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Neil Postman Explains the Rise of The Donald

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“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death)

Last night, an estimable panel of FOX News panel of pundits were expressing justifiable befuddlement at the irrational support by purported conservatives for the decidedly not conservative Donald Trump. There are likely spiritual reasons for such baffling abandonment of concerns about Trump’s lack of temperance, civility, knowledge, wisdom, and honesty, but perhaps there is another explanation for his success.

Perhaps in his prescient book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman offers some insight into the troubling rise of The Donald—showman extraordinaire.

Neil Postman saw in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World glimpses of our contemporary world in which television is the “soma” that transforms not just how we spend our free time but how we process information and define knowledge. Postman warns of the dangers posed to a culture that moves from a print-based (typographic) culture that values “exposition” to a television-based (visual) culture that sees the world through the lens of entertainment or, rather, develops an “epistemology” constituted by entertainment:

Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, for reasons I am most anxious to explain, the Age of Exposition began to pass, and the early signs of its replacement could be discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business.

A television-based culture supplants the print-based “biases” of logic, sequence, objectivity, consistency, coherence, complexity, detachment, and delayed response with the biases of emotion, image, “instancy,” incoherence, contradiction, and decontextualized information. And the effects, in Postman’s view, will be “to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.”

In describing what Huxley feared, Postman describes the conditions that have made the candidacy of Trump possible:

Huxley feared…that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism…. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance….Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”…Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

Here is Postman’s  sadly accurate description of the state of American discourse that has developed in our television-based culture:

Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials….When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

In describing the ill-effects that television has wrought on American society, Postman explains in part why Trump—spouter of incoherent, inconsistent, and false information—has been able to babble his way to the top of the political heap. Postman also, therefore, explains why so many of those who oppose him are public intellectuals like writers and scholars who still value rational discourse and exposition:

[T]elevision is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this world almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, 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. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”

One final apt word from Neil Postman who describes the state of politics in general and the political success of the inferior, unclear, and dishonest candidate TrumPolonius:

“If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence,
clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.”

First published at Illinois Family Action



 

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