For many years, I taught Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death in my AP Language classes. In this book, written in 1985, Postman argues that we are living in the Age of Show Business; that the advent and pervasive nature of television has significantly changed and shaped the way people think and operate in their everyday lives. As many of us watch in shock and disbelief the events of this election season unfold, I think of Postman’s book so often that I went back and re-read his chapter on how television has dramatically altered the way presidential candidates run for office and get elected in this country. I can’t believe Postman isn’t referenced more in the media these days, given the way he practically predicted the superficial, reality-show nature of this election. Some gems from the book:
- “In 1966, Ronald Regan used a different metaphor [for politics]. ‘Politics,’ he said, ‘is just like show business'” (p. 125).
- “Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but its main business is to please the crowd, and its principal instrument is artifice. If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether” (p. 126).
- “The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products. Images of movie stars and famous athletes, or serene lakes…of elegant dinners and romantic interludes, of happy families…these tell nothing about the products being sold. But they tell everything about the fears, fancies and dreams of those who might buy them. What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer” (p. 128).
- “Commercials have the advantage of vivid visual symbols through which we may easily learn the lessons being taught. Among those lessons are that short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; that drama is to be preferred over exposition; that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems” (p. 131).
- “We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years” (p. 137).
Ultimately, Postman argues that we don’t need to worry about some dystopian society (a la George Orwell’s 1984) where everything is taken away from us by some tyrant who censors everything or doesn’t tell us the truth (familiar accusations against people in power now!). Postman says our undoing really will be that we will amuse ourselves to death, like the characters in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – that we are so focused on being entertained, feeling good and having fun that we won’t even care about the real, nitty gritty details of what is happening in our society. “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” (p. 141).
I highly encourage you to pick up this book. I don’t consider myself a big “t.v. person” or entertainment junkie – I like reading challenging books like this one. But I can’t deny that even if I like to pretend I’m different from the masses, the effects of television and technology are deeply rooted in our culture, guiding our discourse and communication in ways I’m hardly aware are happening. After all, the problem with this election is far bigger than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. It’s the society we’re living in that promoted these people and this situation in the first place.