Topics: Civics, Civil Rights, Fascism, Human Rights, Politics, Star Trek
What happens when media and politics become forms of entertainment? As our world begins to look more and more like Orwell’s 1984, Neil’s Postman’s essential guide to the modern media is more relevant than ever.
“It’s unlikely that Trump has ever read Amusing Ourselves to Death, but his ascent would not have surprised Postman.” –CNN
Originally published in 1985, Neil Postman’s groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. Now, with television joined by more sophisticated electronic media—from the Internet to cell phones to DVDs—it has taken on even greater significance. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment. It is also a blueprint for regaining control of our media so that they can serve our highest goals.
“A brilliant, powerful, and important book. This is an indictment that Postman has laid down and, so far as I can see, an irrefutable one.” –Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness, Neil Postman, Penguin Random House
The “corrosive effects of television” Dr. Postman’s polemic critiqued was [ironically], CNN, launched June 1, 1980, on a television executive’s “big idea.”
Movies like the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Star Wars became cult classics because as long as customers were buying tickets and popcorn, theater owners would play the show for months, and in the case of the two mentioned, each over a year. Ted Turner’s “big idea” was inspired by the creation of HBO: Home Box Office. It was the single, and only cable entertainment that expanded Hollywood’s earning power, as measured by Nielsen ratings. It was unique as most television stations ended their day’s programming at midnight, and so did HBO, initially. Mission creep extended their air time to twenty-four hours. “Saturday Night Live” — essentially, an improv show was crafted for night owls, as it tiptoed past that demarcation point, by design. Ted would develop a 24-hour news service of “infotainment.” The Nielsen altar gods needed satisfaction and a gimmick.
I always thought infotainment was coined by actor, and filmmaker Mario Van Peeples, but its origin was as a pejorative: “soft” news, versus hard, serious news. At a joint conference in the UK for media academicians, the infotainers put on comedy skits from 1980 – 1990 in their gatherings. The madness became a method as it’s obviously been copied on either of the cable news outlets that cloned themselves on Ted Turner’s model. We evolved from a nation that went from President Richard Nixon winning forty-nine out of fifty states, thereby becoming the first Republican to sweep the south with his “Law and Order” shtick post-Kent State and the violence at the Democratic National Convention, to the reality that he would be impeached in the House, and likely convicted in the Senate by members of his party due to the Watergate break-ins. It was the sober digestion of information from ABC, CBS, NBC — noncable, pre-infotainment outlets, by an “informed citizenry” regarding the culpability of a criminal president, a president that many had voted for.
Star Trek: Enterprise premiered on September 26, 2001. Due to its unfortunate timing fifteen days after 9/11, and theme of a hopeful future, as well as the former CBS president Les Moonves’ stated aversion to science fiction, ended after four seasons. His helm at CBS imploded with a sex scandal thanks to #MeToo movement accountability.
“24“: I’ve only seen two episodes, and my casual observation is Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer reasonably kept audiences on-edge. The show entered the national zeitgeist in 2001: In a post-Vietnam, post-9/11 world, we needed some heroes, Tom Clancy novels were the water cooler conversation rage, Sly Stallone in Rocky version 17, or Rambo; Arnold Schwarzenegger in just about anything: we were itching for some ass to kick. Dennis Haysbert introduced the idea of an African American president before Barack Obama appeared on the scene, then all of a sudden, it wasn’t a good idea beyond fantasy and Nielsen ratings. The show ran from 2001 – 2010. Liz Cheney is lionized for upholding The Constitution since the January 6, 2021 insurrection, but her dad fantasized he was a character on 24, Jack Bauer maybe, or Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy novels. In our discernment between reality and fantasy, we were collectively “jacked.” The intersection between information and entertainment might have impacted her dad’s decisions that led to launching a 20-year war in Afghanistan, prior to which the Taliban offered Osama Bin Laden (but war makes more money than justice); lying about, or “sexing up” intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, destabilizing that nation birthing ISIS, and the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo. Lawmakers on both sides profit mightily from world instability, not world peace. But we live in reality, not a cartoon.
What South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem is doing, what Texas Governor Greg Abbot is doing, what Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is doing, what Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson was doing, the lamentations of Alabama Governor Kay Ivey-post her lifting mask orders and encouraging “common sense,” is the multigenerational poisoning of “whiteness,” where, in a self-fictitious story, every move you make works out; every conclusion is Pollyannaish with white picket fences: the “good guys” (you) always “win” at the end of a bloodless cartoon, roll credits. This alternative, fact-free non-reality isn’t five-dimensional chess: it’s a societal dissociative disorder. It’s the aftermath of centuries of lying to one’s selves and preferring the lie over the truth. Pollyannaish vision is why after 20 years and trillions of dollars, we’re shocked that our efforts in Afghanistan, or Iraq didn’t work, that “when they stand up, we’ll stand down” was always an empty slogan. Not facing the realities of a deadly pandemic, and its to-be-announced future Greek letter variants because of “free dumb” is figuratively, and literally a “no-brainer.”
Apocalypse: It’s a great title to a movie, story, supervillain, or blog post. It literally means “to uncover,” or “to reveal.” Biblical tradition translates and assigns it to the entire last book of the sacred text. Barbara Rossing tried to reclaim the negative interpretation of doom-and-gloom from evangelicals in her 2005 book “The Rapture Exposed.” She saw this interpretation as dangerous, and lending to the United States engaging in risky international actions that could lead to Mutually Assured Destruction, or totally ignore climate change as a problem that will be solved only by the Second Coming. Fatalism like this led to our actions in Afghanistan, and Iraq. Pollyannaish viewpoints like this “kick the can down the road” to the next presidential administration, trillions of dollars wasted on corruption in Kabul that could have been invested in roads, education; universal healthcare in the US. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is an example of the peril of someone in power taking our continued existence for granted, and that “their side” will be the ones to survive. Not many former Secretaries of State have ever been called “doomsday clowns.”
All Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBTQ Americans, Women, immigrants are being affected by the anti-democratic efforts of Republican legislatures to either pick the voters they want to be counted, or if elections don’t quite go their way, THROW out the results! Dr. King referred to that as “interposition, and nullification.” The reason Democrats pass symbolic bills in the House named for John Lewis, or the “For the People Act” is because they KNOW they will die in the Senate. The filibuster has been adjusted, carved out, flipped, manipulated for less than our ability to call ourselves a federal republic than for billionaire Oligarchs’ tax cuts. Both parties are invested in the “status quo.” It is ghoulish. It needs to change, our leadership needs to change, or our continuance as a country, as a human species, is in serious question.
I hope this post is a revelation, and with its act of uncovering and facing reality, we take different actions. I’m sure that was the whole intent of Dr. Neil Postman’s warnings of simply cable; before social media proliferated; before phone apps were invented, before our news outlets consolidated, and morphed into self-deluding echo chambers kowtowing to Nielsen ratings, before politicians became craven liars in stark evidence of insurrection, and would rather rule over a smoldering ruin of feces than serve in an actual democracy. Our nation and the world deserve better.
Our nation and the world get better when “we the people” demand better.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale”: Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Demonstrate. Protest. Vote.