Throughout his career, philosopher and social critic Neil Postman worried about the effect of television and other electronic media on people’s learning and thinking patterns and therefore on their behavior in general, and he was highly skeptical that the effect was positive. With over 60 years of television and other electronic media soaked into our society, our present campaign for the presidency, with the rise of “reality T.V. star” Donald Trump, shows more than ever before the deleterious effect of those devices on our institutions.
Postman’s thesis, as developed primarily in two seminal books from the 1980’s (The Disappearance of Childhood and Amusing Ourselves to Death), was that the depth of thought cultivated by a literate culture using print must by definition be on a higher level than those using oral and visual means. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman defines that stage of life as separated by the enforced ignorance of certain aspects of behavior, primarily (but not only) the violence perpetrated by people, and the facts of sexuality: and it was an ignorance enforced by the adult world.
As such, given that most medieval and ancient populations were illiterate, there was no difference among what assorted age groups knew, since it was an oral and visual culture, outside of the monasteries and universities. After Gutenberg’s printing press, however, and after literacy began to spread throughout Europe and later in America, knowledge became printed knowledge, and to acquire printed knowledge one needed years to be able to read and acquire it. Over a few centuries, coupled with the idea of nationalism and the desires of governments to have a populace that was educated, productive, and able to compete in and against the world, the concept of a childhood separate from adulthood developed, and childhood now included learning how to form the discipline needed to concentrate on and contemplate upon the printed page.
Information technology, however, right from the beginning with the telegraph, through telephones, radio, television, and now the Internet, has “re-medievalized” knowledge, so that now children have access to everything again from the adult world. Violence, sexuality, and all aspects of crudity are again everywhere. And outside of the Amish or very strict Christians, children fairly quickly become little adults.
And so if we have re-medievalized childhood, so also have we redefined adulthood as nothing special: while we still teach reading, we reached a point where the term “aliterate” needed to be invented, i.e. a person who can read, but rarely or never does, preferring television over print. Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There from the 1970’s famously satirized this situation and its political ramifications. America’s refusal to read and spend the time to investigate a candidate can be seen in the last two elections. By simply observing the boring grandpas offered by the Republican Party to oppose the “cool black dude” America shrugged its shoulders at the facts and bought the bumper-sticker of Hope and Change. Obama’s hostility to America which the electorate could have read about in his books, his demonstrable incompetence, his lack of qualifications, his support for odious policies like infanticide, etc. all remained non-issues: not helping the situation was cowardice and fear in Republicans about being called racist, if they dared to use these topics.
In his later book (1985), Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman developed his thesis concerning its effect on “public discourse.”
We are now a culture whose information,ideas, and epistemology are given form by television, not by the printed word…I am arguing that a television-based epistemology pollutes public communication and its surrounding landscape, not that it pollutes everything.
–Amusing Ourselves to Death p. 28
Given that the average lifespan of an image on a television screen is 2 seconds, do we wonder why the American population in general does not focus well on important things? Is it any wonder that in the last two generations “attention-deficit disorder” is an issue in schools, when television by its nature says: “Watch, but don’t bother to pay attention because the image will change anyway, and idle entertainment for the eye and passivity for the brain are my purposes!” ?
These events (i.e. the 1984 “debates”) were not in the least like the Lincoln-Douglas debates or anything else that goes by the name. Each candidate was given five minutes to address such questions as What is (or would be) your policy in Central America? His opposite number was then given one minute for a rebuttal. In such circumstances, complexity, documentation, and logic can play no role…
ibid. p. 97
Epistemology is concerned with how people learn: if our aliterate society is no longer disciplined enough to pay attention for extended periods to an actual debate like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, too many of our citizens will not be able to learn what they need for their future, to focus on the important things, to ignore trivialities, and to cogitate upon the multiplicity of problems overflowing around us in the hope of agreeing on solutions. Bumper-sticker thinking, sound-bites, and zingers in our ridiculous and embarrassing “debates” debase the electorate’s seriousness, if not also disgusting some of them with the process, and trivialize the wolves (some of our own creation) waiting to devour us: Islamic terrorism and assorted dictatorships on the march with impunity, a total public and private debt of $200,000,000,000,000, an inscrutable tax code of over 2,000 pages, a myriad of contradictory regulations longer than the tax code and strangling businesses, actual unemployment at 15% to 30% (depending on how you calculate it), entrepreneurship fading away, industrial creativity either non-existent or channeled into creating “apps” for phones and video games, broken “families” producing broken children, etc. etc. etc.
Instead of serious discussions, we get the thrill of an on-air quarrel, near incoherence, and a good number of very short sentences:
TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.
I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.
And frankly, what I say, and oftentimes it’s fun, it’s kidding. We have a good time. What I say is what I say. And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.
But you know what, we — we need strength, we need energy, we need quickness and we need brain in this country to turn it around. That, I can tell you right now.
One easily understands Trump’s appeal: many people want him to tell Washington, D.C. “You’re FIRED!” But then what? Emotionally, it sounds very satisfying, and television is all about conveying emotion with close-ups of faces. But after “You’re FIRED!” then what? 45% tariffs? Really? Don’t bother me with details: I want to feel good.
