If All the President’s Men was the film that launched a million J-school candidates, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death was the text that launched, oh, maybe two or three hundred media studies students. The book is regularly name-dropped by (mostly) serious academics and Robert McChesney lefties alike — the latter no doubt because it regularly comes accompanied by some of the most punk rock book covers of all time.
(No, those aren’t Dead Kennedys album covers.)
Its ominous foreword has kept it alive, too — a couple hundred words to appeal to the hearts of late-teenaged freethinkers everywhere:
“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.”
Postman goes on to argue that Aldous Huxley’s vision of a technocratic leisure society, not Orwell’s oppressive dystopia, is the more terrifying — and the more realistic. To Huxley (and Devo), “freedom of choice” doesn’t mean much when you’ve been systematically encouraged to choose the most unhealthy options:
“In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
Postman’s target, obviously, is television. (He calls it television because TV is a nickname, and nicknames are for friends, and television is no friend of his.) His first thesis draws from the work of his idol, Marshall “You know nothing of my work” McLuhan. McLuhan said “the medium is the message” — Postman says “the medium is the metaphor.”
For Postman, entertainment is baked into TV at the cellular level. You simply can’t be boring and ugly on TV — natural selection will cut you out of the picture. Over the course of the book, he tears apart politics (mostly Reagan), religion (mostly Jerry Falwell) and even takes time to cut beloved educators like Carl Sagan and Mr. Rogers down to size. He’s merciless — no matter how much you think you’re using the medium to educate and enlighten, it’s still the idiot box.
In 1959, Edward R. Murrow, that godfather of broadcast journalism, famously warned:
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”
Postman says, no. No matter what you do, it’s wires and lights all the way down.
30 years later, Postman has shuffled off this mortal coil. He left us in 2003, just around the time the internet stopped being “the internet,” the thing we went to for baseball scores and movie tickets, and started being the place we all spend most of our free time. The book still hangs around in radical bookstores — a side-effect of Postman’s rage for Reagan, no doubt, despite the fact that the man commonly referred to himself as a conservative (albeit using the term very differently than Reagan would have.)
But in this media landscape, as different from 1984 as that year was from 1915, can Amusing Ourselves to Death still teach us anything? Is Postman’s vision of endless distraction still valid in an age of 24-hour World of Warcraft marathons and endless click-reward-click smartphone games? Or it a relic of pre-digital-age criticism, left obsolete by maybe the most overwhelming paradigm shift in history?
I say it’s still valid. Also, I hate the phrase “paradigm shift.”