Amusing Ourselves to Death, Part 1: Intro
Originally posted on the Townhall Interface blog on September 12, 2006.
Rarely will one find a work that may be described as both a seminal work and a watershed, but IMHO, Neil Postman’s 1986 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, (ISBN 0140094385) achieves this dual distinction. The significance of the work is apparent in the subtitle: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In this age in which a significant portion of the American population seems to hold an anti-intellectualism that is characterized by the inability to hold a rational debate without sliding into ad hominem attacks and subjective argumentation (although calling it argumentation is not really an accurate description of what they tend to do), this book goes a long way in explaining how this lamentable situation has developed. Michael Savage proclaims that “liberalism is a mental disorder,” and Hugh Hewitt frequently refers to the “Fever Swamp.” Both are apt descriptions of the mental processes of many of our fellow Americans on the liberal left end of the spectrum, despite how nice they may be otherwise. I propose publishing here some of the key points of Mr. Postman’s thesis, developing further the relevance for today in hopes of understanding how we got here and perhaps how to oppose if not reverse this pernicious trend.
Postman’s Forward places before us a contrast between the equally chilling prophecies of two of the twentieth century’s earlier writers. George Orwell wrote in his novel, 1984, of a totalitarian society that burned books, of a Big Brother who militantly deprived the people of their autonomy, maturity and history. On the other hand, Aldous Huxley’s vision in his Brave New World foresees the day when “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” To quote Postman more extensively on this contrast,
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.
No reason to ban books because so few want to read them? So much information we are reduced to passivity and egoism (narcissism?!)? Truth drowned in a sea of irrelevance? A trivial culture preoccupied with feelings? Does any of this ring as true to you as it does to me as a description of 21st century American culture? Let us compare Mr. Postman’s analysis to our current situation and culture and judge how accurate a prophet he truly was.