by Ethan Russell

Neil Postman

As I write in some length in AMERICAN STORY, Neil Postman’s book AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH affected me profoundly and still does. That the book has been translated into eight languages and sold over two hundred thousand copies (Wikipedia) takes it out of the realm of the obscure but, for me, its importance (It’s embedded in the title “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Political Discourse in the Age of Television”) is a message we may make reference to but about which we have, as a culture, done next to nothing. And how could we? In the noise generated by television, with audiences sometimes approaching 1 billion, 200,000 seems a meager number and so very easy to ignore.

That may be slightly unfair. Postman acknowledges his own pleasure in watching entertainment television. His real concern is how television figures into political debate. AMERICAN STORY spends some time with this because it has played—I believe—a central role in the distortion of Baby Boomer history. Ironically—but perhaps predictably—Postman is considerably less successful when he tries to explain his ideas on television. But what he said (and has to say) is I think hugely important. “I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed.”

Then one day I was wandering the aisles of Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica when a title jumped out at me. It read Amusing Ourselves to Death with the sub-tile: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Written by a professor of communications at New York University — Neil Postman — it was a book that was as game-changing for me as music had been. I can’t remember if I glanced at the Foreword, read it at the time, or simply just took it home. But here’s what Postman wrote:
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. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another–slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing….In 1984 people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

* Postman, Neil; Postman, Andrew (2005-12-27). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (p. 107). Penguin.

Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman

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