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June 18, 2013

Television and Political Correctness' Safe Harbor for the Stupid

A recent Matt Lewis column mentioned a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, which was published in 1985. Yes, It's Old (TM). Its central thesis struck a chord with me: That freedom and reason will be lost in America not in an Orwellian way, but in a Huxleyan one. Orwell's vision was of a government ruthlessly suppressing books and changing written accounts of the past in order to change the thinking of the present.

Rick Tempest spoke about this at the end of the most recent AoSHQ podcast. Rick doesn't read much, so when he does finish a book, it's like The Only Thing He Can Talk About.

Anyway, Huxley's vision was that no totalitarian state was needed for such a descent into infantilization and restriction of thought: That all that was necessary was that the means of distraction and infantilization be provided to the population, and the people would voluntarily choose that path, no Mintruth needed, no black-armored thought police required. Orwell's vision was therefore of a forcible lobotomy, conducted by the state; Huxley's was one of a voluntary one, people checking in to an outpatient clinic every day to have bothersome parts of their brains excised.

The idea of the book (which, frankly, is better than the book itself) is an elaboration of Marshall McLuhan's aphorism, "the medium is a message." Which is something Rick Tempest never understood until reading this book. The aphorism stands for the proposition that every medium -- whether it be writing, speaking, song, epic poetry, telegraph reports, news journalism, or television -- has embedded deep within it a preference for certain modes of expression and certain types of stories, and thus each medium contains within it an embedded philosophy of thought which cannot be wholly separated from the actual content of the communication.

Thus, the medium itself, to an extent not appreciated enough, is part of the message it carries.

Now, Postman's book contrasts two different media, print and television. His book documents the long fall of America from a print-based method of political discourse to a television-based one. The early New England colonists, he points out, had a literacy rate of 95%, which was unheard of in the world at the time (and is rather high even today). They consumed printed material -- pamphlets, books, all of it -- and even spoke in that fashion. For example, he notes that Lincoln's speechifying, which may sound overly-complex for spoken argument today, was in fact fairly common of the style of rhetoric at the time, and people had no particular trouble following it.

Nowadays, we've lost our ear for long spoken sentences with lots of dependent clauses, and it's all we can do to make sense of them even in print, where we can take our time parsing them out.

This is part of his point: The method of communication breeds a certain method of thought in a population. To Americans living from 1730 to 1870, Lincoln's speeches were not overly-complicated or difficult to follow. They were accustomed to long complicated thoughts in political speech.

This has all changed since the television became the chief conveyance of not merely pop entertainment but, crucially, of political expression and culture itself. I will not belabor the long litany of sins he lays at the feet of television. Suffice to say that he believes that much of the superficiality and stupidity of the modern world is due to television's promotion of a certain style of thought, which is to say a certain style of thoughtlessness: Fast cuts, short sentences, information stripped of context, a disdain for abstractions -- indeed, a disdain for anything that cannot be filmed occurring in the here-and-now.

And the carnival barking-- Dear Lord, the carnival barking. Everything on TV is the best, the latest, the most spectacular, the weirdest, the most shocking. That sort of endless Hype of the Present Moment seems to give a big middle finger to All History Which Has Come Before.

Now, Postman is a liberal Democrat (or so parts of his book seemed to indicate), and, in 1985, he thought that television and the particular style of stupidity it encouraged was Reagan's secret weapon.

I disagree with that conclusion but I agree with Rick Tempest that most of his other conclusions are spot-on.

Rick Tempest's big disagreement is as to which side of the politico-cultural war television's maudlin, emotional, hot-button-pushing, no-abstract-thought-or-hypotheticals-allowed style of discourse favors. I think that there's a softness of thought to television-based thinking that strongly favors a regime of Political Correctness and thereby strongly favors soft liberalism as a default, risk-free safe harbor for the stupid.

Anyway, interesting idea, I think. I don't know if I'd recommend the book so much as I'd recommend the idea, which I've just shared with you. It's a decent book, though. Although, oddly enough, for a book which rants against superficial analysis, its evidence of TV's dire impact on our thinking is very anecdotal, superficial, and news-clipping-ish. You think that a book about the virtue of rigor and depth would exemplify that itself.

And yet, a fast easy TV-like read.

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posted by Ace at 04:56 PM

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