I wonder what Neil Postman is thinking about all this?

Original (?) cover of Amusing Ourselves to Death

I’ll just come right out and say it – we don’t own a TV.  By choice.  What little news we get is through the internet or word-of-mouth from friends or family.  This evening as I took a brief look at  MSNBC.com I was impressed (?) by the many musicians and actors who are involved in the Inauguration ceremonies.  My mind was drawn to a small book on my bookshelf written by Neil Postman.  The title of the book is Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.  The opening two paragraphs read as follows:

At different times in our history, different cities have been the focal point of a radiating American spirit.  In the late eighteenth century, for example, Boston was the center of a political radicalism that ignited a shot heard round the world — a shot that could not have been fired any other place but the suburbs of Boston.  At its report, all Americans, including Virginians, became Bostonians at heart.  In the mid-nineteenth century, New York became the symbol of the idea of a melting-pot America – or at least a non-English one — as the wretched refuse from all over the world disembarked at Ellis Island and spread over the land their strange languages and even stranger ways.  In the early twentieth century, Chicago, the city of big shoulders and heavy winds, came to symbolize the industrial energy and dynamism of America.  If there is a statue of a hog butcher somewhere in Chicago, then it stands as a reminder of a time when America was railroads, cattle, steel mills and entrepreneurial adventures.  If there is no such statue, there ought to be, just as there is a statue of a Minute Man to recall the Age of Boston, as the Statue of Liberty recalls the Age of New York.

Today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl.  For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment.  Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.  The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.  (emphasis mine)

Postman wrote (I assume) and published these words in 1985.  Are we still on the verge of amusing ourselves to death?  Or have we tipped so far over the edge that a return is now impossible?

If you’re still reading, and you’re familiar with 1984 and Brave New World, you may appreciate what Postman wrote in the foreword of the book.  I had to read 1984 in high school, and I chose to read Brave New World for a college literature class.  In my opinion, Huxley saw the future in America much more clearly than Orwell did.  Here’s the foreword:

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 prophecy 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.

And I will concur with Postman that Huxley was the one who saw the future correctly, and America today is living proof.  No matter how I say this next sentence, there are probably some who will not believe me: This blog post is not intended to be a political statement.  It is intended to be an observation and critique of our present culture’s thirst and hunger for entertainment as opposed to that which truly satisfies.

2 comments on “I wonder what Neil Postman is thinking about all this?

  1. Scott says:

    You should read “The Great Triple Creek Dam Affair” by Patricia Polacco. It’s a children’s book about too much TV and the loss of reading books.

  2. […] 1, 2009 by jsundberg Earlier this year I wrote a post called “I wonder what Neil Postman is thinking about all this?” and in that post I quoted from Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death where he […]

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