Ultimate American Weapon : Television: Errors, exaggerations, omissions and all, it’s what freedom looks like, tastes like, sounds like. What dictator could beat that?

<i> Benjamin Stein is a Los Angeles lawyer and economist</i>

Roll over, James Madison.

When the federal government’s TV Marti began its much-heralded broadcast invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba this week, its programming was not a stirring reading of the Constitution in Spanish. Nor was it a dialect-perfect explanation of “The Wealth of Nations,” the basic document of the free-market economy. It wasn’t even a documentary about the right to vote or freedom of worship.

Nope, TV Marti began its life programming an episode of the hit sitcom “Kate and Allie,” some popular videos from MTV and a selection of World Series excerpts. Castro responded by desperately trying to jam the signal.

And well he should. The fact is that American TV, regular old commercial TV, has become a major battering ram knocking down the walls of dictatorship everywhere. The sitcoms, game shows, cop shows, videos of American TV are an overwhelmingly powerful weapon for exposing just how good American life is, and how terrible life is in a gray, repressive Marxist dictatorship.


It’s not really shocking that when the late, unlamented Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini referred to “the great Satan,” he was not talking about the American political or financial systems. No, he was talking about American mass culture, specifically television.

Khomeini’s concern was well-taken. How could he hope to keep Iran’s mullahs in charge, the women in purdah and the men in self-flagellation if they could laugh with “I Love Lucy” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or gulp at “The Rockford Files”? How would they tolerate self-denial and the lack of any kind of enjoyment when right in their living rooms was a much more entertaining, seductive, exciting, glamorous, freer alternative way of life? When the land of Shiite Muslims starts allowing in “Saturday Night Live,” Khomeini’s reactionary party is over.

When the East Europeans flee to the West, they head for shops--but not to buy copies of the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta. No, according to a friend from Berlin, what the Easterners want is American videos and TVs to watch American programs on.

When the Romanians and the Poles were allowed to broadcast American TV, they did not go for MacNeil/Lehrer but “The Wonder Years.” Why not? After four decades or more of gray, cheerless, monotonous scarcity, why wouldn’t they want to see a way of life overflowing with caring, belonging, love, cars, and meat, free America as shown on TV?


American TV is the overpoweringly strong force for freedom today because it can actually show unfree people exactly what they are missing. American TV, even with its exaggerations, errors and omissions, is what freedom looks like, tastes like, sounds like. It’s so immediate that unfree people can touch it. It’s not the genius blueprint of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison: It’s the finished house--complete with stereo, microwave, two cars outside--and the freedom and affluence to use them anyway you want. Freedom in action, freedom on the hoof.

Imagine if Franklin D. Roosevelt had been able to show the German people in 1944 what life was like in Grand Rapids, Mich., including the sweater girls, the cars, the unlimited food and the right to thumb one’s nose at anyone. That’s how powerful American TV is right now, and how dangerous for the remaining despots of the world. It’s comparison shopping, with no doubt about which way of life tastes better.

TV has its flaws. It’s certainly not Mozart or Shakespeare. But as a weapon for revolution, a weapon for freedom, an actual living, breathing, panting, ongoing opera of the wonders of the free way of life, it has achieved a unique power in men’s minds. Its freedom, its lavishness, materially and emotionally, the rap beat, the available beauties, male and female, the lack of fear, lack of want--they’re all right on the screen to beat the reality that unfreedom has to offer.

Give credit where it’s due: This is TV’s finest hour. This is what it was born to do.