Three Decades Later, This One Book Still Has Americans, And The Dangers We Face, Figured Out

Written by Shawn Meyer on May 1, 2018

I was just thinking about this book the other day and how I wish people would read it and consider its warnings. A review I wrote four years ago — I think Postman’s criticisms are right on target.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman takes a JACK.

Written in 1985, this book has maintained its place as one of the foremost critiques of the effects of television on western society. Postman was a scholar with uncommonly acute perception. To read him is to wish you had sat in his classroom. For impatient types who tend to flip past the Roman numerals: don’t skip the short foreword. It offers an important juxtaposition of Huxley with Orwell and reveals the social prophetic motif which frames Postman’s subsequent observations on our decline.

Many readers will struggle with unfamiliar terms with the first couple chapters. But hang in there. Chapter three begins a fascinating account of a time when books and reading dominated the attention of average Americans, when boys literally walked one hand on the plow and a book in the other, when we set the world standard for literacy, when ADD was a word and not an acronym, and when common men grappled over grand ideas such that Tocqueville could declare, “An American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into dissertation.” Those were the days of the printed word. That was typographic America, as Postman reminisces.

Then came the telegraph, the grandfather of the television, touted for its promise to permit conversation between Maine and Texas. It would make “one neighborhood of the whole country.” But could the technology be restrained? Could it be resisted even when there was nothing in Maine that was pressing and significant enough to justify distracting Texans from their daily work? Would the telegraph not merely permit conversation between Maine and Texas, but demand it? Postman chronicles how telegraphy and photography primed us for the age of television.

Most people at the mention of the “age of television”, having neither experienced nor learned much of typographic America, would not associate it with the demise of serious, rational exchange. They imagine TV to be yet another tool for serious discourse. Postman insists that TV, by its nature, does not and cannot allow for such a thing. This would not pose much of a problem if television limited itself to the realm of entertainment- if it steered clear of politics, news, religion, and education. As we all know, it didn’t. Rather, TV swallowed everything and became its own epistemology.

Therefore, that which permits no complexity and no abstraction, which can only fragment and flash partial accounts in short segments became our chief means of thought formation. It’s not merely that we would become mentally malnourished; it’s that we wouldn’t realize it. To quote the author, “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?” (107). In this way, Postman submitted back in 1985, we were amusing ourselves to death.

I think Postman gave an accurate account of our past. I also suspect if I were to travel back in time to my sophomore year in high school when the book was fresh off the presses, I’d find his analysis of the present to be right on the mark. It is his predictions of the future that have fallen short. And this is where the Huxley/Orwell juxtaposition comes in. Orwell, in his classic work 1984 envisioned the loss of freedoms at the hand of Big Brother — the machinery of an impersonal, all-watching, all-controlling government. By contrast, Huxley in Brave New World prophesied that our demise would be of our own doing. As Postman summarizes,

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. . . [For Orwell] people are controlled by inflicting pain. [For Huxley] 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.

Clearly, Postman believed that Huxley had it right. He believed that through excessive entertainment pushing out the possibility of serious subjects receiving the serious reflection they deserve, we were imploding.

Huxley may have had Orwell on the ropes in 1985. But now, we see they are both winners. Brave New World is ushering in 1984. There cannot sit long a lobotomized nation without a tyrant to rule over it any more than a pile of fresh meat can go unnoticed by a famished lion. What happens when a drunk man with Ben Franklins half hanging from every pocket stumbles through a crowd? Having amused ourselves into a defenseless stupor, we begged for Big Brother. And we got him. Postman declared Orwell dead before checking his pulse.

One final criticism should be made. I wondered throughout the book what Postman’s remedy would be. Not until the final pages did I discover the one and only sliver of hope against death by amusement: Education (insert 30-second pause for laughter). He states, “No medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are.”

But, what if the users understand and don’t care? What if they are jaded by sin into perfect indifference? Contra Postman, our only hope against death by amusement is repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

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Shawn Meyer
Shawn Meyer, father of seven and husband of one, is a small-town Midwest pastor. A public speaker with diverse interests, Shawn has trained and lectured for schools, churches, camps, and charitable groups on topics ranging from bioethics to bow hunting. Boisterously active in politics and cultural reformation from his youth, Shawn’s fighting spirit is inspired by love of God and country.