The decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.
— Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
Three fourths into Mark Leibovich’s unflattering expose of beltway Washington culture, This Town, the reader is treated to a scene that distills to an essence our absurd political situation. The event was the spectacular opening of a new movie, not in Los Angeles or New York but in the Newseum in Washington, D.C., which was attended by a mélange of politico-entertainment celebrity from Tom Hanks to Mika Brzezinski. The film was a political dramedy about an underdog presidential candidate who in his desperation chose a colorful and folksy politician from a far away state as his choice for vice president, only to realize that said politician was far more than anyone had bargained for. Partisan hilarity ensues. The candidate, of course was John McCain, and the movie was HBO’s adaptation of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s account of the 2008 presidential election, Game Change.
The primary source for most of the inside dirt on the McCain campaign was the campaign manager, Steve Schmidt. By serving as a primary source of the book and the movie, and delivering some of the juicier incriminating facts about the comic inadequacies of VP candidate Sarah Palin, for whom he was the foremost advocate before dishing the dirt on her, Schmidt managed to parlay what objectively should have been a career-ending political catastrophe into a lucrative career as a member of the pundit class serving his product on MSNBC, Meet the Press, and on the speakers circuit, and ultimately landing a job as vice chairman of public affairs at one of the world’s biggest public-relations outfits.
Mark Leibovich ends his account of the event with this comment concerning the benighted demonstrators who met the film’s opening.
Outside the Newseum, a small group of protesters – Palin loyalists – were handing out white and yellow fliers … They reiterated the former Alaska governor’s oft-quoted charge that Game Change was based on a “false narrative”. Whether it was or not, much of Washington ceased being about true narratives long ago, anyway. It is about virtual reality: the video game in which we are all characters and try to be a player.
A unifying theme in Leibovich’s account of today’s Washington is the ubiquity of status anxiety as defined, not by merit or quality of service, but celebrity, or more specifically entertainment. Washington, D.C., is inhabited by a peculiar species of social climber that is haunted by the aspiration to be significant enough to be portrayed on the screen, and having achieved that status, by the other burning question, “who will play me?” In the case of Mr. Schmidt it was Woody Harrelson.
I’ve written elsewhere how Leibovich identifies Bill Clinton’s 1990s as the pivotal moment of convergence between the culture of politics, entertainment, and money marking the genesis of our present-day governing culture wherein the main pre-occupation is not governing, but alternate reality. But to be fair to the 42nd president, the Washington, D.C., of today was at least a half-century in the making.
It is difficult to say exactly when politicians began to put themselves forward, intentionally, as sources of amusement. In the 1950’s, Senator Everett Dirksen appeared as a guest on “What’s My Line?” When he was running for office, John F. Kennedy allowed the television cameras of Ed Murrow’s “Person to Person” invade his home. When he was not running for office, Richard Nixon appeared a few seconds on “Laugh-In” … By the 1970’s, the public had started to become accustomed to the notion that political figures were to be taken as part of the world of show business. In the 1980’s came the deluge. Vice-presidential candidate William Miller did a commercial for American Express. So did the star of the Watergate Hearings, Senator Sam Ervin. Former President Gerald Ford joined the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for brief roles on “Dynasty”…. Although it may go too far to say that the politician-as-celebrity has, by itself, made political parties irrelevant, there is certainly a conspicuous correlation between the rise of the former and the decline of the later.
This passage was taken from a book originally published in 1985 by Neil Postman titled “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” In it Postman offers us a cultural analysis of how we, in effect, got to Leibovich’s This Town by going all the way back to the middle 19th century and the beginning of what he describes as a turn from an America informed by a culture of the written word to one whose collective psyche would be altered from hours spent gazing passively into the dull blue glow of the stupid box. A particular virtue of Postman’s account is that it offers a criticism from a point of view just before things crystallized in the 90s and well before historic memory was sanitized by the cultural victors who reside in Hollywood, K Street, and academia.
According to Postman, it was Aldous Huxley, not Orwell, who seems to have gotten America’s future right.
What Huxley teaches is that in an age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.
Taking a cue from Marshall McLuhan, Postman argues that the technological medium by which we now receive our world contains within it tacit assumptions about that world which are ideological in substance and the influences of which are very deep and go undetected by an unreflective cultural audience.
Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.
Postman describes political discourse in the age of television as an exercise in suppressing ideas to accommodate the requirements of visual interest, where political figures do battle with good looks and empathy, and where the perceptive will recognize the early manifestations of what would flourish into the Washington Mark Leibovich describes as essentially one giant backstage green room to a nationally televised soap opera. Only now this is one soap opera where everyone can join, because with the addition of social networking, we can all enroll into the political cosplay of Left versus Right.
At the very heart of Leibovich’s book is a chapter titled “How it Works.” “It,” in this case, appears to refer to a person: Kurt Bardella, or perhaps more to the point, the type of person of which Mr. Bardella is a representative, a recent class of Washington insider politico inspired not so much by history but its televised counterpart.
