From Leave It to Beaver to Sesame Street to the Internet
The Simpson trial also reminded us—if we needed reminding—of how profoundly mass media, particularly television, shapes our perceptions, even as it mirrors them. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, television programs depicted the American family as a collection of ethnically nondescript, vaguely Protestant white people living in white-painted, picket-fenced colonial-style suburban homes: the Ward, June, Wally, and Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver. This is how we liked to think of ourselves back then, and television obliged.
Then television brought us Sesame Street in 1969, a series aimed at entertaining and teaching children, but one that also depicted an urban neighborhood populated by whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, as well as people with handicaps and disabilities. The journey from Leave It to Beaver to Sesame Street consumed a decade in which a majority of Americans became more mindful and more accepting of the essence of democracy: From many, one.
And that mindfulness may just be the engine driving popular fascination with yet another technology. As little as two decades ago, the world of computers was an arcane realm that commanded relatively little interest and less understanding from most folks. Use the word Internet much before the 1990s, and you might as well have come from outer space.
Now it is difficult to get through a day without hearing some reference to the Internet. For an increasing number of Americans, few days go by without a personal visit to it.
A network of computer networks, the Internet is an information superhighway and also a forum, the ultimate town square, a place where ideas can be aired, shared, and debated. As yet, the Internet is unregulated by any government agency. Is the Internet democracy? No. Democracy cannot be reduced to this or that technology. But the Internet is an expression of democracy, a fervent wish to be democratic, to hear and to be heard, to share, to communicate, to connect with one’s neighbors—next-door and around the world—and to be at the center of a great web that offers infinite centers (since, on the Internet, the center is wherever you happen to be).
Will the Internet make democracy any easier? Maybe, maybe not. But, more important, after the more than 200 years since the Constitution was written with pen and ink in the painstakingly graceful hand of the 18th century, the binary 0s and 1s, the light-speed ebb and flow of electrons through the Internet continue to embody the passion, the ideals, the dreams of those who founded the nation and those who have nurtured it for so long. Whether penned with a quill or tapped out on a keyboard, the message is the same: E pluribus unum—From many, one.