Monday, October 3, 2016

"Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman: A Review

We are by now well into a second generation of children for whom television has been their first and most accessible teacher and for many, their most reliable companion and friend. To put it plainly, television is the command center of the new epistemology. There is no audience so young that it is barred from television. There is no poverty so abject that it must forgo television. There is no education so exalted that it is not modified by television. And most important of all, there is no subject of public interest—politics, news, education, religion, science, sports—that does not find its way to television. Which means that all public understanding of these subjects is shaped by the biases of television. (78)

A month from now, the American people will choose their next President and, frankly, the two choices are not the great. Both are uniquely disqualified for public office and are, I am afraid, a danger to national security. Nevertheless, this campaign, going back to the primaries, has made me want to return to a prophetic book I read in college first written in 1985 by Neil Postman entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

The book is broken down into two parts. The first section is largely a philosophical discussion with an emphasis on epistemology along with a historical sketch of what he calls the Age of Exposition. My favorite historical nugget regards the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates which lasted for hours. There the two men, even before they were candidates for public office, would begin with opening statements that would last for multiple hours followed by rebuttals that, too, would last for more than an hour. There is no way such a debate would be possible today which is precisely Postman's point. The age of television, what he calls the Age of Show Business, has radically altered the American mind and the American culture for the worse.

The second section looks at precise examples of this radical shift caused by the Age of Show Business in America. He discusses specifically television news, religious television, politics, and education.

Regarding the news media, Postman suggests the phrase "now . . . this" is now the most dangerous words in the English language. The reasons are simple.
There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly - for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening - that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, "Now . . . this." (9)
The Age of Show Business has turned the press into an entertainment industry. In fact, one can spend an hour getting caught up on the "news" of the celebrity world. Who is Chloe Kardashian dating now? Who did Taylor Swift wear at the Grammy's? In the end, however, a press bent toward ratings and entertainment, rather than information and proper exposition, we Americans, Postman argues, have become "the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world." (106) It is hard to argue against him. Have you heard the latest about JLaw?

Consider also his argument regarding education. To most parents shows like Sesame Street are a great option for children as they both entertain and educate. Yet that is precisely the problem. Education is not entertainment. Entertainment is not education. But through shows like Sesame Street, that is what has become of modern education. He writes:
We now know that "Sesame Street" encourages children to love school only if school is like "Sesame Street." Which is to say, we now know that "Sesame Street" undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents. Whereas a classroom is a place of social interactions the space in front of a television set is a private preserve. Whereas in a classroom, one may ask a teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen. Whereas school is centered on the development of language, television demands attention to images. Whereas attending school is a legal requirement, watching television is an act of choice. Whereas in school, one fails to attend to the teacher at the risk of punishment, no penalties exist for failing to attend to the television screen. Whereas to behave oneself in school means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching requires no such observances, has no concept of public decorum. Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself. (143)
All of this is rooted in Postman's thesis introduced in his forward which remains the most prophetic and haunting part of the book. In television, Postman claims that Auldous Huxuley's dystopian vision in Brave New World was correct as opposed to George Orwell's equally terrifying vision in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He writes:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common 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 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 capacities 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 ever 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.
Whether or not Postman proves his thesis will be the subject of a future blog post, but for now, let us consider a few words of critique. First, Postman's book remains popular and widely read over thirty years later for a reason. The Age of Show Business has done more harm than good and hardly anyone can argue against it. Given the woeful ignorance of the well-entertained yet uninformed of the average voter, television has not made us better voters, but worse. We are driven by our feeling, not by the facts.

Secondly, Postman's arguments are strengthened, not by the continued rise of television, but technology. In the mid-1980s, most Americans were limited by the shows they watched and the newscasters they could "trust." Today, that is no longer the case. The options are endless, literally, with the advent of YouTube and Netflix. Bingewatching is the goal of such companies and they are succeeding. But going beyond that, the rise of social media, video gaming, and the rest has made Amusing Ourselves to Death more prescient today than in during the Reagan administration. Much of our "exposition" is now limited to 140 characters or even less: the hashtag.

Thirdly, one should note that Postman offers little in terms of what to do about the Age of Show Business though he does make a brief effort. He rejects ludditism (my term). Television and other technology are here to stay and there is no use suggesting otherwise. To him, our best hope is education which he admits is a longshot, but our "last best hope." From this perspective, Postman sounds dystopian about the future. There is no salvation in his book.

Fourthly, Postman fails to appreciate some of the beauty found in technology. Yes, much of what has come from the advent of television, social media, and other technologies has been damaging, but it is unfortunate to suggest that all that it has done is evil.

Finally, we should conclude how much worse Postman's warnings will become. Americans have become numb to the world around them lost in a world of virtual entertainment and reality TV. We are, quiet literally, amusing ourselves to death and a nation that cannot take anything seriously should not be taken seriously.

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