What Kurt believed in most deeply was the Hollywood version of Washington, the city at its most titillating and televised. Kurt was of the generation of neo-political junkies whose passions were ignited not by an inspirational candidate or officeholder like Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan but operatives on TV, fictional (Josh Lyman) or real (James Carville). They were the players in a thrilling game. He wanted in.
Leibovich spends a chapter on the impulsive young staffer who at the time was Darrel Issa’s press secretary, drawing connections between what he characterizes as an immature political adrenaline junky and the larger community of D.C. politics of which his subject is but a representative. But it took a decade for a young Bardella, inspired by the antics of a Josh Lyman on Aaron Sorkin’s TV show The West Wing to grind his way into the inner circles of congressional hearings. The last decade has seen technology optimize the efficiency of this evangelizing process as it has become transformed from spectator sport to role-playing game. The social network has displaced the far more circumscribed institutions of polemics of the past, like the spin room, or perhaps more accurately dissolved the walls so that the world may take part in the reality distorting sport.
In Dan Balz’s account of the infamous first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney almost half of the narrative is Balz’s record of what transpired on Twitter.
On Twitter, Chuck Todd of NBC said, “An old Clinton trick by Romney, using real people stories to make his point.” Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic tweeted, “Romney did better on the subject of Obama’s anniversary than Obama did on the subject of Obama’s anniversary.” . . . A tweeter dubbed @LOLGOP sent out a comparable message: “I think Mitt Romney had his first Frappuccino tonight,” . . . In the Obama war room, Stephanie Cutter could see what was happening. The debate was being lost in the opening fifteen minutes because of a medium that had not even played a role in the campaign four years earlier.
When the Obama team re-grouped for the next debate among their strategies was to orchestrate a Twitter barrage of positive tweets by supporters to pre-empt a similar catastrophe. Dan Balz quotes David Plouffe from the Obama team.
“One of our goals for the second debate was within the first ten minutes to have you guys on Twitter saying, ‘Okay, Obama is better, he’s back.’ We need the press corps to say you’re off to a good start.”
So it is that through the magic of social networking the public can now participate in the reality-distorting arts that was once the sole purview of professional flacks.
At the center of Neil Postman’s argument about the corrosive effects of amusement on public discourse was the precipitous collapse in quality it has produced in the content of national public debate. It’s doubtful for instance that you will hear from a participant in any televised debate today a statement like the following:
My friends, silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms. (Stephen Douglas – Ottawa,Ill., 1858)
It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half. (Abraham Lincoln – Freeport, Ill., 1858)
Writing in the 1980s, Postman’s examples of the comparatively vacuous political discourse of his day seem quaint compared to the 2012 debates of which the highlights included Big Bird, and who didn’t build what.
What distinguishes the quality of discourse of the past from the present is what Postman describes as “the Typographic Mind” which over a century ago dominated the American culture.
To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph.
And yet, less fully examined in Postman’s critique is why the culture turned away from typographical culture. When Postman imputes to television the root cause of that turn he argues that it is by virtue of the potent immediacy of image and words. But, as history suggests, it would be more accurate to say that television simply revealed a predisposition that was always potentially there in human nature as the gladiatorial games and the vulgar theatre did in previous cultures. Most problematic is Postman’s identification of technical literacy as the sole critical missing piece in our present culture which betrays a modernist tendency going back at least to John Dewey that would portray reading as a technical activity of which the sole benefit is the noetic skill that it cultivates divorced, it seems, from any higher cultural purpose.
The problem is that the America of the 18th and 19th centuries was uniquely literate because it was the product of a culture that viewed literacy as essential to something no less than salvation itself, scriptural revelation. In contrast, at the beginning of the 20th century, the new schools of education led by John Dewey sought to sever curricula from such higher purposes in its focus on education as strictly training in skills, thus paving the way for anything to fill the spiritual void. The subsequent century has revealed the logical consequence of a society that, unanchored to its cultural endowment, has been left to appetite to decide the question of how to invest its free-time and energies. Television, and now the internet, has simply filled that void and the quality of our ideas, our politics and our intellectual discourse have been debased accordingly.
What Leibovich and Postman unintentionally reveal in our politics and our culture is the vindication of the Straussian criticism of the larger modernist project, that in our desire to conquer nature by means of techne’ alone, we
. . . no longer distinguish between the wise or right and the foolish or wrong use of power… for social science and psychology, however perfected, being sciences, can only bring about a still further increase of man’s power; they will enable men to manipulate man still better than ever before; they will as little teach a man how to use his power over man or non-man as physics or chemistry do. (Leo Strauss, The City and Man)
Dewey’s modern theories of education were simply the vehicle that brought this to our culture by way of the classroom, television and the internet screen are simply filling out the implications of that project. The problem of course is how to remediate a century of bad cultural choices, especially since, as Postman notes, Huxleyan decomposition is particularly hard to mobilize against.
An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan one. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?
The challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that, as I explored previously, politics has become the new vehicle for so many to fill their lives with what amounts to a false sense of dramatic import. On one side we have the amusements of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but on the other the Organize for Americas of the world.
“Who will take arms against a sea of amusements?” Postman asks. Indeed, how to take up such arms against a world and a medium that is militant in its embrace of the digital opiate that is our Soma?