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Still Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman revisited.

I don’t usually summarize editorials for this page, but this one by Cameron Hilditch at National Review Online revisits one of the most important books of the last 50 years, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (“Still Amusing Ourselves to Death”).

Hilditch reminds us, by recalling Postman, how television turned everything into an entertainment format, thus ensuring that whatever needed saying would have to be not primarily substantial, but able to hold people’s attention – entertaining.

TV undermined the value of the written word and rendered people’s ability to carry on serious conversation seriously impaired: “ The written word has been supplanted by the moving image as the most powerful medium of communication in the modern world, and all of us (the present author included) are less intelligent for it. Why is this the case? Why has the transition from print to television and hence to the Internet amounted to a near-vertical descent from the heights of public discourse to the nightly offerings on Fox or CNN? Because propositional content is not what television does best, or even well.”

Now the Internet and social media have displaced TV, rendering users more narcissistic, insipid, and self-assured about their opinions than ever. No one thinks anymore, except from within the framework of their tribe, and anyone who wants to attract anyone has to think primarily in terms of entertainment and self-interest. It’s not difficult to see how politicians have waded into this swamp. Or churches, for that matter.

Hilditch demonstrates how this brought us to Donald Trump, whose primary skill is his ability to market himself.

He also reminds us of Postman’s warning of how the entertainment mindset would erode politics and social life. He might also have mentioned Postman’s point that this shift in information distribution makes conversing about religious and spiritual matters extremely difficult, since the traditional authority of religion has been completely undermined by the narcissistic and relativistic temper of the times.

This condition has only gotten worse with the addition of more lines of entertainment. Our ability to think and converse seriously and spiritually continues to be eroded, right under our noses.

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