for themselves. Furthermore, he argues that the constant gratification supplied by televisions eliminates the necessary evil of juvenile boredom, from which Phillips says true creativity arises. Again, you might argue with the author's religious leanings, but I'll be god-damned if pretty much everything he's said so far smacks of more "truth" than fundamentalist hokum.

Phillips does some bellyaching about Dino Bots for being a metaphor for refugees and shit (which, let's face it, that's probably exactly what it was intended to be) and then he talks (err, writes) about how much it miffs him that the commercials aired during kids' shows imitate the tone and look of said shows so much. Essentially, he argues that children's TV is more or less designed to turn kids into a consumer lobby, going as far as to describe TV itself as a "corporate-based school driven by profit motives." Well ... anybody want to try and argue against the point? Anybody? Anybody at all?

I'm cherry picking a tad here, but after that Phillips notes one study (that may or may not exist) describing the average episode of Captain Power as glutted with 124 violent acts per half-hour broadcast. Of course, he never really defines for us what is considered a violent act, but come on — like any of us want concrete facts or shit. Then he brings up the infamous "Bobo doll" study and this one study by Eron Huessman and talks about all of the mayhem in children's shows being "inconsequential violence" in which the evildoers are never truly defeated so it totally fucks up a kid's idea of morality and justice. 

Naturally, this segues to a a discussion about how kids-based media jumbles up children's ability to differentiate "self-preserving, reality-rooted fear" from "self-destructive, illusion-rooted fear," which in turns spurs kids to disconnect from reality and subsume themselves into deeper paranoia and depression as they get older. Obviously, absolutely none of this could be considered analogous to the aftereffects of the Internet on an entire generation enmeshed in its dim, blue LCD glow, so it's probably for the best if we just bury our heads in the metaphorical sand and simply write off everything this guy says as the maniacal utterances of a religious kook that have no bearings on anything whatsoever.

Of course, we all knew it was only a matter of time before the author started railing against the medium for desensitizing children to violence, but what's really interesting is how he suggests the medium also desensitizes children to accepting the notion that individual actors are responsible for their own actions, that there's always the skeleton key of "societal expectations" TRULY at fault for all wrongdoing in the world.

Now cue this quote, which is totally unrelated to the hive-mind of contemporary internet networking, primarily social media: "Television is a false mirror. It reflects what appears to be reality, but it does not reflect the real world."

But like I was saying: surely, such can't be said of Twitter and Facebook, too, can it?

More good stuff here. Honestly, I think old Phil here does a MUCH better job of describing the multifaceted ills of television consumption than somebody like Col. Dave Grossman (you know, the guy who wrote On Killing) and he's one of the few anti-TV crusaders I've read who manages to go beyond the old canard about fantasy violence leading to desensitization to real world violence. Continuing, he adds that TV media seems to promote this general principle that criminals are never to be blamed for their own individual actions and that our own collectivist societal "standards" are inherently at fault for creating such behavior to begin with. Yep ... glad to see that mode of thinking has gone the way of the dodo, ain't it?

But of course, this book doesn't have its batshit kookery reputation for no reason. It takes a while, but after a good 80 or so pages of well-stated, logically irrefutable claims that perpetual TV exposure produces major attitudinal changes in young viewers, THEN Phillips starts laying on the Satanic Panic shtick thick. I watched a lot of cartoons back in the day, Phil, but I've got to tell you ... if there was ever an episode of She-Ra containing "ritualistic sexual intercourse," by golly, the local cable feed must've gone kaput that afternoon.

Lest you start thinking Phillips is a sound-minded chap himself, I guess it is important to recall that he's one of those holier-than-thou, Moral Majority types who doesn't recognize the humor nor the irony of decrying those who believe in ritualized supernatural hokum. Let's face it: everything he criticizes the "occult" for in the concluding paragraph could just as easily be said of Christianity. Go ahead, feel free to replace every mention of "the occult" in the book with "Catholicism" and see if it changes the core context of the sentences whatsoever — ESPECIALLY the parts about patterns of child abuse.

The best part here, though, is when the author says that Smurfette is canonically a male Smurf who underwent a magical sex change. Uh, sorry, pal, but at this point, I think we've all seen Donnie Darko and know what's OFFICIALLY up on this subject.

But even as Phil starts going off the rails with his wild-eyed Evangelical lunacy, he has a tendency to inadvertently stumble upon a kernel of objective social science truth a couple of times. You can just gloss over the accusations that Jem and the Holograms promotes "spiritism" and The Land Before Time is secretly an endorsement of divination and necromancy, and go to the section where he talks about programs like Ghostbusters and Care Bares positing the central message that friendship and in-group approval are practically sacred constructs, ultimately teaching kids to deny their own sense of individuality in favor of the herd mentality. Yeah, the way he puts it and frames the argument is goofy as all hell, but the intrinsic facticity of the statement nonetheless remains valid.

