Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Amusing Ourselves to Death

In 1985 Neil Postman wrote a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death which has become something of a classic of cultural criticism. Its message seems to be just as timely today as it was thirty years ago. Here's the introduction:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
Of course it's possible that they were both right, that they were each "seeing" one side of the totalitarian coin. In an age when we suffer separation anxiety if we're unable to access our devices for more than a few minutes, an age filled with the trivialities of an entertainment culture which distract us from thinking about what really matters in life, an age when only half the population cares enough to vote and only half of voters care enough to educate themselves on who the candidates are and what they'll do, an age when the centuries long Islamic war against the West has been resuscitated while the West deludes itself into thinking that the current crisis is just an aberration, an age when families and faith are alike disintegrating, an age when too many schools don't teach anything worth learning and too many students don't read anything worth reading, an age when our society is increasingly balkanized along racial, ideological, and ethnic lines - in such an age we are more than at any time in our history a society dazed on Huxleyian soma and vulnerable to Orwellian tyranny.