The central argument of Amusing Ourselves is simple: there were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble).
The misplaced focus on Orwell was understandable: after all, for decades the cold war had made communism – as embodied by Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Big Brother – the prime existential threat to America and to the greatest of American virtues, freedom. And, to put a bow on it, the actual year, 1984, was fast approaching when my father was writing his book, so we had Orwell’s powerful vision on the brain.
Whoops. Within a half-decade, the Berlin Wall came down. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Unfortunately, there remained a vision we Americans did need to guard against, one that was percolating right then, in the 1980s. The president was a former actor and polished communicator. Our political discourse (if you could call it that) was day by day diminished to soundbites (“Where’s the beef?” and “I’m paying for this microphone” became two “gotcha” moments, apparently testifying to the speaker’s political formidableness).
The nation increasingly got its “serious” information not from newspapers, which demand a level of deliberation and active engagement, but from television: Americans watched an average of 20 hours of TV a week. (My father noted that USA Today, which launched in 1982 and featured colorized images, quick-glance lists and charts, and much shorter stories, was really a newspaper mimicking the look and feel of TV news.)
But it wasn’t simply the magnitude of TV exposure that was troubling. It was that the audience was being conditioned to get its information faster, in a way that was less nuanced and, of course, image-based. As my father pointed out, a written sentence has a level of verifiability to it: it is true or not true – or, at the very least, we can have a meaningful discussion over its truth. (This was pre-truthiness, pre-“alternative facts”.)
But an image? One never says a picture is true or false. It either captures your attention or it doesn’t. The more TV we watched, the more we expected – and with our finger on the remote, the more we demanded – that not just our sitcoms and cop procedurals and other “junk TV” be entertaining but also our news and other issues of import. Digestible. Visually engaging. Provocative. In short, amusing. All the time. Sorry, C-Span.
This was, in spirit, the vision that Huxley predicted way back in 1931, the dystopia my father believed we should have been watching out for. He wrote:
In other words, while sales of "1984" are spiking because people are fearful of an autocratic dunderhead in the White House forcing everyone into a dictatorship, the book that really nailed the cultural conditions necessary to allow someone like Trump to ascend to the presidency, was "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley. And in Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" (and Roger Waters' brilliant "Amused to Death" album from 1992) the conditions were further refined and predicted.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.
It really is the perfect bookend to what we started 35 years ago: from a B-movie actor offering smooth and simple bromides for the people, to a washed up reality t.v. star who the masses (sheep) find hugely entertaining, and literally a source of clickbait himself. We've turned the highest office in the land into just another reality t.v. show. The difference being, of course, that "reality t.v." is all scripted and not remotely "real," whereas the presidency and leadership of the country is, well, unscripted and totally real.
Really, if you want to read more prescient Orwell in terms of today and where we are potentially headed, read "Animal Farm."
The concern shouldn't be that the government is going to ban or censor or deprive us of information. It's that the people will be too stupid to read, care, or be washed away in a sea of irrelevance, partisan hysteria, and the triviality that is popular culture. And that's what is happening right now with the complete inversion (or perversion) of truth coming out of the administration since they took power three weeks ago.
This gets to the heart of a chilling truth that much of educated America has yet to face about the Trump era. Amid all the howling about Trump's deceptions, the far more upsetting story is the mandate behind them – not so much the death of truth in politics, but the irrelevance of it. Donald Trump is proving that if you connect with America's anger and paranoia, you can get by quite easily without facts.Or yesterday, laughably asserting that the media downplays incidences of terrorism in order to carry out some unseen "hidden agenda." As one political scientist put it in the article, “the corporate incentives run the other way,” further calling into question the much-vaunted business acumen of said Oval Office occupant.
Clearly, we're in the midst of a mass-hysteria movement that approaches the McCarthy era, with the caveat that our version is utterly ridiculous in addition to being terrifying. Take the fable of the "3 to 5 million illegal voters" investigation, another of Trump's early provocations. (Incidentally, there have already been enough baffling episodes in this administration to fill several history books; like a bad hallucinogenic experience, it feels like years have passed already, when it's only been days.) Trump called for a "major investigation" into an apparent incidence of mass voter fraud by undocumented immigrants.
