Donald Trump and Neil Postman’s Prescient Amusing Ourselves to Death
The Age of Trump? Worse, it's the Age of Postman.
Though Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985, its observations, like the biblical prophets of old, have never been more relevant and ominous in this Age of Trump.
The premise of Postman’s book is this: electronic media is dumbing us down, transforming our dialogue into mere forms of entertainment, preventing us from not only speaking with each other on an adult level, but even thinking on an adult level, a phenomenon he observed particularly in politics, religion and education. The introduction makes his terrifyingly prophetic thesis plain:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten 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 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. … 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.
This is the point: even if Trump doesn’t end up winning, his meteoric rise is symptomatic not merely of a bankrupt and exhausted politics, but a bankrupt and exhausted culture. We have, to use Postman’s words, become a trivial culture, and as a result, we are well on our way to becoming a captive culture.
The Founding Fathers made two things exceptionally clear: for a society to remain free, its citizens must be both virtuous and knowledgeable. Freedom cannot be maintained by a society full of passion but devoid of reason, nor can it be maintained by ignorance, no matter how blissful it may be.
And this is precisely why our politics has gone insane (an insanity which is certainly not limited to Trump): we, as a culture, do not hold these values in high esteem. We denigrate them.
We do not value knowledge; we value talking points and tweets (that reinforce our views of course). We do not value the self-control of virtue; we value the unrelenting narcissism of uninhibited self-expression and actualization. We do not value history, and all the treasures of the human experience available for our training and growing in wisdom; we value anything new, fresh, hip and contemporary that will satisfy our moment-to-moment desires and inexhaustible supplies of boredom. We do not value substance, depth and rationality; we value whatever can be sold, marketed and peddled with glitz, glamor and pizazz. We do not value the pursuit of truth; we value the self-reinforcing echo chambers of our own creation.
Postman cited an example that illustrates how far we have fallen in this regard: in the 1850s, thousands of people would show up to see Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate the great issues of the day — three hours for round one, a break for supper, and three more hours for round two, for a grand total of seven hours.
Is that even remotely imaginable today?
It is thus a great twist of irony that perhaps never before has America been so inundated with information and at the same time so bereft of wisdom. And yet this is exactly what Postman predicted: a time in which discourse would “abandon logic, reason, sequence, and rules of contradiction” in favor of mere entertainment. Aesthetically, Dadaism; philosophically, nihilism; and psychologically, schizophrenia.
Because we don’t want logic, reason and sequence. We don’t want substance. We want the satisfaction of our momentary emotional desires. We want the easy life. We want, in short, to be entertained. It’s easier. It’s fun.
And that is exactly the great risk of a free society — that its people can become utterly corrupted, and that its government eventually, in one way or another, becomes a reflection of its people. Hence, why our politicians have obliged us. This is not at root a political problem, but a cultural disaster of stunning proportions. It is no accident that when Americans tune into 2016 election coverage, the scenes they behold from sitcoms, reality TV and Jerry Springer, have become stunningly and eerily real. And it is precisely this new era of reality politics that tyrants of all ages could have only dreamed of. As Postman warned:
Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse. That is why tyrants have always relied, and still do, on censorship. Censorship, after all, is the tribute tyrants pay to the assumption that a public knows the difference between serious discourse and entertainment — and cares. How delighted would be all the kings, czars, and führers of the past to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourse takes the form of a jest.
But we should not have needed Postman. Our Founders warned us that while our American experiment was special, we ourselves were not (an utterly counter-cultural notion these days). As human beings, we Americans partake of all the follies and excellences common to human nature. “We make ourselves popular,” John Adams warned, “by telling our fellow-citizens that we have made discoveries, conceived inventions, and made improvements. We may boast that we are the chosen people, we may even thank God that we are not like other men. But, after all, it will be but flattery, and the delusion, the self-deceit of the Pharisee.”
To echo our Declaration of Independence — when a long train of trivialities and amusements, pursing invariably the same object evinces an obsession with comfort, fun, and entertainment, it is the people’s burden, their punishment, their harvest, to bear the affliction of a politics likewise made rotten and corrupt by their loss of moral health and intellectual energy.
Absent what Churchill called in the 1930’s “a supreme recovery of moral health and vigor,” a new age has dawned, or at least been consummated.
But it is not the Age of Trump.
Rather, it is a far, far scarier one.
Ours is the Age of Postman.