What’s happening to us: Postman, Orwell, and Huxley

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INTRODUCTION

Funny how things come together, crisscross, intersect, lead us down roads no one has ever walked before. Neil Postman offers insight into what’s happening. I read it one morning last week at the cabin, away from everything that entertains and distracts me from that little plot of land on the edge of the wetland in Central Minnesota.

William Britton’s Wisdom from the Margins: Daily Readingsexcerpts from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business painted a picture that felt true, like a revelation pealing back the curtain to find that Lewis Carroll’s walk down the yellow brick road with Alice, the lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow is outdated. Oz is no longer a harmless little old man.

Neil Postman on Orwell and Huxley

Contrary to popular belief. . . Huxley [Brave New World] and Orwell [1984] did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley fears was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much those that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centripetal bumblepuppy . . . . In 1984, Huxley added, 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.
—Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

The wetland pond, the flyway, and return home

At the cabin, the water in the wetland is unusually high this year because of record-breaking rainfall. The flocks of Buffleheads and other non-diving ducks have by-passed their familiar stop on the flyway; the water is too deep to for them to reach the food sources below. Only the long-necked Trumpeter Swans, Sandhill Cranes, and Canadian Geese, and the diving Loons and Mergansers that can reach the bottom have stopped by this year.

Leaving the cabin and the wetland lead home to the world Huxley feared where the truth is drowned in a sea of irrelevance. We settle back into the lounge chairs in front of the television and flip through Netflix, YouTube, and other means of entertainment in what Postman later called the Technopolis in which our capacity for critical thought is numbed.

The new normal

We turn on the evening news and see two very different versions of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaking to the press. One is real. The other is altered by technology that deceives viewers into believing the Speaker is drunk, on drugs, or mentally impaired by slowing and altering the pace of her speech. The culture of amusing ourselves to death in the Technopolis distorts truth into propaganda, the first wave of what will become the new normal.

The culture of amusing ourselves to death in the Technopolis distorts truth into propaganda, the first wave of ... the new normal.

We’re not in make-believe Mayberry anymore. What we love — entertainment — is drowning us. In the world foreseen by Huxley, Orwell, and Postman, truth is hard to find. “Where there is no critical perspective, no detached observation, no time to ask the pertinent questions, how can one avoid being deluded and confused?” wrote Thomas Merton in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice.

Only the long-necked Trumpeter Swans, Sandhill Cranes, and Canadian Geese, and the smaller, deep-diving Loons and Mergansers can reach or swim to the bottom to see what’s real and what’s not in the Technopolis. William Britton’s Wisdom from the Margins with Neil Postman, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Thomas Merton took me there this morning.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 26, 2019

Finding Bigfoot

“Americans are the best entertained and least informed people in the world.” – Neil Postman.

AmusinghknI still watch football. I’m sorry — mea culpa — but I do. Always have. But it’s different this season. Though my hopes for my teams have always been subject to injuries, something worse gets injured every two years: truth.

Watching the Gophers (University of Minnesota) and Minnesota Vikings (NFL) last weekend, most of the ads were what we’ve come to expect. They sell us products by entertaining ads that create our appetites for what we don’t need.

But there were other well-placed ads during breaks in the action: “information” ads meant to stir my righteous anger by painting Dean Phillips (D) — the candidate running against Congressman Erik Paulsen (R) in my district (Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District) — as an immoral hypocrite. It’s not information; it’s carefully crafted disinformation meant to evoke outrage and fear. The campaign season and football season are a lot alike with one big difference: football has penalties. There are referees and umpires.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business appeared way back in 1985, years before Citizens United uncorked the tightly secured laboratory vile containing the life-threatening, infectious virus of unaccountable slander, and released the contents into electoral stream of a democratic republic.

We Americans pride ourselves in being a nation “under the rule of Law.” Everyone is equal “under the rule of law.” Citizens United exposed the dirty little secret that we’re not. Slowly over time, the American democratic republic has become an oligarchy. Dark money — big money from unnamed deep-pockets, vested interest sources — was legitimized under the rule of law by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 Citizens United decision. The rule of law became more explicitly the rule of oligarchs, who buy presidencies and congresses with their campaign contributions, and who spend big money for ads like the one they hope will keep Rep. Erik Paulsen in the House of Representatives.

