Neil Postman's 'Amusing Ourselves to Death': What He Got Right, and What He Failed to Predict

President Donald Trump stands at the podium listening to his supporters cheer at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., June 20, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

What Neil Postman got right — and what he failed to predict.

I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger — London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London. . . . This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster. . . . I repeat — London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.  

Thus spoke Winston Churchill to his friend Sir Muirland Evans, prophesying his own starring role in the defense of the West against Adolf Hitler. It was an astonishingly prescient and confident prediction to make in the middle of the 1930s, given that virtually nobody else in the corridors of power at Westminster believed that war was imminent. Except that Churchill didn’t make this prediction in the 1930s. Nor even in the 1910s, when the great powers of Europe were sleepwalking into the First World War. He spoke these words, if you can believe it, in 1891, at the age of 16.

Predictions this forensically precise leave the impression that a DeLorean traveling at 88 miles per hour must have played some part in their provenance. There are even a few books that have this quality to them. They leave the reader with the unsettling sense that the world in which we all now live once existed only in the prognostications of a far-sighted, now-deceased author. One of these books is Neil Postman’s 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death. Reading this book in a world where Donald Trump is the president is a kind of tragicomic inversion of what the first Christians must have felt when they turned back to the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. There is a sense of everything falling into place. But whereas Isaiah explained the suffering and resurrection of the Savior, Postman explains how the man who headlined Wrestlemania 23 got access to the nuclear codes.

The subtitle of Postman’s book is “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” His thesis is simple: that what we talk about in the public square and how we talk about it is fundamentally shaped by the prevailing medium of communication. Different conversations will be had, different conclusions reached, and different value systems espoused in a society dominated by print as opposed to a society dominated by television. The character and quality of the medium end up shaping and constraining the character and quality of discussion. Or, to put it in Postman’s words, “definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of communication through which information is conveyed.” For example, “in a purely oral culture, intelligence is often associated with aphoristic ingenuity, that is, the power to invent compact sayings of wide applicability. The wise Solomon, we are told in First Kings, knew three thousand proverbs.” The criterion of intelligence in a print culture is quite different:

You are required, first of all, to remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time. . . . You [must be] able to distinguish between the sensuous charm, or ingratiating tone (if such there be) of the words, and the logic of their argument. But at the same time, you must be able to tell from the tone of the language what is the author’s attitude toward the subject and toward the reader. . . . You must be able to do several things at once, including delaying a verdict until the entire argument is finished.  Above all, [you must] have learned to negotiate the world of abstractions. . . . Intelligence implies that one can dwell comfortably without pictures, in a field of concepts and generalizations.

A major new medium “changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content.”

What kind of content was demanded in what Postman calls “Typographic America” during the 18th and 19th centuries, a place he contends was “perhaps the most print-oriented culture ever to have existed”? Postman answers by turning to the famous Lincoln–Douglas debates of the 1850s. One of the debates in Peoria, Ill., in 1854, was seven hours long, which was fairly standard for the time. The two men split the time between them, each speaking for about three and a half hours as the audience listened attentively. These audiences “must have had an extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally.” What’s more, the language of Lincoln and Douglas was “clearly modeled on the style of the written word. . . .  Even the spontaneous interactions between the speakers were expressed in a sentence structure, sentence length and rhetorical organization which took their form from writing.” In the last analysis, “the Lincoln–Douglas debates may be described as expository prose lifted whole from the printed page.”

Literacy rates in the colonies at the time of the Founding were very high by contemporary standards in Europe, but Typographic America is long gone. The written word has been supplanted by the moving image as the most powerful medium of communication in the modern world, and all of us (the present author included) are less intelligent for it. Why is this the case? Why has the transition from print to television and hence to the Internet amounted to a near-vertical descent from the heights of public discourse to the nightly offerings on Fox or CNN? Because propositional content is not what television does best, or even well. As Postman observes:

Whenever language is the principal medium of communication — especially language controlled by the rigors of print — an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence.

None of this can be said of television, while the precise opposite is true of the Internet. Television as a medium does not concern itself with propositional semantic content. What Postman claims “is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment the natural format for the representation of all experience.” The first condition for anything to make it onto television is that it must be able to hold the attention of the audience. Whatever else it does, it has to entertain.

Even a show ostensibly aimed at delivering news will consist of lighting, makeup, dramatic music, and fast-paced delivery. This prioritization of entertainment has in turn seeped out of the edges of the screen and into real life. “It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is a metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.”

It’s almost difficult to reflect upon how much worse this whole sordid state of affairs has gotten since Postman’s book was published without despairing for the fate of our civilization. Twitter has successfully transformed even the written word into a truncated, semantically barren, intellectually stunted game in which untold millions compete for the approval of their peers by forming statements and syllogisms with precisely no stakes attached to them whatsoever. The assault on our attention spans that Postman lays at the feet of commercials has been reinforced by social-media snippets, Instagram, Snapchat, and, horror of horrors, TikTok.

The author’s clairvoyance reaches its apex in the chapter concerning politics, wherein he demonstrates how the value system of the TV commercial has hijacked the American electoral process:

The commercial always addresses itself to the psychological needs of the viewer. Thus it is not merely therapy. It is instant therapy. Indeed, it puts forward a psychological theory of unique axioms: the commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, [and] that they are solvable fast.

The TV commercial inculcates certain lessons in its viewers about how problems should be approached. “Among those lessons are that short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; that drama is to be preferred over exposition; that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems.” A citizenry that has been subliminally force-fed this approach to problem-solving over the airwaves for decades will inevitably carry it into the political sphere. The one indispensable talent that a politician needs to succeed in such a society is the principal talent that the current president has — a talent for marketing. No one cared about the fact that Marco Rubio had to explain to Donald Trump what the nuclear triad was live on stage during a Republican primary debate in 2016, because he was going to “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” and “BUILD THE WALL.” To Postman’s point about the potency of the moving image, the spirit of the president’s campaign in 2016 could have been gauged fairly accurately if all the voter ever did was watch his rallies with the sound off. The snarling, the finger pointing, the pugnacious demeanor. The propositional content of the president’s language hardly added anything at all. “In the shift from party politics to television politics, . . . we are not permitted to know who is best at being President or Governor or Senator, but whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent.” Whenever the president takes to the podium, the discontent of Red America is made manifest whether the sound is on or off.

The really depressing dimension of the book is that Postman seems to have thought that the deleterious effects of the show-biz presidency had already done their worst during the administration of Ronald Reagan. This is the same Ronald Reagan who had been a two-term governor of California, a state that would be the fifth-largest economy in the world if it were a country. Reagan was also already, at the time of the book’s writing, well on his way to dismantling an evil Communist empire in a world-historical feat of geopolitical kick-ass. Compare him with a man whose public prominence rests mainly on his ability to market his own name and personality in spite of serial bankruptcy and public immorality and who seems to admire the most evil Communist alive. It’s almost as if Donald Trump was made in a lab to be the Postman’s postmortem rebuke to us all. The good news for Trump and his supporters is that if politics really has become this dominated by the television age, he’s well on track for reelection. He definitely has Biden’s number in the entertainment sweepstakes. The bad news is that voters might be willing to watch the country fall apart in the long term if it turns out to be the most interesting show in town.

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