The Emptiness of the Avalanche of Modern Entertainment


In 1985 Neil Postman referred to Brave New World  as the intellectual godfather of his Amusing Ourselves to Death. If you haven’t read Postman’s work and its revision 2 decades hence, we certainly hope you will. And as you think about the book, ask what it says about us that 25,000 people on any given night in a major city decide that the most rewarding thing they can imagine doing is attending the moral and mental circus produced by that knowing ringmaster Donald Trump.

The effects of video games, television, social media, and the Internet on our level of illiteracy says something highly important about human proclivities. Large numbers of us will use whatever pleasure pill, additive, consciousness-altering liquid or fun diversion promises to excite our senses and divert our attention from lives that leave us otherwise frustrated and empty. Seduced by these temptresses, our attention span and cognitive abilities wither.

We must quickly say that there is nothing essentially wrong with television, social media, video games or liquid refreshment.  In fact, used for developmental purposes and in moderation, they are remarkably fertile complements to our more “stodgy inspirations”—meaningful discussions, reading nuanced, complex books and essays, poetry with emotional kick, and documentary films.

But Postman understood what happens when market forces and the human yearning for pleasure are permitted to shape the direction in which information flows are shaped.

His focus in 1985 was on television, but one can graft his arguments onto all of our more modern pleasure sources.

He graphically points out the difference in modern democratic election jousts and those in pre-television eras.

“The first of the seven famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place on August 21, 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois. Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln’s reply. This debate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men were accustomed. In fact, they had tangled several times before, and all of their encounters had been much lengthier and more exhausting. For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement was to respond. When Lincoln’s turn came, he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined.” (Postman, 44).

That quote  is an excerpt from Amusing Ourselves to Death, highlighting what public discourse looked like in America over 150 years ago. What does this seemingly foreign form of discourse reveal about the candidates? About the voters?

Obviously without knowing specifically what information was exchanged throughout the 7 hour debate, it’s not possible to comment on the intelligence levels of the candidates making the arguments nor the audience tuning in. However,  it is fair to say that the attention span of both cohorts is absolutely exceptional by today’s standards. Can anyone imagine a 2016 presidential debate between say, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that was scheduled for 7 hours? Can anyone imagine Donald Trump speaking for 3 hours? What would he say? And how many times would he say it? One can say “winning”, “amazing”, “elegant”, and “huge” as the substance of your sentences only so long.

But let’s give Donald the benefit of the doubt. He prepares a 3-hour speech and its brilliant. He outlines an ingenious sure-fire strategy for persuading the Mexican government to pay for the wall that they will build to keep them out of the U.S. and expounds in great detail upon each of the 14 tenets of that strategy. He presents an economic analysis diagnosing how America got to a slumbering economic recovery, and walks us through not one, not two, but five different solutions for how we can abate the problem. And finally, he pulls out a Quran and reads to us 11 separate passages that he believes contribute to the case that Islam is a religion of violence, and not of peace, to which he uses to make his bigger point: we have to tighten our national security policies.

How many members of the audience make it through the full speech awake? How many make it through without checking twitter? How many get bored and leave? How many actually listen to and reflect on each of Trump’s policy proposals and then form thoughtful assessments of the probable effects?

From our perspective, Postman is onto something timeless in importance when he argues that political discourse is a reflection of the dominant form of media at the time. In 1860, that primary medium was typography. The purpose of type is to record, exchange ideas, and ultimately to persuade others of the accuracy or merit of those ideas. Typography then, amplifies all of the characteristics of mature, meaningful discourse: “a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response” (Postman, 63).

But now typography has been superseded by a new medium: the television. The purpose of television whose content is guided by profit goals is not to appeal to your reason, or to force you to think about abstract ideas.  The purpose of television is to entertain. Consequently, its content is fragmented, decontextualized, full of catchy music and flashy images, so that its audience is never perplexed, never made to think, and always amused. In other words, a debate even slightly resembling that between Douglas and Lincoln could never occur in today’s society; TV would forbid it, in part, because we wouldn’t watch it.

And therein lies a significant problem if we are to have a strong, flourishing democracy.  If the primary purpose of our media is to entertain, then thoughtful public discourse is unlikely to occur.

In The Rhetoric of Reaction, Albert Hirschman argues that a long run condition for stability and legitimacy of a democratic regime is thoughtful public discussions. “Thoughtful” here implies a process of opinion forming, by both candidates and audience, based on the influx of new information presented by the orators within the context of the debate. More specifically, “… a democratic regime receives legitimacy to the extent that its decisions result from full and open deliberation among its principle groups, bodies, and representatives. Deliberation is here conceived as an opinion-forming process: the participants should not have fully or definitively formed opinions at the outset; they are expected to engage in meaningful discussion, which means that they should be ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of arguments of other participants and also as a result of new information which becomes available in the course of the debate.”

When our political debates are tailored to appeal to a television audience trained to believe that pleasure is the stuff of life, there is little room for thoughtful deliberation among the crowd. We cannot tolerate answers that run more than a minute, or at most 2.  “Secretary Clinton, you may have a minute and a half to explain why inconsistencies in missives that you wrote in the midst of (1) a firefight and (2) conflicting information inputs should not be used as a measure of your character.” Senator Sanders, you will have 30 seconds to respond.

