He has been lauded as prophetic. Trump’s ascent “would not have surprised” him, according to CNN. His son said he foresaw a celebrity president with fascistic tendencies. Google searches for his book spiked at a five-year high on February 3rd, just days after Trump’s inauguration.
Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985, a few years after a man with a show business background became a Republican president (a certain Ronald Reagan). Can this book help explain why Americans have now elected Donald Trump?
It argues that our culture is becoming more obsessed with entertainment and less concerned with critical thinking. This is a result of the technologies we use to receive information. These technologies are never neutral: they prioritise a certain form of discourse.
In 18th century America, there was “a thriving, classless reading culture”. Postman notes that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was published in January 1776 and had sold 100,000 copies by March. In 1985 a book would have had to sell eight million copies in two months to reach the same proportion of the population: “The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today’s America is the Superbowl.”
The printed word – and the style of rational, in-depth debate it fostered – became a model for other types of discourse. Postman notes that around this time religious sermons were “usually written speeches delivered in a stately, impersonal tone.” A debate in 1854 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas lasted seven hours.
However, this was changing around the turn of the 20th century thanks to the spread of visual imagery. Whereas advertising originally sought to make a rational argument in favour of the product, from the 1890s photographs, slogans and jingles were used. Advertising “became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory”. This was symptomatic of a shift in communication, towards appealing to emotions rather than to reason.
Then the television came along. Postman thought the medium incapable of expressing complex ideas. A news programme focuses on a famine in East Africa for two minutes, but then the anchor says “Now… This” and directs your attention to the latest bit of celebrity gossip. The “Now… This” format fragments our understanding of the world and fails to distinguish between news of differing importance. This theory comes to mind while watching television pundits struggle to get a hold of the various scandals swirling around the new American president.
Just as how in previous centuries the written word became the model for the spoken word, television-style discourse steadily infiltrated written language. Newspapers started to put great emphasis on striking photos rather than just presenting readers with thick blocks of text.
Now that a crass reality television personality has become president, after a campaign high on emotional intensity but short on complex ideas, many will agree with Postman’s analysis.
It may be tempting to assume right-wing populism and a debased media culture have gone hand-in-hand. However, as a charming and attractive president, Barack Obama perhaps better fitted Postman’s idea of a new politics centred on aesthetics. Canada’s centre-left Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also capitalised on the snappy, image-heavy media of millennials, appearing in a Buzzfeed video where he responded to tweets about him with words like ‘OMG’, ‘cute’ and ‘win’.
Amusing Ourselves to Death is a provocative and timely read. But media and technology cannot explain Trump’s rise alone and to pretend they can is defeatist. Trump can be beaten – blaming grand, long-term trends in media consumption is just making excuses.