America need not worry about some crazed one-world government taking power and wreaking havoc, as George Orwell feared. Its’ perfectly capable of sowing its’ own destruction. That is the essential message of Neil Postman’s timeless classic from 1985, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman reveals the values and nature of American society by exploring television’s role in the transformation of America’s structure of discourse, political atmosphere, and its’ religious institutions.
To start off with, Postman details how America’s intellectual basis has been fundamentally altered by television’s evolution as a primary mean of communication, through a change in the structure of discourse. As he brilliantly captures “changes in the structure of discourse… encourage certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content- in a phrase, by creating certain forms of truth telling” (Postman 27).
Simply put, reason is the inevitable product of a print based society. Words provide the reader with a context, forcing them to actively engage themselves in the process and ask questions. The joy in reading mostly lies in the depth and substance of the ideas being presented. “Typographic America” was conditioned, through the habit of reading, to rely on cold, calculated reason, rather than sensationalism, mystic and aura.
In addition, emphasis is placed on memorizing facts, rather than the envelopment of critical thinking, conceptual understanding, or being able to identify and operate through a series of internally consistent principles. Second, Postman demonstrates how America’s political atmosphere effects American values in the age of show business. For instance, politics was once dominated by ordinary looking and mannered men such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
Their famed Lincoln-Douglas debates were hours long consisting of substantial analysis on various issues, ready directly from carefully crafted speeches. Today, politics revolves around trivial matters, where candidates are judged not on merit, but by projecting a favorable image, evident by the increased relevance of campaign ads and personality driven candidates. As Postman contends, “the idea is not to pursue excellency, clarity or honesty, but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether” (Postman 126).
Last but not least, Postman examines now religion in America has fallen victim to the onslaught of television. America was founded as a Christian nation, and Christianity could not exist without literacy. The ability to comprehend the bible, or lengthy, complex sermons was an integral component of what it meant to be a devout Christian. Religious figure’s speeches, while not unaccompanied by emotion at times, contained substance, posing powerful declarations and questions regarding ideology and theology.
In contrast, the nature of Pat Robertson’s or the late Jerry Falwell’s show resemble a game show far more than a speech from George Whitefield. “Everything that makes religious an historic, profound ands sacred human activity”, writes Postman, “is stripped away,; there is no ritual, no dogma, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence” (Postman 116). Not to mention, because television is so image-centric, the main attraction in many cases is no longer bod, but the preacher himself.
As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions, but is walled and roofed with them” (Huxley). All in all, Postman illustrates the values and nature of American society, detailing televisions role in the evolution of America’s structure of discourse, political atmosphere, and its’ religious institutions. They reflect a decaying society, with a rapidly decreasing intellect that pales in comparison to the success of typographic America. It is in America’s best interest that it heed Postman’s warning.