Sunday, November 17, 2019

Amusing Ourselves to Death

This the title of Neil Postman’s extraordinary book, first published in 1985. The sub-title is: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business and the quote on the front cover by Jonathan Kozol warns us: “We must confront the challenge of his prophetic vision.”


Truer words were never spoken. He predicted it all. Last night, the Daily Show showed clips from Fox News and other right-wing blowhards complaining that the Impeachment Hearings were too boring and not sexy enough to attract the public and be taken seriously. In short, they complained that it didn’t make for good television entertainment and thus, should be dismissed. Had there been an earthquake in San Francisco, I’m sure it would have been Neil Postman rolling over in his grave. Perhaps even he couldn’t imagine how far low we’ve sunk. 

Back in 1997, I already felt Postman’s prophecy ringing true. When Mother Theresa died a month after Princess Diana, no one paid much attention to it and the TV coverage was minimal compared to the Di media-fest. One was sexy and tragic, the other boring by television standards and the public reacted accordingly. But even that was mild compared to this. To have these college-educated grown adults knuckleheads suggest that a President who has done more than any other to bring down the most basic tenets of our Constitution and attempt to destroy the very foundation of our democracy should not be impeached because it makes for boring television— and, by the way, the stupid American public doesn’t even know where Ukraine is, so why should they care— well, every day I wonder how much lower we can go and every day, the answer seems to be—just a little bit more. And holding public discourse to the standard of media attractiveness is a large part of this sad state of affairs. 

Postman’s book reveals that the danger we face is not Orwell’s 1984 where we are controlled by a totalitarian Big Brother. The real story is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where we are complicit in and wholly unaware of our own agreement to stop thinking. As he describes it:

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, captive to our almost infinite appetite for distraction. In Orwell’s world, people are controlled by inflicting pain, in Huxley’s by inflicting pleasure. Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. 

That possibility is now irrefutable truth. Watch those Fox News clips and run it through the words above. Listen to the Republican’s questions at the Impeachment Hearings that tap dance around facts, make truth irrelevant and try to entertain us by questioning reality. After all, Devin Nunes sued an imaginary cow!!!!! How far removed can we get from facts and intelligent discourse than that?!!! And the bottom line is brazenly trumpeted out: “If it’s boring television, the crime of selling democracy to Putin or Ukraine is not worthy of our attention.” Postman says (p. 111) that “the public has adjusted to incoherence (TRUMP’S TWEETS!) and amused into indifference (IMPEACHMENT IS BORING).” 

Friends, this is hard to swallow, because the television-ication of public discourse and rational thought is not a partisan issue where it’s easy to blame the bad guys. We’re all perpetrators and victims and it’s so invisible we’re like fish in polluted waters. Written 34 years ago, Postman’s book still astounds with the depth of its insight and the importance of its message. But who has actually read it? Who understands its implications? The man was indeed a prophet and deserves deification and a television series about his life…oh, wait, maybe that’s not the best idea. How about just read the book and think about its message and see it at work in the daily news. And in your spare time, read his other vitally important works: “The Disappearance of Childhood.” “Technopoly” and many, many more. 

And then check out Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

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