The shift is beyond some of the more gradual evolutionary steps we have seen in media or technology. It speaks of a shift in civilization itself, inaugurating an era where the ideals of perhaps the greatest human achievement — the Enlightenment — are waning.
The rebirth of television symbolizes a new era, where images and emotions are replacing words and reason, where faith outsmarts facts. Welcome to the post-Enlightenment.
“It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails,” Postman writes. “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself.”
If these words were not fully comprehensible in 1985, they are now. Donald Trump was a product of television who ran a campaign largely based on free airtime, got elected in the most televised society in the world, and now conducts politics through television — and televised tweets.
Television is a simulation of real life when we can’t — or don’t want to — access real life directly.
Look at how he handled the North Korean negotiations: After months of dramatic and highly televised Twitter fights — not unlike the bickering and gossipy inserts of a reality TV show — Trump announced that the two leaders were going to meet. As if to add to the drama, the meeting was canceled and planned again. The plot finally reached its climax when Trump flew to Singapore, met with Kim Jong Un, and in front of hundreds of millions of television viewers shook hands and signed a piece of paper that basically stated, “Let’s talk.” It doesn’t seem to matter that, in reality, nothing has been agreed on yet or that North Korea has been expanding its nuclear capability ever since.
Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, summed it up in a tweet: “News that NK is expanding nuclear capacity is irrelevant to #trump. In his mind, the episode with Kim has aired and is over and now it’s time to move on to the episode featuring guest star Vladimir Putin. It’s not statecraft; it’s showbiz.”
Another good example is how Trump decided to send long-range missiles (itself a television-friendly weapon) to suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria. He did so not in response to reading news reports or intelligence briefings, but after watching images of the young victims of the chemical attacks. Trump actually stopped reading daily intelligence briefings in early 2018, according to the Washington Post, and asked instead for oral presentations with maps, images, and videos.
Trump has described his own alternate reality — “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening” — and it occurs not just on the medium of television but within the paradigm of television.
French thinker Jean Baudrillard perhaps theorized this best, famously saying in the 1990s that the first U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991 didn’t actually happen. He didn’t mean that there was no mobilization of forces and military equipment to drive Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait. Neither did he mean there were no deaths or explosions. But what Baudrillard was saying to Western observers of the war, who saw nothing from the other side, was that the war was mostly experienced as a media event.
This provocative claim was an attempt to show how the media, and especially television, can create a parallel reality that has no reference to the real world. Baudrillard’s best example of the concept, which he calls simulacrum, is Disneyland: a symbolic representation of an imaginary symbol, which itself is a symbolic depiction of reality. A recreation of a fantasy world with little tie to the reality. A copy of a copy of a copy.
Trump seems to operate within this world; if you want him to hear you, get on Fox News. But so do his diehard fans, which makes things difficult, because his lies are not untrue in his parallel universe. In the words of Sa’adi, the famous Persian poet: خفته را خفته کی کند بیدار
How can the sleeping wake those who are asleep?