... and of course, then it's right back to describing Rainbow Brite as a Baha'i Trojan horse that promotes achieving absolute power as a peer group activity and slamming BraveStarr as Zen Buddhist propaganda, even though the way he describes the show makes it sound awesome as fuck and about 20 times more appealing to kids than anything I've ever read on the back of an action figure blister pack.

There's so much to churn through the book that it's hard to pick just one or two TV shows or properties to demonstrate Phillips' approach to deconstructing the material. Ultimately, the last half of the book feels pretty pell-mell, with the author going off on these random tirades about video games, comic books and toy stores. Rather than just copy and paste the choice bits, here's a very quick rundown of some of my favorite morsels from the remainder of Saturday Morning Mind Control:
  • The author claims that the mass media's manipulation of symbols is giving rise to a powerful, mind-manipulating premise he calls "spiritual language." When the book came out, the idea of a transcendent communication system totally devoid of native language contexts seemed downright preposterous. Well, 27 years later, now we've got just that in the form of emojis and even Jean Luc Goddard is making movies about the death of the written word in favor of the pictograph.
  • While dissecting/condemning several shows, he notes that the characters tend to call upon demons (or whatever higher force you want to call it canonically) for more power to defeat their adversaries. Phillips argues this re-occurring motif epitomizes a lust for hegemonic power, not promotion of a greater, universal moral good. Remind you of any contemporary social causes?
  • Phil claims the rise of "war-toons" like Rambo and GI Joe stunt children's creativity and increases their aggression. Fast forward almost 30 years and now the U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing the military to make recruitment propaganda disguised as virtual entertainment
  • Really, this is just a casual observation, but holy shit, am I amazed by how accurate the author's description of the NES beat-em-up Renegade is. 
  • Phil says that Dungeons and Dragons is a game that revolves around "suicide, rape and insanity" with psychodrama gameplay lifted from totalitarian re-education programs. Of course, that's more than likely total horse shit, but man, would it be awesome if it actually was true.
  • In another stroke of eerie prescience, the author says that comic books are about 15 years ahead of television in terms of graphic content, using the super-obscure Marvel property The Gargoyle as a case example.
  • The anti-horror chapter, unfortunately, is a big disappointment. While it's cool to see him namedrop Bloodsucking Freaks, he also cites a totally non-existent movie — Space Sluts in the Slammer — as a casus belli for censorship. He then goes on to cite some downright ludicrous "stats" — including an assertion that Elm Street VHS rentals totaled $7 billion alone in 1989 — and he also assails Faces of Death in full kayfabe mode, apparently completely oblivious to the fact a good 95 percent of the movie is staged ... and rather poorly.

The book concludes with an index of watchdog groups a'la the PMRC (almost all of whom are now long dissolved) and a glossary of really obscure occult iconography, like the Key of Solomon and the Cross of Nero. He also goes off on a mini-rant about what actually goes on during a black mass, including dudes ritualistically taking a pee or poop in bread and eating it. Of course, the veracity of such is to be taken with a grain of salt ... as is the case anytime you elect to voluntarily consume bullshit

But on the whole, I think Saturday Morning Mind Control is a strangely engrossing, strangely compelling and strangely convincing screed against Hollywood and the Child-Consumer-Complex as a whole. Even now I'm kind of surprised by the lack of longitudinal research on how exactly exposure to advertising, particularly youth-targeted advertising, influences adolescent behavior and more importantly, cognitive processes. And at the root of the matter, THAT is what this book is ultimately about; not a bunch of hilarious hooey about pedophile script-writers pushing the gay agenda on tykes via The Gummi Bears and Toad promoting antisocial behavior by shouting "belch-brains" on The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, but the hard, scientifically indisputable — yet hardly recognized and suspiciously under-researched — fact that electronic children's entertainment has incredible sway on childhood development, psychologically, socially and neurologically.

The nu-archeologists out there might enjoy skewering this one as the woefully unhinged ramblings of an apoplectic Christian who sees the devil in everything, and to some extent, they're right. But what's really unfortunate is that in their half-assed quest for affirmation of what they already believe, they completely overlook all of the poignant, pertinent and pointed questions the author of the book brings up about the intersection of media exposure and child development.

Phillips is a man that was concerned about the ramifications of children witnessing 75,000 commercials before even starting kindergarten and how fast food tie-ins and cereal toys were subversively turning four-year-olds into product lobbyists. The questions he raise are interesting ones, no doubt, and his own theses on the outcomes of such perpetual media bombardment appear to be 100 percent correct looking at today's 20-something millennial hivemind — one that has effectively replaced Judeo-Christian norms with pop cultural worship and a steadfast adherence to the leftist dogma that the media Phillips was so concerned about furtively encouraged.

There's a lot of scary and unnerving things about Saturday Morning Mind Control, to be sure. And as close-minded as commentators like Seanbaby and Mary Kelly are, it looks like such sorts will continue to be oblivious to the most terrifying thing of all about Phillips' book — that as misguided as his purposes for penning the book may have been, the author was nonetheless right about damn near everything he predicted constant media bombardment would do to our gilded youth.

1 comment:

  1. Are you sure you're not Neon Revolt?
    How's Sushi doing ?


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