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Remembering Neil Postman

Postman understood better than anyone that television has inextricably changed the nature of debate, and that in politics now, entertainment reigns supreme.
 
 
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With the circus that was the California recall election dominating the news this week, the death of author and media critic Neil Postman didn't get the attention it deserved. But that wouldn't have surprised Postman one bit. He wrote one of the great books of media criticism of our time, "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business," which even when it was published in 1985 all but predicted Arnold Schwarzenegger's Hollywood-style gubernatorial campaign and the media frenzy that would accompany it. Postman understood better than anyone that television has inextricably changed the nature of debate, and that in politics entertainment now reigns supreme.

A professor at New York University known for his sense of humor, Postman founded the Steinhardt School of Education's program in Media Ecology at NYU in 1971. He was chair of the Department of Culture and Communication until 2002. During his career, he wrote 20 books on a wide range of subjects. "The Disappearance of Childhood" examined television's harmful effects on children through the onslaught of information. 'Technopoly" explored the tyranny of technology. Over the course of his career, in fact, Postman relentlessly questioned technology's impact on our lives. It was a pursuit that didn't end at the university walls.

Colleague and friend Terrence Moran this week recalled Postman's skepticism the day he went shopping for a new car and found that every one had electric windows.

"He said, 'Why do I need electric windows? My arm and hand work. If I were paralyzed I could use an electric window,'" Moran recalled, chuckling. "Neil would always take what he would call an ecological perspective, a balanced view."

In Postman's words, his book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" is "an inquiry into and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television." The change didn't bode well for serious political discourse, Postman thought. As he pointed out, the world of the printed word, by its very nature, demanded rigorous logic. Television, with its emphasis on flashy images, did not. The consequences were far-reaching, and the book explored them in detail.

"It's very difficult to discuss the impact of popular culture and television without in some way making reference to 'Amusing Ourselves to Death,'" said cultural critic Neal Gabler, author of "Life: The Movie." "It's one of those foundation books that you have to refer to. You cannot write about American popular culture and its influence without addressing that book."

Given the timing of Postman's death on Oct. 5, just two days before the California recall election, it's tempting to think that Postman foresaw the outcome, had understood it all too well, and decided that sticking around for it would offer few surprises.

Indeed, much of what Postman feared about television and politics was being played out in the race.

Take political debates. In the book, Postman recalled the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which the two politicians spoke extemporaneously -- and eloquently -- for hours. Postman found it noteworthy that the audience remained engaged, even after breaking for dinner. Vigorous debates used to be central to the elective process.

Fast forward to 2003. Schwarzenegger, a candidate to govern one of the most powerful states in the union, announces that he will participate in only one debate. It is a discussion in which the participants are apprised of the questions beforehand, giving them plenty of time to prepare their responses and memorize their lines.

Or take the increasingly fine line between show business and serious business. Postman wrote that television commercials were having a major influence on modern-day politics. Commercials relied on emotion for their impact, not reason. They played to the audience's needs. Product research wasn't required to make an effective commercial, Postman noted. What was important was market research.

In other words, increasingly in politics, the facts are taking a back seat.

Postman observed that in a culture in which television dominated the conversation, a candidate's ideas were trumped in importance by his appearance. William Howard Taft, who weighed 300 pounds when he became the country's 27th president in a print-dominated cutlure, would not likely be elected to office in the Television Age, Postman observed.

"Indeed," he wrote, "we may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control."

At the beginning of "Amusing Ourselves to Death," Postman pointed to two competing visions of the future. The first was George Orwell's "1984," in which a totalitarian government subverted a peoples' ability to think clearly through oppressive measures. The second was Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," in which the people themselves stopped thinking clearly of their own accord.

The year 1984 came and went in the U.S. without a great Orwellian transformation. But Postman feared that television was still creating our own "Brave New World."

"[Huxley] believed with H.G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media," Postman wrote at the conclusion of the book. "For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in 'Brave New World' was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking."

Postman, for his part, knew exactly why he was laughing. And he never stopped thinking.

Jim Benning ( jim@worldhum.com) is a Southern California-based freelance writer.