Still Amusing Ourselves to Death

51F1J5QRFFL._SL110_.jpg I recently read an essay in the current issue of The Atlantic by Christopher Hitchens entitled “Cheap Laughs: The smug satire of liberal humorists debases our comedy—and our national conversation.” Hitchens’ complaint with liberal humorists like Al Franken and Jon Stewart seems to be that they are as ideologically bound as their right wing counterparts. Their satirical wit employs a double standard that belies the inconsistencies and foibles of reigning liberal politicians while continuing to hold chastened conservatives up to scorn. I could be wrong. Hitchens doesn’t seem to make his point clearly, but he seems to want to hold liberal humorists up to a higher standard than others, and seems dismayed at the way some of them are being compared favorably with Mark Twain or Walter Cronkite.

Then, while cleaning out some old magazines, I happened to read a column in the April issue of Touchstone by J. Daryl Charles called “Wasted By Watching” (sorry, it’s not online at this time) about what I think is one of the most important books I have ever read.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business changed forever the way I looked at television when I read it back in 1987. I agree with Charles that this book is as relevant today as when it was first written and seems prophetic in hindsight. The examples cited in the book are a bit dated, of course, but they all have present day equivalents that make the author’s points sharper than ever. I grew up watching a lot of television, but then lived without one for 20 years. I have never subscribed to cable TV. The small 14-year-old set we have now mostly serves as a display for our DVD player. So, I’ve lived in and outside the direct influence of television for large periods of my life. Though I may be clueless when the topic of group conversation hinges on a popular sitcom, reality show, or recently televised sporting event, I don’t feel like I’ve really missed much for being so uninformed. The useful life of such information is very short because most of its value lies in its freshness. Hearing about it second hand from real people in face-to-face conversion is very often more interesting to me than watching it first hand. In the light of Postman’s book, Hitchens seems to be overlooking something about the political humorists who annoy him so much. The most effective medium of political commentators and humorists of any stripe is television and it is television that has debased our public discourse by reducing it to mere entertainment.

Postman’s critique of television had nothing to do with the content of the programming (though the quality of that is a big concern in itself). It has everything to do with its nature as a medium for communication and its effect on our epistemology (our idea of what it means to be knowledgeable or reliably informed). Charles’ column highlights Postman’s main points and puts them in our present day context. Image oriented communication decontextualizes information with its “now this …” approach to broadcasting, aligning the significance of weighty news events with the trivial claims and tactics of TV commercials, leaving us no time to reflect on what we have seen or heard in order to form questions about it or draw significant conclusions. In the book, Robert MacNeil, of The MacNeil-Leherer News Hour, is quoted as saying that the aim of TV news is “not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action and movement. You are required to pay attention to no concept, no character and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time…” Well, I still think that Jim Leherer’s News Hour is the only TV news worth watching.   There is nothing wrong with entertainment as such. It is the important areas of public discourse which suffer the most when they are squeezed into the entertainment mold.

Postman devoted a chapter each to three important areas of our public discourse: religion, politics and education. “On television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana.” What is presented on television must be “user friendly” giving people what they want more than what they might need. “What is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount . Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings. I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether” (p. 121). It makes one wonder, and shudder to think about it, what kind of message is being conveyed to people whose primary exposure to Christianity is through television (or other entertaining venues).

In the realm of politics, “the television commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas”. In the television medium, complex political problems must be presented as quickly and easily solvable (at least relative to the opposing candidates ability to do so) the way commercials convince people that their lives will be better with with the particular product, technology, or technique being sold. The image a candidate projects of him or her self is more important than the substance of their ideas. “But television gives image a bad name. For on television the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience.” The audience must see themselves in the candidate in the way the commercials influence us to see a favorable image of ourselves involved with the product being promoted. “It is a sobering thought to recall that there are no photographs of Abraham Lincoln smiling, that his wife was in all likelihood a psychopath, and that he was subject to lengthy fits of depression. He would hardly have been well suited for image politics … just as the television commercial empties itself of authentic product information so that it can do its psychological work, image politics empties itself of authentic political substance for the same reason” (p. 135-6).

Postman also tackles “teaching as an amusing activity.” I’ll leave that one as an enticement to get the book and read it. Suffice it to day that Postman’s point was not that television has hindered the teacher’s influence with the time and distraction that students give to television. The bigger problem is that teaching philosophy has adopted the idea that “teaching and entertainment are inseparable.”

Postman didn’t argue that television has no value. He acknowledges that it has great value as entertainment, a theatre for the masses, and for its emotional power in communicating the horrors of war, terrorism, and racism and the excitement of great human achievements (e.g. the Apollo moon landings). Postman’s concern is with television’s negative impact on the “seriousness, clarity and above all, value of public discourse.” A medium of communication that allows our human capacities for logic, reflection and sequential thinking to atrophy is bound to have, and already has had to a great extent, a trivializing effect on our culture. As Postman pointed out, while the predictions of George Orwell’s 1984 have yet to become reality, our society seems to have taken on much of the character of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Who will need to ban books when no one wants to read them? Who will need to withhold information from us if we become drowned in a “sea of irrelevance?” Charles says that while “Orwell’s concern, ultimately, was that what we hate will ruin us; Huxley, by contrast, believed that what we love will ruin us.” We are amusing ourselves to death. [Edit 1/7/2010: Here’s an interesting sequence of comic drawings describing this theme from the book.]

Amusing Ourselves to Death is well worth a careful reading today. The information glut brought on by the largely visual, mixed media, hypertexted content of the Internet has perhaps contributed to these problems more than it has solved them. Neil Postman can take his place alongside the likes of Mark Twain and Walter Cronkite in my estimation as a perceptive and lucid cultural critic and commentator. I have also been challenged and edified in reading other books of his like Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk and Technopoly. Turn off the TV, grab one of these books and be edified.

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One Response to Still Amusing Ourselves to Death

  1. David Henne says:

    Thanks, Paul, for sharing your thoughts on Postman’s book. Just before I read your comments, I was reading in the “Parade” magazine from last Sunday an article on cities’ promoting and accommodating bicycle riding. I think both Postman’s book and the bike article share a common theme–the value of backing away from an easy and technological way of life, and being willing to put more effort into basic relationships and activities. We may feel stifled in a smaller world that way, but life’s activites and relationships seem more real than superficial. — David

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