Amusing Ourselves to Death – Part 2
Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, spends the second half of his book detailing the “Age of Television” and its affects on our conversation, our culture, and our intellect. The picture he paints is indeed frightening and eerily accurate, despite it being published in the mid-80s.
Postman’s main idea is that although few would argue that television equals entertainment, what is not realized is that entertainment has become the medium through which all of our information is disseminated. Our culture does not take anything seriously unless it is entertaining. The news is a perfect example of this concept. While the newscasters relay stories of natural disasters, murders, burglaries, and other forms of violence, they consistently convey a detached and pleasant demeanor. Flipping through stories like a money-counter flips through change, they throw dozens of 30-second clips at us, and then ask in a delightful tone that we “join them tomorrow” in order to do it all over again. The results? We have become a culture that thrives on the same detached “here-and-now” mentality. We are given no opportunity or motivation to analyze and critique one piece of news before being drawn into the next 30-second clip of meaningless information. And by meaningless information, I mean bits of data devoid of context or logical analysis and useful only in a crossword puzzle or at a game of trivial pursuit. Because that is what most information broadcasted through our television sets is – trivial. Postman describes perfectly the results of functioning by such entertainment-based-news:
“The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world….Let us consider…the case of Iran during the drama that was called the “Iranian Hostage Crisis.” I don’t suppose there has been a story in years that received more continuous attention from television. We may assume, then, that Americans know most of what there is to know about this unhappy event. And now, I put these questions to you: Would it be an exaggeration to say that not one American in a hundred knows what language the Iranians speak? Or what the word “Ayatollah” means or implies? Or knows any details of the tenets of Iranian religious beliefs? Or the main outlines of their political history? Or knows who the Shah was, and where he came from?” (pg.106-7)
Postman’s words are harsh, but ring true even as I inspect my own life. How many hours of news and stories have I watched on television and YouTube and yet have no solid base of foundational knowledge to show for it?
‘But, wait!’ you say. ‘What about shows made exclusively for education, such as Nova, PBS, and Sesame Street?’ Well, lucky for you, Postman addresses these shows as well. The main problem, he writes, is not that these programs aren’t conveying some kind of useful information, but that they are conveying the information as entertainment. Children are being brought up on Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow and Dora the Explorer, and are beginning to equate entertainment, instead of good old-fashioned schoolroom work, to education. No wonder the number of children with attention disorders and attitude problems is skyrocketing! They show up for their first day of 1st grade, and it turns out to be nothing like the “education” they received from Barney and Big Bird! They’ve been duped! This can’t really be education! And so they quit or act out. Or perhaps even worse, they do just enough to get by so their parents don’t take away their televisions and PS3 rights.
Postman continues his discourse into the areas of politics and religion as well. Basically, entertainment reigns supreme on the “tube”. Although Postman did not have the pleasure of being able to glean the latest Presidential Election as evidence for his point, it aptly proved the role that “image” plays in a person’s choice of a candidate. The same goes for televangelists. Very rarely do you see a pastor on television that is not at least tolerably good looking, has a nice smile, a charismatic attitude, backed by a beautiful stage with colorful flowers and a talented choir. And if you do, they don’t last long. The very nature of television demands this, forcing its content to become a kind of “image therapy” that appeals to some deep-seated need for satisfaction or acceptance within the viewer.
Because the television is based solely on “speed-of-light” images and instantaneous gratification, history in any shape or form becomes obsolete. Information is dished out to us in fragmented bursts devoid of context, and thus we have begun to think and operate in a similar fashion – living from piece to piece of new information or circumstance. Bill Moyers, well-known news telecaster of the 70s and 80s, was quoted from a speech at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1984, saying “I worry that my own business…helps to make this an anxious age of agitated amnesiacs….We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years.” We have all heard at one time or another, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The question is have we made the connection between television as a medium and this slow disintegration of a nation founded on history?
Postman concludes his book by drawing some comparisons between the works of George Orwell in his 1984 and Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World, and the path our country is on. For those of you unfamiliar with these classics, 1984 is the story of the “Big Brother” government, akin to V for Vendetta (which I am sure more people are familiar with versus a book). Censorship, government totality and oppression, etc. Brave New World, however, is about a completely different kind of slavery. It is one imposed by the people on the people. Self-inflicted. Addicted to being entertained and provided for, the people of Brave New World give up personal identity, cognitive ability, and corporate history. Postman claims that between the two, Huxley was on the right track, for what could be better for a dictator than a people who willingly and unknowingly give up their rights and freedoms in exchange for a few tickles to the brain? “For in the end,” Postman closes, “he [Huxley] was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.” (pg.163)