Americans just want to have fun!
Our biggest problem isn’t incivility. It’s distraction.
Despite all the changes in America over the past several decades, the most essential political book for our country is still Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, published in 1985.
In the book, Postman contrasts two visions of the future — the vision of George Orwell’s 1984, where police enforce how to think, and the vision of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where citizens are so amused they can’t think. Postman writes, “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.”
People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
If this was true in 1985, it is only more so in 2018. CNN is led by the former head of entertainment at NBC, Fox News is owned by a media mogul who made his initial riches with topless tabloids, and America is led by a former reality TV star, casino operator, and beauty pageant owner.
They feed off each other for the purpose of making a profit.
To get specific, Jeff Zucker, current CEO of CNN, signed Trump’s reality TV show The Apprentice back when Zucker was head of entertainment at NBC. They were working together then, and they’re working together now. They’re providing the nation with a narrative we can’t resist. The posturing, the outrage, the petty fights. Are you not entertained!?
In a similar vein, Fox News wants you to believe that our nation’s true villain is “the media,” by which they always mean their competitors. (The words carry the same credibility as Wendy’s slamming IHOP on social media, minus the wit.) It’s a marketing ploy to keep people watching Fox and only Fox.
The low-stakes conflict between TV news sites and politicians makes them money, but otherwise it doesn’t matter.
It’s show business!
But it doesn’t matter.
“Politics is just like show business.”—Ronald Reagan
For a moment we focused on more than 2,000 children forcibly separated from their parents at the border. Then, in the next moment, we focused on whether it was civil for a restaurant owner to ask a Trump official to leave.
As Postman explains in his book, this disjointed shift of focus—now this, now this, now this—makes it seem like all news stories are equally worthy of our attention when they aren’t.
But the goal of infotainment news (CNN, Fox, and others) isn’t to illustrate what’s worthy of attention. The goal is to keep things moving so you stay tuned, so you remain asleep.
It’s a form of reality TV, with its low-stakes conflict. As soon as tensions get too real or a storyline gets stale, the focus shifts to another storyline, even if (or perhaps especially if) it’s trivial.
The noise drowns out the signal.
Trump knows what he’s doing. He’s not book smart, but he is TV smart. And in the age of distraction, TV smart often wins. Trump knows that if he can seed new outrage each day, then we as a nation won’t step back and see what matters most.
It’s worked across America.
It’s worked on me.
I avoid all TV news, and yet I’m still too often swept away by the latest Trump controversy to the point where it’s hard for me to see what matters most on the national and world scene.
The noise is so loud I often can’t hear the signal, can’t hear what actually matters. And in the rare moments when I can hear it, I don’t know what to do about it.
What I know above all is that I want to fight sensationalism—the impulse to make trivial, low-stakes conflict seem as important or more important than the deep pain and trauma that people feel around the world.
This is the primary reason I’m so opposed to Trump. He’s a vapid sensational reality TV host who manufactures outrage to keep the attention on himself and his brand. I reject that worldview, and so I reject him and everyone else like him.
Why does this matter?
Sensationalism not only distracts us from the real pain people feel. It also helps the powerful remain in power. Politicians make millions after they leave office. TV news pundits make millions too. Money is power.
And with that power, they abuse those they deem as beneath them.
Just look at the way they treat women. The former CEO of Fox News was accused of either sexual assault or sexual harassment more than 20 times, the former most popular Fox News anchor was accused 7 times (coupled with a $32 million lawsuit), and the president was accused 17 times.
Things are so bad at Fox that there have been multiple lawsuits related to the mistreatment of women. Andrea Tantaros, a former anchor, says that “Fox News masquerades as a defender of traditional family values, but behind the scenes, it operates like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.”
Fighting sensationalism matters because sensationalism enables abuse. That should concern us all. (As aside, it should especially concern Christians, since Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the powerful. Jesus was not killed for being polite, or being civil. He was killed because he served the oppressed, confronted the powerful, and tried to upend the social order. That’s what it means to be Christlike—not some bland version of “being nice.”)
There’s something else, too.
To date, almost every fiasco Trump has faced has been his own doing. The travel ban, the firing of Comey, the Stormy Daniels coverup, the no-tolerance policy. These are fiascos of Trump’s own making, the result of his callous incompetence.
But what happens if there’s a fiasco that isn’t Trump’s doing? What if there’s another recession or a large-scale attack on our nation from an external source? Many of the problems that caused the 2008 financial crisis have not been fixed. The Federal Reserve hasn’t peeled their toxic assets from their balance sheets. Megabanks are still wheeling and dealing synthetic over-the-counter derivatives.
If we experience a dire fiasco outside of any single person’s control, the music will stop. The manufactured distractions will be forced to end. At that point, Trump will almost certainly erode the liberty of the most vulnerable at far quicker pace than he’s doing today. The horrors of family separation will skyrocket. We’ll see the Patriot Act on steroids. We’ll see excuse after excuse from politicians to erode the freedom of the most vulnerable, and then, if things turn for the worse, we’ll see that we will all be vulnerable.
That will result in real pain, worthy of our attention.
As Postman writes, “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk. … Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”
My takeaway from Amusing Ourselves to Death is that Brave New World is the prequel to 1984.
Will we wake up and prevent the nightmare?