Forward from Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”

I recently was reminded of a book by Neil Postman that I read a dozen years ago. The forward is here:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

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, 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”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, 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.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Turn on the television and you’ll see Postman was right.  Our appetite for distraction knows no bounds.

The book is Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I may post a couple more quotes from the book here in the hopes it gets a read from others.


6 thoughts on “Forward from Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”

  1. You know what strikes me as funny? No matter what basic worldview you identify with, no one says "I believe watching X amount of TV per day/week contributes to a healthy society". Conservative Christians think TV watching is basically harmful (or at worst useless), but so would Social Liberals, Communists, Radical Muslims, you name it. But I guess Postman’s point is that rabid TV-watchers never stop to consider that.

    On a related note, I’m in year 7 of my self-imposed TV fast. I don’t know how it’s affected my worldview or productivity. Maybe it just made me weirder. But I know I saved $60 x 12 x 7 = $5040 on cable bills!

  2. Well — I should. But I am too busy reading everyone’s blogs!

    ….perhaps if Postman had posted that book online…. Or if he made Amusing Ourselves To Death into a made-for-tv movie….


  3. BTW — I think bloggery is a medium that is slanted toward some evils not unlike those Postman exposed in AOTD. Look at the narrow-minded perspective set forth in any political blog and most any religious one — conservative or liberal. And still we subscribe via RSS…. 🙂

    At least FORUMS afford communication from other perspectives. But while you can find dozens of seminary professors blogging their fingers off, I’ve not found one who engages readers in real dialogue at any length. And most comments are “Right on, Prof. ______!”

    Blogs are the new pulpits, in many regards. That’s why I have one. 😉

  4. I had to read Brave New World and 1984 in high school…and hated both books with a passion. (the huge dissapointment came when I read Animal Farm first and loved it, then read 1984 and it wasn’t written nearly as well). Not long afterward the Prozac “epidemic” hit and I remembered Huxley’s theories…and have seen just about all of them, in some form, come true. However, much of 1984 has also come true…just not quite the way Orwell imagined.

    Arguably, with computers, tiny cameras, GPS, etc., Big Brother IS watching. The news media is manipulating who we percieve the outside world (wait…we’re friends with Russia? I thought we hated the Ruskies!) There is a government “ministry” in charge of everything and some people want the government to control even more. If you work for a government agency you’ve probably had the odd feeling that someone is watching your every movement (recall Smith receiving the note and how he finally managed to open and read it on his desk at work.)

    Both Orwell and Huxley hit the nail on the head. I would be interested to hear their reaction to this world. I bet they would both be surprised at how wrong, and how right, they were.

  5. I remember taking a Japanese culture/music course in college for an elective. Something that struck me was the apathetic vanity of their culture (at times), especially prior to a change in that culture (rise of Imperialism, new imperial family, etc). Basically, they spent their entire lives (the cultural elite, that is) writing poems, tending to their gardens, and carrying on illicit fornications.

    With that said, I think Orwell, Huxley and Postman just recognize the symptoms of a dying culture. They didn’t suffer from a belief in American exceptionalism that can blind us. That not withstanding, cultures get old and wear out and new ones are born. If we embrace our death in faith, God will raise us in greater glory.

    Regarding your comment on bloggery – Someone once said that if you stuck a million monkeys in front of a million typewriters, the laws of randomness guarantee that eventually they would reproduce the works of Shakespeare. One wit responded that the Internet disproves that.

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