In 2016, The United States of America vomited up a shit-storm so vile, so grotesque, so absurd that a great cry went up throughout the land, comprised of millions of bewildered, despairing voices, asking a single, heart-wrenching question:
What the fuck is going on?
And many wondered: Out of 325 MILLION Americans, is this seriously the best we can do? How did our public discourse get so disgusting and ridiculous? If only there was someone to explain it....
Well, it turns out there was.
And the pundits, with their clicks to boost and quotas to fill, did scramble to fetch this seminal book out of the memory hole to make sense of that soul-crushing debacle we called a democratic election.
Politics As Entertainment
Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, is a major theoretical foundation of The Spectacle. Postman’s premise is that we’ve allowed what he called “entertainment values” to infiltrate every facet of life, to the point where even supposedly serious institutions like journalism, politics, religion, and education take their cues from show business, dumbed-down to resonate with the spectating audience that’s replaced the engaged citizenry of bygone days.
Postman, of course, wasn’t against entertainment or humor in their proper contexts, and he himself was quite witty in his writings, speeches, and conversation, which I can report from a few memorable meetings with him. But he insisted that when serious discourse dissolves into giggles, society’s in big trouble, and feared that one day we’d not only find ourselves laughing instead of thinking, but wouldn’t know what we were laughing about, or why we stopped thinking. He went so far as to call Americans the best entertained and least informed people in the Western world.
What'cha Talkin' Bout, Postman?
Needless to say, this didn’t go over so well with American readers. Many attacked Amusing Ourselves to Death as dystopian doomsaying. “Lighten up professor,” Postman was told. “It’s all in good fun. What’s wrong with a little laughter? You don’t like TV, just turn it off....” And then these self-styled literary critics went back to watching the hit show of the day, American Gladiators, or some equally stimulating intellectual fare.
Go Back To Bed America
Bill Hicks on Freedom
Well, 31 years after Amusing Ourselves to Death was published, a truly “funny” thing happened, you may have heard....
A billionaire Reality TV star with no political or military experience, or any record of public service (many would argue a stellar record of quite the opposite), was elected.... WAIT FOR IT.... President of the United States!
Tens of millions of Americans were thrilled. Tens of millions were devastated. But it’s safe to say that hundreds of millions were entertained. Which is why I don’t think Neil Postman would have been surprised by the campaign, or by the result: the elevation to the highest office in the land a man who has internalized the entertainment ethos to such a degree that his overwhelming concern in life is ratings. It is, after all, where Postman predicted we were headed.
The Postman family took a bittersweet victory lap after the election via an article by Neil’s son Andrew Postman:
I observed all this with mixed feelings: satisfaction that Postman’s critique was finally getting the attention and respect it deserves; frustration that it took so long and that had we listened sooner maybe the country would be in better shape today; and finally hope that our visionaries may yet help us regain some semblance of sanity.
If not, I know how I’m voting next time....
Until the meteor puts us out of our misery, we would do well to consult our visionaries on the truly pressing issues we face—not our tech gurus, not our CEOs, not our politicians who work for our tech gurus and CEOs.
A good start would be Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.
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