Amusing Ourselves To Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

I had to wait several weeks for this to filter through the library to me since everyone seems eager to understand the calamity of Election 2016. This book helped, despite being over 30 years old (pub’d 1985), by outlining the ways our television culture redefines discourse. It holds up well through the decades if you can overlook the dated cultural touchstones (even the intro from Postman’s son in 2005 dated quickly, mentioning Tivoing and Game Boys).

Postman first outlines the ways that print culture forced various modes of communication, mentioning Plato’s recognition that no intelligent person would write down their philosophy in unchangeable text. How strange writing must seem to people of an entirely oral culture “a conversation with no one and yet with everyone.”

In 1835, de Tocqueville presaged the arrival of Twitter hundred of years ahead of time: “In America, parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity and then expire.”

From the perspective of someone with a 2 second attention span, it’s mind boggling to imagine the audiences for the Lincoln-Douglas debates that took seven hours. “Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? or five? or three? Especially without pictures of any kind?” He then shows an example of the complex clauses used by Lincoln while speaking and says (of Reagan, but it applies to Toxic T) “It is hard to imagine the present occupant of hte White House being capable of constructing such clauses in similar circumstances. And if he were, he would surely do so at the risk of burdening the comprehension or concentration of his audience.”

Enter photographs and advertising, then slogans and the decline of text was on the rise. But the death knell came with the invention of the telegraph, which “dignified irrelevance and amplified impotence… making public discourse essentially incoherent.” He quotes Lewis Mumford as saying that it brought us into a world of “broken time and broken attention.”

Television forced everything to become entertainment, including the news; everything is there for our amusement and pleasure. This focus on amusement makes us leery of caring about facts, quoting a 1983 NYTimes story saying “President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general. That doesn’t seem to happen much anymore [due to lack of public interest].”

Walter Lippmann in 1920 wrote: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.” This assumes that the press would function as lie-detectors and that the public would care. We don’t. Further on, Postman notes (quaintly for 2017’s alternative facts) “And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies.”

On the pernicious effects of commercials:

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.

I do have some concerns with his statements, especially the comment that “a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought it too busy for that, and too detached.” He also mistakenly assumes “women were probably more adept readers than men” on the American frontier, woefully ignorant of the lack of basic education open to them. Jane Franklin, Ben’s sister, rose up in my mind, embarrassed about the spelling errors in her letters to him.