Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
Postman Was Right: Huxley Had it Right
Neil Postman was a professor of Education and Media Studies at NYU where he worked for forty years until his death in 2003. He was a humanist who believed that technology could never replace human judgment and interaction.
He was the author of seventeen books; my particular favorite was his 1985 book about the impact of television Amusing Ourselves to Death. In this book he documents how our society was in the midst of being transformed from one where people learned about important issues from reading to one where they are exposed to issues through television. The net effect, according to Postman, was that, because TV was primarily designed for entertainment, the coverage of serious issues is, necessarily, more superficial.
Perhaps the two most notable dystopian novels of the 20th Century were George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Although we may have feared the autocratic society portrayed in 1984, Postman thought we actually find ourselves in a situation closer to Brave New World.
He wrote: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared 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 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.”
Since Postman’s death, I think we have become even more like the society depicted in Huxley’s novel. We may not be controlled by an authoritarian government, but we are clearly in a somewhat muddled state. We are overwhelmed with 24/7 cable news, a social media environment which regularly propagates “fake news,” a president who gained his notoriety on reality TV and continues to tweet and behave as though he still is a reality TV star. Many people, even those without much financial stability, can meet their material needs with inexpensive Walmart imports, cheap junk food, Netflix, and a media environment which does not challenge us to think much. We don’t need Huxley’s soma, we’ve got our own distractions!
Although Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death during the Reagan years, it may have more salience today. I doubt Postman would have been the least bit surprised by the election of Donald Trump.
Postman’s son, Andrew recently wrote about his father’s prescience in The Guardian, asked this question: “Who can be appalled when the coin of the realm in public discourse is not experience, thoughtfulness or diplomacy, but the ability to amuse--no matter how maddening or revolting the amusement?”
I think we should not be appalled that our TV amusement culture has resulted in our present situation. David Frum, in his recent Atlantic article, “How to Build an Autocracy,” warns that today’s threat to democratic rule does not come from Mussolini-style fascism, but from the type of capitalistic kleptocracy practiced by the likes of Putin in Russia and Viktor Orban in Hungary.
In these societies, Frum notes, the media has been marginalized, rich oligarchs have been put in charge of government functions, and corporations are given free rein to operate without regulation. In other words, the society slips into autocracy when people are not looking. It’s easier when many “low-information” voters are participating in elections.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Column: Uncommon Common Sense
Bill Frayer lived all of his adult life in Maine until moving to Mexico in 2007. He had a long career teaching writing, critical thinking, and communication at the community college and university level. He has published a critical thinking textbook and four volumes of poetry. Stirring up trouble with his column for the last eight years, he enjoys hearing from those who have strong opinions about what he writes. Now a snowbird back in Maine, he enjoys playing blues, eating lobster, and fishing with his granddaughter. In Ajijic he enjoys leading TED talks at LCS and talking poetry with his fellow poets.