Voices

Not at all amusing

California proves Neil Postman's arguments about America's entertainment-driven public discourse

Issue: "John Paul II: In memoriam," Oct. 25, 2003

NEIL POSTMAN WAS A MASTER AT SPOTting ironies in life. But even he might have been startled to note that his death, at 72, came within hours of the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.

Postman, of course, was the author in 1985 of the prescient book Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, he alluded in detail to the American public's growing appetite for entertainment in place of serious discourse. To point right now to the media circus that helped propel Mr. Schwarzenegger to his rousing California victory a couple of weeks ago is to belabor the obvious.

In fact, Postman talked most specifically about television -a medium with perhaps a quieter, more passive, and more sinister claim on our lives than that of the big screen where Mr. Schwarzenegger built his reputation. But it's hard to imagine a grander headlining of Postman's insights than what we've just watched in the California spectacle.

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The subtitle of the Postman book told you right where the author was going: "Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business." You could be pretty sure he wasn't going to try to convince you how good Hollywood had been for serious thinking. Is there really anyone, anywhere, who would argue that any recent political campaign was an improvement on the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1850s-which Postman describes in some delightful and helpful detail in his book?

But the essence of Postman's argument was always that this deterioration, this immeasurable loss of thoughtful conversation, is not something that has been imposed on us from outside. It is something instead that we have brought on ourselves. Hear Postman himself in the foreword to his book:

"We were keeping our eye on 1984," he 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...." We had avoided the Orwellian nightmare.

"But we had forgotten," said Postman, "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," Postman pointed out, "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 we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy."

Huxley himself pointed out that in Orwell's 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. "In short," Postman summarized, "Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."

It's not just Californians who were exposed a couple of weeks ago for their shallow approach to the life-and-death issues of governance. All across the nation were folks-including a great many conservative Christians-who couldn't figure out for themselves whether substance or style counted most in an election with profound political, economic, and cultural implications. At least when another actor, Ronald Reagan, was elected governor of California in the 1970s, he had bothered to spell out for voters something of his philosophy of government. In this

go-round, Californians bought a pig in a poke. And in

doing so, they set a dreadful example for the rest of an already superficial electorate.

Some Republican loyalists are taking delight in having ousted a Democratic governor in a key state, and depriving his colleagues of the electoral apparatus they have controlled for the last several years. Their celebration is likely to be short lived. Neil Postman has passed from the scene-but the truth of his analysis has never been more painfully clear.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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