The ascent of Donald Trump has proved Neil Postman’s argument in Amusing Ourselves to Death was right. Here’s what we can do about it
by Andrew Postman – The Guardian
Over the last year, as the presidential campaign grew increasingly bizarre and Donald Trump took us places we had never been before, I saw a spike in media references to Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book written by my late father, Neil Postman, which anticipated back in 1985 so much about what has become of our current public discourse.
At Forbes, one contributor wrote that the book “may help explain the otherwise inexplicable”. CNN noted that Trump’s allegedly shocking “ascent would not have surprised Postman”. At ChristianPost.com, Richard D Land reflected on reading the book three decades ago and feeling “dumbfounded … by Postman’s prophetic insights into what was then America’s future and is now too often a painful description of America’s present”. Last month, a headline at Paste Magazine asked: “Did Neil Postman Predict the Rise of Trump and Fake News?”
Colleagues and former students of my father, who taught at New York University for more than 40 years and who died in 2003, would now and then email or Facebook message me, after the latest Trumpian theatrics, wondering, “What would Neil think?” or noting glumly, “Your dad nailed it.”
The central argument of Amusing Ourselves is simple: there were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble).
The misplaced focus on Orwell was understandable: after all, for decades the cold war had made communism – as embodied by Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Big Brother – the prime existential threat to America and to the greatest of American virtues, freedom. And, to put a bow on it, the actual year, 1984, was fast approaching when my father was writing his book, so we had Orwell’s powerful vision on the brain.
Whoops. Within a half-decade, the Berlin Wall came down. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
“We were keeping our eye on 1984,” my father wrote. “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.”
Unfortunately, there remained a vision we Americans did need to guard against, one that was percolating right then, in the 1980s. The president was a former actor and polished communicator. Our political discourse (if you could call it that) was day by day diminished to soundbites (“Where’s the beef?” and “I’m paying for this microphone” became two “gotcha” moments, apparently testifying to the speaker’s political formidableness).
The nation increasingly got its “serious” information not from newspapers, which demand a level of deliberation and active engagement, but from television: Americans watched an average of 20 hours of TV a week. (My father noted that USA Today, which launched in 1982 and featured colorized images, quick-glance lists and charts, and much shorter stories, was really a newspaper mimicking the look and feel of TV news.)
But it wasn’t simply the magnitude of TV exposure that was troubling. It was that the audience was being conditioned to get its information faster, in a way that was less nuanced and, of course, image-based. As my father pointed out, a written sentence has a level of verifiability to it: it is true or not true – or, at the very least, we can have a meaningful discussion over its truth. (This was pre-truthiness, pre-“alternative facts”.)
But an image? One never says a picture is true or false. It either captures your attention or it doesn’t. The more TV we watched, the more we expected – and with our finger on the remote, the more we demanded – that not just our sitcoms and cop procedurals and other “junk TV” be entertaining but also our news and other issues of import. Digestible. Visually engaging. Provocative. In short, amusing. All the time. Sorry, C-Span.
This was, in spirit, the vision that Huxley predicted way back in 1931, the dystopia my father believed we should have been watching out for. He wrote:
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.
1984 – the year, not the novel – looks positively quaint now. One-third of a century later, we all carry our own personalized screens on us, at all times, and rather than seven broadcast channels plus a smattering of cable, we have a virtual infinity of options.
Today, the average weekly screen time for an American adult – brace yourself; this is not a typo – is 74 hours (and still going up). We watch when we want, not when anyone tells us, and usually alone, and often while doing several other things. The soundbite has been replaced by virality, meme, hot take, tweet. Can serious national issues really be explored in any coherent, meaningful way in such a fragmented, attention-challenged environment?
Sure, times change. Technology and innovation wait for no man. Get with the program. But how engaged can any populace be when the most we’re asked to do is to like or not like a particular post, or “sign” an online petition? How seriously should anyone take us, or should we take ourselves, when the “optics” of an address or campaign speech – raucousness, maybe actual violence, childishly attention-craving gestures or facial expressions – rather than the content of the speech determines how much “airtime” it gets, and how often people watch, share and favorite it?