Terribly sad, don’t you think?

4th of July Patriotism as Illustration of Perverse Exxageration

This post originally appeared on on July 6, 2014. It is co-authored with Dr. Neil Browne. 

1.     What would it even mean to say we have the greatest country on the planet?

2.     When a person has the freedom to read, but has nothing to read and no ability to read, what is the value of that freedom?

3.    Can we not be willing to praise our country for its self-evident achievements without forgetting its marked deficiencies?

Independence Day is rarely celebrated in a reasonable fashion. It is not a day of reflection amidst pledges of improvement. Rather our collective egos seem to require us to forget the low quality of our health care, our fears, our seeming need to arm ourselves far out of proportion to either the probable risk or the levels of other countries, our urge to imprison, the increasingly poor quality of our public schools, and our ailing infrastructure. We instead use the 4th of July to announce to everyone within earshot our primary place in the world as a beacon of “freedom.”

The conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, and the dependably right wing Wall Street Journal publish a rank ordering of nations based on what they call “economic freedom.” Apparently, this is the form of freedom that comes to their mind when they hear “freedom.”

The freedom that seemingly most excites them is the one that   “provides an absolute right of property ownership, fully realized freedoms of movement for labor, capital, and goods, and an absolute absence of coercion or constraint of economic liberty beyond the extent necessary for citizens to protect and maintain liberty itself.” They blithely look at freedom from the perspective of the businessperson/property owner. Why? I guess they presume that when one has something he or she deserves that something. But the role of luck in our lives is so extensive that making such an assumption begs at minimum for a solid explicit defense.

We are using the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal  as representative voices of American viewpoints because to us even the Democratic Party’s market-oriented rhetoric sounds suspiciously similar to the understanding of freedom described above. See, for example, the Obama administration’s self-conscious rejection of “inequality” memes in their talking points.

Continuing to parse the freedom defined above, we note that property ownership and the rights attendant to ownership are not just present; they are absolute. A nod to labor and its need for freedom takes the form of freedom of movement. Neither the right to bargain collectively, to require that non-members pay dues so that the collective unit can exist, nor the right to a living wage taints the clarity of their identification with the dominant. Surely, we suppose, they would claim that benefiting such people pari passu benefits everyone else.

And among the fascinating aspects of their rank ordering of free countries is that Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, and Norway are in the same “mostly free” category as is the United States. Yet these countries are often lampooned by the Heritage Foundation and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal as Socialist and freedom-denying. So the list you create finds that these countries are just as free as the USA, but that fact does not give you pause when you derogate them as “nanny states.”  Very strange.

The source of the contempt for these Scandinavian countries seems to be that they spend approximately 30% of their GDP on social expenditures, while the U.S. government spends 20%.  Social expenditures are primarily for the housing, health, and training needs of the vulnerable, i.e., those who are not victorious in the financial arena of modern markets.  Scandinavian social expenditures are clearly redistributional; they transfer income from the comfortable to the young, the sick, the old, the unemployed and the poor.  To us they seem to be taking the mandates of religions and ethical systems of thought to heart when they do so. They are expressing a shared sense of human community.  For governmental actions to be redistributional means that citizens in those countries are unwilling to bow in obeisance toward whatever income distribution the market at any time provides.

The relevance to “freedom” talk is that Scandinavian countries are providing more positive freedom or capabilities to that component of its citizens who need assistance in the fundamental areas of modern living. Voters in the USA turn a relatively frigid shoulder to that cohort of Americans who lack the capabilities required to flourish.

We celebrate “freedom,” In the process, we exaggerate freedom’s identifiable merits by treating it as if it is some universal meaning and application. Peter Levine suggests 6 distinct types of freedom, and I have seen coherent definitions of several additional forms of freedom. Yet, we on the 4th of July sing hymns of praise to an abstraction as if all of the singers are on the same page and yearn for the same form and quantity of liberty.

Our political proclivities implicitly hinder large number of Americans from having the time, knowledge, and inclination to participate actively in relational meaning or civic engagement. Tired, depressed, ill, quasi-literate, and unemployed citizens are not in a position to appreciate and benefit from many of the negative freedoms provided by out Bill of Rights for example.  We vote for those who insure that corporations will be largely unregulated in areas that are heavily regulated in Scandinavian and other European countries.  Regulation comes in many forms and can be as harmful to the vulnerable as helpful. But consumer protection, health, and safety regulation, while potentially helping all citizens are especially helpful to the vulnerable because of their inability to help themselves. Those expenditures are feverishly opposed or simply ignored by dominant interests in the U.S.

The point here is that freedom is complex; liberty takes many forms. In many instances freedoms are divisible.  Expanding yours can infringe on mine. The distinction between freedom from and freedom to accomplish activates a struggle over which version of freedom will prevail and which group of citizens will most be assisted by laws and norms that defend and spread that form of freedom.

1. What ethical model, religious or secular, would justify a celebration of freedoms that are most beneficial to the most comfortable members of our society?

2. Does the type of freedom we  most need to expand depend on the context a particular nation finds itself in at the moment?

3. Is patriotic boasting anything more than an extension of our affection for our own ego?