In 1932, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, a novel warning of a dystopian future.
In 1949, George Orwell published 1984, a novel with a different kind of dystopian future.
In 1985, Neil Postman published a book declaring Huxley the winner. Titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, it revealed the televisionization of the American mind, a world in which the worlds of fantasy and reality, of truth and spin, of serious discourse and entertainment, become blurred and threaten a democracy based on facts, critical thinking and intelligent conversation. A Hollywood actor had just been re-elected President, thousands of letters were being sent to actor Robert Young asking for medical advice because he played a doctor in the TV show Marcus Welby and some 12 years later, Mother Theresa’s death got almost no mention in the media because Princess Di’s death made for better TV. In the Foreword to his book, Postman writes:
Contrary to popular belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s version, 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 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, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are even on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘ failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, 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.
Now fast forward 37 years and we see Orwell and Huxley holding hands, each with a part of the truth about what is happening now. Orwell’s fear about banning books is chilling in light of the Republican’s latest move to do just that in state after state. Crucial information about what really happened behind the scenes of the Capitol Insurrection has been withheld. Big Brother is not only watching us, but listening to us, tracking our consumer preferences, monitoring our e-mails and Facebook posts and Twitter posts, following our every movement, communication and thought.
Huxley’s fear that people would read less, in spite of book clubs and NY Times best-sellers, is certainly true as screens have usurped the slow, tedious, work of understanding provocative ideas, intricate and nuanced stories and the fine emotional shades of poetry higher up the evolutionary scale than bang, bang, kiss, kiss, scream and shout. His vision of an overload of information that numbs us, renders us incapable of distinguishing the important from the trivial, paralyzes our ability to respond because the outrages are coming from so many fronts and so frequently that we just shut down well describes what has happened to all of us. We used to be aghast at one public lie, but when an American President shoots out 20,000 of them with the rapidity of an assault rifle, it just becomes the new norm, no big deal. Huxley was right on the money with his prophesy of a trivial culture, as some 20 college students in Texas could not identify who won the Civil War, but knew the names of Brad Pitt’s wives. And Big Brother doesn’t have to work hard to track us, as we willingly share the information on social media— and this blog!
All of this is on my mind because I watched Adam Schiff being interviewed by Stephen Colbert (media again!) about the upcoming January 6th Congressional Hearings. The Committee was worried that people would not be interested in watching unless it was made entertaining and TV worthy and so they hired a television producer to make the package attractive to hold the short attention span of the American public. I felt Postman rolling in his grave, knowing how his worst fears had multiplied. In that book published almost four decades ago, he wrote:
What I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether. (p. 87)
Now the good news is that Orwell’s fear of hiding the truth still doesn’t have the upper hand in America. Look at all the books published about the inside workings of the Trumped-up White House, the shows with Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, etc, the newspapers that still dare to tell some semblance of the truth. But Huxley’s fears are more than justified as the spin-doctors are hard at work, the blind acceptance of insane conspiracy theories are on the rise and the Warriors-Celtics fourth game is more attractive than hearings about the future of our democracy.
And more bad news. If the hearings are TV packaged in a way that attracts the public, will it just feel like another TV show? Will it really ignite a call to action? Will a public stupefied by the roaring river of entertainment be able to really wake up, roll up their sleeves and have the grit and determination to fight for the democracy we were promised? Or at the end, will they simply think, “Well, that was an interesting show. What else is on tonight?”
I was 21 years old at the time of the Watergate and was riveted during those hearings, which were real time, slow and long. I was aghast that a President would lie and cheat and try to win an election through devious means. Decades of television of has worn down our capacity for outrage. And in the Colbert-Schiff interview, as the revelation of extraordinary breaches of the Constitution were promised, at no point did Mr. Schiff say, “Now it is clear that the law was broken and these people, including the ex-President, will finally be accountable and go to jail.” Will they? Why or why not?
I will definitely watch the hearings tonight. Right after the Warriors game.
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