It has been often said that Democrats appeal to emotions, while the Republicans too often show their pie-charts and graphs. Here we finally have a candidate who cannot be bothered with future plans and facts very much: “You’re FIRED!” will be good enough.
Perhaps we need a new word to describe our current predicament with an infantilized election, e.g. electainment: an election as a freak show, or as a Kindergarten playground full of whining, crying, finger-pointing, and wild stories skewed from the truth.
A videoized society is ill-equipped to handle our era of crisis, a “Fourth Turning” as predicted by historians William Strauss and Neil Howe in their 1997 book The Fourth Turning.* Using a cyclical theory of history along with certain mass psychological traits in the four generations alive at any one time, they predicted a good number of general things now occurring, e.g.
…Democrats want to remove sacrifice ever further from the public lexicon. They seek entitlements for every victim, including the entire middle class, without caring whether all this guaranteed consumption is sustainable…
…Republicans who admire the G.I. (Generation’s) senior citizenship don’t reflect on what image of government must be reinforced to infuse civic spirit in the young.
– The Fourth Turning p. 311
And there is this ominous warning for Republicans, who think Trump is the answer for 2016, and for Democrats, who think either H. R. Clinton or B. Sanders is theirs:
Come the Fourth Turning, America will need both personal sacrifice and public authority. The saeculum will favor whichever party moves more quickly and persuasively toward (accommodating both)…If they do not, the opportunity will arise for a third party to fill the void – after which one or both of today’s two dominant parties could go the way of the Whigs.
ibid. p. 312
Since 1992, we have endured three Baby-Boomer presidents, a mediocrity, a passable one, and one complete disaster. We currently have two more Baby-Boomer candidates near 70 years of age, whose characters are less than savory, and whose ideas are stale, ridiculous, or formulas for destruction. It is quite possible that a Trump or H.R. Clinton presidency will not address the crisis, but will instead contribute to it by a combination of egotism, incompetence, and ideological blindness.
History warns that when a Crisis catalyzes, a previously dominant party…can find itself directly blamed for perceived “mistakes” that led to the national emergency…That party could find itself out of power for a generation.
ibid. p. 312
Republicans could become 21st-century versions of their 1929 ancestors, if they select candidates – and not only for the presidency – incapable of dealing with the chaos around us. Our politicians, and certainly the president, must have a character derived from virtues: the charming, smooth-talking, tell-’em-what-they-wanna-hear techniques of the sociopathic salesman are dominant because a large minority (I hope it is not a majority) of the electorate is thinking on the 12-year old level used by television, the only level it can use.
However, since television is here to stay, along with other electronic media, we must dance with the devil, but make him dance to our tune.
We know that Ronald Reagan was able to persuade people about his policies, and – although he had his own zingers and sound bites – he went beyond them:
During Reagan’s second term I grew to appreciate his leadership and skill as a communicator even more. I was part of the shivering crowd of pro-life marchers one frigid January day who listened over loudspeakers to President Reagan on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Reagan encouraged the people to continue defending the rights of the most innocent and vulnerable in society, the unborn.
I was reminded of that inspiring speech on the day that Reagan died when commentator Frank Cessno observed on CNN, “Next to Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan may be the most revered president among the Republicans.”
…Reagan was a person of integrity with a reservoir of character that was a product of his upbringing….This inner compass helped Ronald Reagan to become a person of unswerving conviction. He was not a politician who made decisions based on the polls. He had certain core beliefs that shaped his political convictions.
Our society may be “aliterate,” but it is not “illiterate,” and so a return to a higher level of political discourse can occur. If one reads the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or practically any speech given in the 19th century by even an average candidate, an expectation that the politician would lift up his audience was usually present. “Dumbing down” did not exist: the Illinois country bumpkins of the 1850’s did not want to see a candidate who dressed they way they did, or mangled grammar and pronunciation the way they did, or cursed the way they did. They expected a well-dressed man to use elevated language and argumentation to inform and inspire and persuade them. And they would stand for hours to listen to that man. In contrast, the slangy “talkin’ ‘n’ cursin’,” the sound bites, and primitive “straw-man” arguments used by the current resident of the White House and others like Mr. D. Trump have coarsened and enfeebled our present political discourse.
Strauss and Howe examine the ways in which a Fourth Turning can evolve: most are not particularly good, but one is “triumphant.” Although they do not mention it, I would think that a constitutional convention for reinvigorating the country might be a good path toward a national rebirth. This convention could limit the dictatorial tendencies of the presidency seen now and then since 1932, protect marriage and unborn children, repeal the income tax, and re-emphasize the principles of 1776 to counterbalance the $4 trillion monster known as the U.S. Government.
Such a rebirth with or without a convention must happen, if America is to weather the current crises “triumphantly,” but the right candidates for both national and state offices must step forward and be recognized. The right candidates can elevate America again. Even if television is used, as Reagan has shown us, it is not impossible to “unvideoize” the human mind and bring it to a point where it starts to think more carefully and more seriously about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
* Strauss and Howe wrote an earlier book in the the 1990’s called Generations: A History of America’s Future 1584-2069 which may be of interest to readers here.
Update March 14th: this article from the March 14, 2016 Wall Street Journal by L. Gordon Crovitz connects directly with our topic: see also the comment below.
May 4, 2016 Update: The results of our videoized society are in. Please read the above, if you are recent to RedState.