In 1985 American Author and cultural critic Neil Postman published a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In the book Postman explored the influence of technology, particularly television, on American culture. He framed the entire discourse in the context of two classic books, George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. His opinion was that it is Huxley whose chilling vision of the future was becoming reality and not Orwell's. According to Postman it is not that truth is withheld as Orwell predicted -- it is instead buried beneath an avalanche of pointless information as Huxley suggested. Surveillance and policing are no longer the primary tools of controlling populations.
The public is effectively subdued by wrapping them in the cocoon of technology, narcissism and self-indulgence. Exacting toil no longer requires the "reform through labor" of Mao (which Orwell's society was modeled on) or the Gulag of Stalin. The proletariat can merely be overworked and underpaid -- and most of what they earn can be siphoned back through the necessary illusions staring from the billboard and shouting from the television screen. Conformity, Postman believed, is no longer exacted, it is offered feverishly. In his opinion television and mass media were the primary instruments in effecting these outcomes.
As the title of the book suggests, Postman believed that it was through turning everything including politics and the news into entertainment, the media had created a "peek a boo" world where opinions had been replaced by emotions that could shift with each news poll and each new bit of information that was presented to the viewer. Its power too, according to Postman, was the sort that peek a boo has over a child -- it could endlessly entertain.
Three decades after Amusing Ourselves to Death was published it seems, ironically, that Neil Postman himself made the most important prophecies about the postmodern world. Never before has his vision been as relevant as it is now, in the post-Internet, post-smartphone world of today. And what better example of how the media influences perceptions and changes outcomes than the current political landscape of America. Take the Republican debate at Greenville, South Carolina this past Saturday night. It is hard to imagine speakers more intellectually vapid and disconnected from the issues that affect the everyday lives of ordinary Americans. Most of the discussion revolved around ascribing blame, accusations of dishonesty and the legacy of George W. Bush. Throughout the debate tempers flared and the candidates persisted in the strategy of attacking the player rather than the ball, probably because they had nothing of substance on offer. This burlesque tragicomedy of course makes for great prime time entertainment -- which may explain why Republican Debates have brought in almost twice as many viewers than the Democratic ones.
Speaking of which, much has been made about the specter of Barack Obama at Thursday night's Democratic Presidential debate. Here is an excellent example of the misrepresentation and distortion of information-of actual events-that Postman warned about. If one is to believe the scribes of the major liberal publications (as seen here in The New York Times, here in the Washington Post and here in the Boston Globe ), it was Hillary Clinton. Supposedly, closely aligning herself with the president and presenting herself as his rightful inheritor gave her some sort of ascendancy over Sanders in the debate. The fact of the matter is, the entire Bernie Sanders campaign is centered around the twin slogans of rejecting the establishment and starting a political revolution. By aligning herself with President Obama, Hillary Clinton is drawing even more clearly the lines between those who favor a continuation of the current status quo and those who want an end to campaign financiers and lobbyists dictating administrative policy. In other words, she has done a favor to Bernie by clarifying that she is not going to be a candidate of change. The liberal dream had turned sour before Obama's first term even ended. He was voted in for a second term primarily to keep Mitt Romney and the Republican Party out of the Oval Office -- because they were clearly far worse. Like Obama, Hillary is unlikely to fight for universal healthcare. Her ties with the banking industry and the massive amounts of monies she has received from the banking and health insurance industries make it very difficult to imagine her taking on Wall Street for lower and middle class Americans. This arbitrary stance that Hillary benefits by making the Obama legacy a campaign issue is a red herring-yet a powerful one since it comes from "respected" and widely-read liberal journals. And this is not a rare exception; this is how mainstream media has always operated.
This is the challenge before the Sanders campaign and its supporters. But this is also something even more profound and greater. In many ways Bernie Sanders represents the spectrum of opinion that makes the human factor central to government policy. By his unquestionable consistency on major political issues and his focus on the most underprivileged and vulnerable within American society he stands apart from those who utilize non-issues to scare and inflame people into voting for them. Sanders is the only candidate who represents the section of society that has had enough of being lied to, that has had enough of being hoodwinked by successive administrations that have promised much but done nothing but make life harder for the common man and woman.
On one side is a clear message of much needed changes in wages, taxes, climate change policy and healthcare. Of changes needed in the American body politic that removes the vested interest that stands in the way of those changes coming to fruition. On the other side is either more of the same in the form of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush or worse, the vaudevillian sideshow of Trump and Cruz with its fascistic and constitution-threatening halo.
One hopes voters will see through those who continue their attempts to impose the culture Postman observed where truth is irrelevant and illusion is all.