It has been 31 years since Neil Postman released his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. At the time the book seemed highly relevant especially in the political realm as for the first time ever the United States had a former Hollywood actor serving as President of the United States. It seemed like an opportune time to write a reflection on how politics–along with most everything else–had been dumbed down by our incessant infatuation with all things entertaining, most particularly on television.
Well, that was then . . . These days a former actor who had served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and a couple of terms as governor of the Union’s largest state would look downright experienced compared to the current Republican front runner. So it seemed a good time to review some of Postman’s words from a few decades back. To put it mildly, Postman was on to something and if it had resonance in the mid-1980s, the truths Postman dimly suspected then are screaming in the streets now for any who are willing to listen.
Postman begins by noting that throughout American history, certain cities came to stand for both key historical moments of the Republic and vital aspects to the nation’s character. Early on it was Boston that stood for the revolutionary spirit, the yearning to be free. New York became a symbol of America’s big front door, welcoming people from all over the world at Ellis Island and eventually with Lady Liberty holding her torch of freedom high as well. Chicago grew into the city of big shoulders that came to symbolize American can-do dynamism and the industrial spirit of innovation and progress and energy that helped the nation develop into an economic powerhouse.
But by the late twentieth century what city best embodied the American spirit? Las Vegas. Here was a city built 100% on the premise that entertainment alone is king. The whole city, Postman noted, was more like a cardboard cut-out of a city than a real metropolis of diversity and dynamism. The city was as shallow as many Americans had by then themselves become and served as a further symbol that everything had been reduced to entertainment, including politics itself that had become just a congenial adjunct of show business. By late century, politicians were more cardboard cut-outs than had been true in the past, symbolized by the rise of the “image manager” and the concomitant decline of the speech writer.
This development, too, though fit an electorate that had let itself be disinformed more and more by news programs that aimed far more to entertain than inform. These days everybody has an opinion but unlike political opinions of the 18th and 19th centuries, Postman contended, these opinions are not the result of well-considered arguments or based on reading significant tracts of relevant materials for whatever the issue at hand may be. Indeed, in the age of entertainment shows passing as news programs, people’s “opinions” are actually just emotions, and that works fine for many politicians since now all they need to do to win votes is play on people’s emotions–fear works particularly well as does anger. The average political TV ad is now nothing but a play on the heart strings of the viewers. And THIS is the base playing field of political discourse now.
Already by the 1970s, Postman notes, the lines between being a serious public political figure and being a part of the entertainment firmament had been blurred as senators, governors, and presidents began to appear on late night talk shows, daytime shows, and the like. But this, too, plays on how politicians sway votes now. Just as all TV commercials–for breakfast cereal, deodorant, and cars–are more interested in generating a feeling in the viewer than actually saying much about the product in question, so now political success is no longer equated with what a candidate stands for so much as how that candidate makes you feel. “For on television the politicians does not so much offer the audience an image of himself as offer himself as an image of the audience” (p. 134). And why not? As Postman further notes “A person who has seen one million television commercials might well believe that all political problems have fast solutions through simple measures–or ought to. Or that complex language is not to be trusted and that all problems lend themselves to theatrical expression. Or that argument is in bad taste and leads only to intolerable uncertainty” (p. 131). Sound familiar this political season?
To be clear, this applies to all people in politics now. Barack Obama along with George W. Bush have made the late-night TV rounds even as Bill Clinton played the saxaphone on Arsenio Hall’s show even as most candidates for the White House (McCain, Obama, Clinton, Palin, Kerry, Romney, Trump) now swing by Saturday Night Live at some point. Intimations of all this may even go back to John F. Kennedy, who looked better on TV than rival Richard Nixon and who got Frank Sinatra to sing his campaign theme song “High Hopes.” This is not a Republican vs. Democrat phenomenon.
But since most of the drama of the moment is on the Republican side . . . if we want to know how a know-nothing reality TV star with zero political experience, few ideas, a morally tawdry personal history, and a penchant for nasty, in-your-face rhetoric rose to the top, Postman knew the answer three decades ago already. Mr. Trump is Mr. Las Vegas. He is Mr. Simple Solution through Simple Measures. He is Mr. TV Commercial, less interested in telling you what he’d do than in making you feel good because–as supporter after supporter has said in interviews–he says what you feel, gives voice to your anger, your fear, your frustration. The fact that much of that rhetoric has tied into and exploited some of the worst feelings that are out there is at once a scary thing to note and nothing of note at all. We have gotten to the point we are at as a nation bit by bit and, frankly, with few of us being genuinely exempt from participating in the process that got us here. (How many of us tuned in to more Republican debates these past 8 months than we deep down really wanted to see just because, well, it might be entertaining to watch Trump lace into folks or be laced into himself?)
Postman frequently drew on Orwell and Huxley in his book in parsing a vision for the future in conversation with the darker future visions of those two landmark writers. And this led to the famous closing quote of Postman’s prescient book, a quote that has haunted me for three decades and that has me downright frightened on some levels just now:
“Huxley believed . . . we are in a race between education and disaster and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people of Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking” (p. 163).
(All quotes from Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin Books edition 2006.)