An Interlude – We have met the enemy, and he is us! (Postman Part 3.5)
At this point, we have an advantage over Mr. Postman in that we have the data of an additional two decades to see how his thesis has played out in American culture. Unfortunately for American culture, I believe at least one of his statements just presented has proven to be false.
In Part 3, we saw him saying,
…at no point do I care to claim that changes in media bring about changes in the structure of people’s minds or changes in their cognitive capacities….My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content – in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling. (page 27 [emphasis added])
I would submit that, like a muscle that has atrophied from lack of use, the “cognitive capacities” of those continually fed by a visual media have shrunken, or not been allowed to develop in the first place. The continual bombardment of the changes in the structure of discourse that Postman documents has gone beyond merely altering the structure of the discourse to diminishing the ability to engage in rigorous thought in the first place. Thus, we have a generation of people who cannot comprehend the origins and culture of their own history, and who are, as Paul puts it, “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” (Ephesians 4:14) The next installment of my series on Amusing Ourselves to Death will cover Postman’s material in which he documents the kind of people produced by a print-oriented society, and the contrast to 21st century America is stark indeed.
The relevance of this possibility was particularly brought to my mind as I read Bruce Thornton’s summary and discussion of a chapter in Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century on “Soviet Myths and the Western Mind” and its application to the current conflict with Islamofascism.
As Conquest documents, many Western intellectuals and academics were delusional about the reality of the communist threat. For a host of reasons – a quasi-religious faith in utopian socialism, neurotic hatred of their own culture, vulnerability to an ideology that dressed itself in scientific garb, an adolescent romance with revolution, and sheer ignorance of the facts – many professors, pundits, politicians, and religious leaders refused to believe that Soviet leaders meant what they said about revolution and subversion.
I would contend that a significant factor in, if not a root cause of, that delusion, and the current one regarding Islamofascists, was the erosion of the rational facilities by the constant assault of the visual and the subsequent supplanting of the written word by the image. (Later installments in this series will show how Postman traces the impact of this changing cultural milieu on politics, religion, and education, all of which would play a role in shaping our response to both the Soviet and Islamofascist threats.) Thorton continues,
As we fight what Norman Podhoretz calls World War IV, the same refusal to take seriously the motives of the enemy, and the same bad Western habit of indulging our own supersitions at the expense of a clear understanding of the enemy, are compromising our actions and policies.
After reviewing in brief some of the statements of Muslim leaders from the 1300’s to the present day, Mr. Thornton observes, correctly, I believe,
Despite this centuries-long, consistent expression of jihadist doctrine, many in the West continue to dismiss it as an aberration or deformation of Islam, and to look for other economic or political causes. Just as Sovietophiles during the Cold War dismissed Soviet expansionism as an understandable response to Western aggression or a traditional Russian anxiety over its long western border, so too today jihadist aggression is waved away as a natural reaction to neo-colonialist sins or autocrats at home or lack of economic development or even sexual frustration – indeed, anything and everything except what the jihadists plainly tell us is motivating them, and what millions of Muslims around the world who support the jihadists clearly understand to be the spiritual imperatives for jihadist violence.
It reminds me of a radio commercial being used here in Chicagoland for cellular service that pits a small business user against the allegedly “typical” cell service provider who totally ignores the requests and needs of the customer, to comic effect. Of course, the company for whom the ad is running does listen to its customers, or so they say. Unfortunately, when it is not some consumer service but the very existence of our current civilization that is at stake, the comedy is nonexistent.
Returning to Mr. Thornton’s thesis, he later notes,
Another similarity is the bizarre double standard that many Westerners use when judging the West. This too recalls the behavior of Cold War appeasers, who strained mightily the Western gnat while swallowing whole herds of communist camels. Puffed up with pretensions of being independent thinkers beyond the parochial prejudices of the average oaf who loves his country, they betrayed their own principles by dismissing the overwhelming evidence of communist tyranny and failure. As such they were, Conquest puts it, ‘traitors to the human mind, to thought itself.’
The full essay is a sobering read, and combining it with the thesis put forward by Postman, the potential for cause and effect is definitely present. Something to perhaps think about further.