My father’s book warned of what was coming, but others have seen and feared aspects of it, too (Norbert Wiener, Sinclair Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Ellul, David Foster Wallace, Sherry Turkle, Douglas Rushkoff, Naomi Klein, Edward Snowden, to name a few).
Our public discourse has become so trivialized, it’s astounding that we still cling to the word “debates” for what our presidential candidates do onstage when facing each other. Really? Who can be shocked by the rise of a reality TV star, a man given to loud, inflammatory statements, many of which are spectacularly untrue but virtually all of which make for what used to be called “good television”?
Who can be appalled when the coin of the realm in public discourse is not experience, thoughtfulness or diplomacy but the ability to amuse – no matter how maddening or revolting the amusement?
So, yes, my dad nailed it. Did he also predict that the leader we would pick for such an age, when we had become perhaps terminally enamored of our technologies and amusements, would almost certainly possess fascistic tendencies? I believe he called this, too.
For all the ways one can define fascism (and there are many), one essential trait is its allegiance to no idea of right but its own: it is, in short, ideological narcissism. It creates a myth that is irrefutable (much in the way that an image’s “truth” cannot be disproved), in perpetuity, because of its authoritarian, unrestrained nature.
“Television is a speed-of-light medium, a present-centered medium,” my father wrote. “Its grammar, so to say, permits no access to the past … history can play no significant role in image politics. For history is of value only to someone who takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past which may provide the present with nourishing traditions.”
Later in that passage, Czesław Miłosz, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, is cited for remarking in his 1980 acceptance speech that that era was notable for “a refusal to remember”; my father notes Miłosz referencing “the shattering fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place”.
Again: how quaint.
While fake news has been with us as long as there have been agendas, and from both sides of the political aisle, we’re now witnessing – thanks to Breitbart News, Infowars and perpetuation of myths like the one questioning Barack Obama’s origins – a sort of distillation, a fine-tuning.
“An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” my father wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”
I wish I could tell you that, for all his prescience, my father also supplied a solution. He did not. He saw his job as identifying a serious, under-addressed problem, then asking a set of important questions about the problem. He knew it would be hard to find an easy answer to the damages wrought by “technopoly”. It was a systemic problem, one baked as much into our individual psyches as into our culture.
But we need more than just hope for a way out. We need a strategy, or at least some tactics.
First: treat false allegations as an opportunity. Seek information as close to the source as possible. The internet represents a great chance for citizens to do their own hunting – there’s ample primary source material, credible eyewitnesses, etc, out there – though it can also be manipulated to obfuscate that. No one’s reality, least of all our collective one, should be a grotesque game of telephone.
Second: don’t expect “the media” to do this job for you. Some of its practitioners do, brilliantly and at times heroically. But most of the media exists to sell you things. Its allegiance is to boosting circulation, online traffic, ad revenue. Don’t begrudge it that. But then don’t be suckered about the reasons why Story X got play and Story Y did not.
Third: for journalists, Jay Rosen, a former student of my father’s and a leading voice in the movement known as “public journalism”, offers several useful, practical suggestions.
Finally, and most importantly, it should be the responsibility of schools to make children aware of our information environments, which in many instances have become our entertainment environments, but there is little evidence that schools are equipped or care to do this. So someone has to.
We must teach our children, from a very young age, to be skeptics, to listen carefully, to assume everyone is lying about everything. (Well, maybe not everyone.) Check sources. Consider what wasn’t said. Ask questions. Understand that every storyteller has a bias – and so does every platform.
We all laughed – some of us, anyway – at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s version of the news, to some extent because everything had become a joke. If we wish not to be “soma”-tized (Huxley’s word) by technology, to be something less than smiling idiots and complicit in the junking of our own culture, then “what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility … giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”
My father didn’t write those last words – our recently retired president said them in his final inaugural address. He’s right. It will be difficult. It’s not so amusing any more.
What happens when media and politics become forms of entertainment? In the season of Trump and Hillary, Neil’s Postman’s essential guide to the modern media is more relevant than ever.
Originally published in 1985, Neil Postman’s groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century.