Terrorism is the ultimate clickbait...they teach that shit in Economics 101. But it's not about making money, at least not for his companies anyway. "By suggesting that the news media is hiding the truth about the menace from 'radical Islamic terrorists,' Mr. Trump may rally his base behind the executive order and other measures still to come."
Matt Taibbi again:
Trump Week One saw a string of such gruesome stories, from an order greenlighting the construction of the Great Wall of Trump, to the open embrace of the word "torture," a low to which even Stalin never sank. Trump even ordered his Department of Homeland Security to begin compiling a list of crimes committed by immigrants, which, as many noted, is a trick culled directly from the Nazi Institute for Research on the Jewish Question, which kept lists of crimes committed by Jews.
If you're rolling your eyes at the increasing number of Godwin's Law offenses in the Trump story, that's fine, but consider this: If Trump isn't stealing ideas from the Nazis, and it's just a coincidence that he shares so many of their policy instincts, that's not much of a comfort either.
But for all of the lunacies of Trump's first week, the war on facts might have been the one that shook liberal America the most.
The anti-truth campaign started with Spicer, a career GOP stooge who 18 months ago was denouncing Donald Trump for insulting John McCain. The ginger-faced Rhode Islander spent the first day of the Trump administration swimming in the world's most ill-fitting suit – the fabric looked hacked from an airport couch with garden shears – as he insisted that Trump's anemic inauguration crowd had been the biggest ever. It was such a whopper that even the Trump administration had to cop to it, sort of.
"Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts," said White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway on Meet the Press the next morning, and the Trump presidency had its first laugh line.
Commentators wondered aloud if Conway's "Alternative Facts" routine had marked the beginning of a new Orwellian dystopia. Fears in this direction even rocked the publishing industry, where 1984 hit number one on Amazon, triggering a new printing practically overnight.See also: The Bowling Green Massacre.
While Trump's new staff spent the first few weeks tearing apart presidential tradition like a troop of apes let loose in the Louvre, progressives spent their energy pushing news outlets like The New York Times and CNN to begin using words like "lie" in headlines, as if this were somehow going to be a game-changer.
When the Times finally began doing just that in its coverage of President Trump ("Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers" was the paper's proud January 23rd formulation), a parade of self-congratulation ensued.
The Times covered its own decision like it was news. Other outlets, from CNN to The Nation, began running their own headlines containing what was unironically described as the "l-bomb."
There's nothing wrong with calling Trump and his minions liars. They are liars. But no Trump voter is going to pick up the Times and suddenly be struck now by the deceptiveness of Donald Trump. What the Trump voter will perceive instead is a whining bunch of "snowflakes." And he'll think Trump's neck-bloated chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is right on when he calls the media the "opposition party."That, ladies and germs, is where we are, three weeks into Mourning in America. It's like we're witnessing the graduation ceremony of, as Richard Hofstadter put it, 50 years of "Anti-Intellectualism In American Life."
The triumph of the stupid (or also, this). An education secretary, dubbed "the dumbest cabinet nominee ever," who was rammed through via a Senate tie breaking vote by the Veep, and now holds the ignominious title of the "first ever cabinet nominee to be decided by a Senate tie" (apparently, you can't embarrass some people). And tonight, word that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions (old "Chain Gang Jeff") is the new attorney general of the United States...a man once rejected for a federal judgeship 30 years ago "for being racist."
And that's the point: this kind of bullshit inevitably runs into the brick wall that is fact and truth and reality, eventually, and when it does (and it will) you'll see the real "carnage" vaguely alluded to on January 20th...an ugly, brutal mess of impeachment, the invoking of the 25th amendment, or even perhaps worse.
The question then becomes, however, between now and said brick wall, will the institutions of democracy, which we trust to safeguard against this kind of lying and abuse of power, be worn down by the corrosive cynicism, passivity and, frankly, boredom from it all, and ultimately fail? Will we reach the point first when the echo chamber of social media, the constant nonsensical presidential tweets, "alternative facts," "fake news," and straight up lies become simply ignored and laughed at...ultimately at our own peril?
As I wrote back on the 19th, "bend over and grab your cankles, y'all." We are most assuredly getting exactly what we deserve.