Congressman Paulsen represents my district. I know him. Well, I don’t really know him. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet him face-to-face. During his eight year tenure in Congress, he never held a town hall meeting before candidate Dean Phillips made an issue of his inaccessibility to the people who elected him to represent us. While others across the country held town hall forums in their districts, Rep. Paulsen refused to hold one. Finally, after increasingly public criticism, Rep. Paulsen offered an alternative: a telephone conference call. My phone would ring at 7:00 P.M. “Hello, This is Congressman Erik Paulsen inviting you to join me in a live conversation . . . Press 1 to participate….” I couldn’t bring myself to press the button lest I contribute to his claim of accessibility. Finally, after his unwillingness became a bigger issue in the Paulsen-Phillips debate, Erik Paulsen held his first face-to-face town hall meeting in eight years.

Yesterday we shared the ads that interrupt my football watching. The Paulsen ads interrupt far more often than the Phillips ads. There’s a reason for that. Money. The Paulsen campaign is well-funded by the unaccountable deep pockets uncorked by Citizens United. The Paulsen ad we posted yesterday is dark in tone and slanderous in content. The Phillips campaign refuses PAC, special interest, or federal lobbyist money. They too are carefully crafted to tell the truth with humor.

Football couch potatoes in MN District 3 are the best entertained voters in the country.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 20, 2018.

The Lonely Blogger and Steve Martin

It’s been lonely. Traffic is down on Views from the Edge. I ask myself why. But I suspect I know the answer. I’ve broken blogging rule #1. Blogs are mostly about entertainment, not serious stuff . People go to blogs to get away from serious stuff. Not that this one is all that serious, but it’s hardly a rendition of Steve Martin’s happy feet.

Then two comments arrive. The first is from Gary who shares the experience of being influenced early on by Ernest Becker’s seminal work, The Denial of Death.  The second comes from Jim, a former classmate. Both Gary and Jim went on to become teachers.

Gary wrote:

The book title Amusing Ourselves To Death by educator Neil Postman comes to mind. Postman believes we have reduced most values to equate with entertainment. Education he says has to be entertaining. We demand constant amusement through sports, films, travel etc. There is a constant search for entertaining experiences to make us feel alive. It is as though our existence is so fraught with escaping death that the only antidote to dying is amusement. Just as everyone uses humor to take the edge off of awkward social encounters, humor has become the background context of existence. Humor is used as a cover for what human nature really is about and that is “Real Politic” or the feeling that what needs to be done is whatever is practical to survive.

Two other books by Peter Gay and Karl Marx come to mind: Gay’s The Enlightenment: The New Paganism and Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. Gay suggests the Enlightenment led to a loss of traditional religious metaphors to live by, resulting in new forms of paganism arising to supplant the old worldviews. These include everything from “consumerism” to “new age” religions like Scientology. Karl Marx says in his “Manifesto” that “capitalism will destroy all that is permanent”. I think we can say Groucho Marxism seems to be the preferred way to analyze our culture’s ills. Everything has to be couched in humor or it is considered boring. At best we can say humor functions as the sigh of the oppressed as we try to take the edge off of everyday existence that seems to be all about a belief in human society as a survival of the fittest existence. We all want something better but science has been hijacked by capitalism for its own need to constantly revolutionize production to keep novel products arriving to allow us to feel alive when we no longer can see loving people as the real antidote to a preoccupation with fending off death. That was Christ’s reason for sacrificing himself in the face of a pagan Roman Empire. We have come full circle. Hopefully the Coliseum isn’t next as we escalate the need to amuse ourselves to death.

Jim wrote:

Folks get twisted in knots over things which they have neither read nor understood. Back in the days of teaching I had students read a writer who argued that under pure capitalism if profits are to be maximised there are several alternatives: Raise prices; Lower Wages. Then you have a product your workers cannot afford to buy. Because there are more workers than capitalists they will soon suffer. They liked the argument until they learned its author was Lenin.

Thanks, Steve Martin. Thanks, Gary. Thanks, Jim. I feel better.