“Now … This”

We turned to Orwell to make sense of Trump, but it’s Huxley’s warning we should be heeding

What if Aldous Huxley — not George Orwell — was right?

This is the premise of Neil Postman’s Reagan-era classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and for everyone now looking around themselves in disbelief and wondering just how we’ve gotten to this point, it’s essential — if chilling — reading.

Last week, with the straight-faced introduction of “alternative facts” to the vernacular, the mendacity of the new administration continued unabated and many Americans turned to Orwell’s 1984 for a refresher on tyranny — so many that it topped Amazon’s sales rankings and prompted its publisher to order the printing of 200,000 more copies. But while 1984 explored the horrors of totalitarianism, it was in Brave New World that Huxley suggested a populace could numb itself to the point where it would be a willing participant in its own oppression. Those confounded by the ascendancy of Donald Trump need only remember that he was handed the keys to the kingdom by an American electorate complicit in what thus far appears to be its own undoing.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Postman, a cultural critic and longtime professor at NYU, published Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985 — just after Orwell’s prophesied date had come and gone — with the subtitle Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. At the time, it was the sustained rise of television and the emergence of a passive, less literate, screen-fixated culture that concerned him. Our preoccupation with our own amusements, he argued, was altering the very nature of public discourse in every aspect — from politics to religion to education — and trivializing it, if not rendering it altogether irrelevant.

He wrote, in the book’s foreword:

“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…”

And, perhaps most importantly, Postman reminded us of Huxley’s own observation, in Brave New World Revisited, of “man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction.”

Fast forward three decades to our fast-twitch world of digital and social media, and Postman’s assessment seems that much more prophetic. Whether he could have foreseen the advent of a platform like Twitter or not, it certainly represents everything he warned against — and it has all but defined the candidacy, and now the presidency, of Donald Trump. If one were to dream up the perfect vehicle to advance a politician of dubious legitimacy — say, a reality TV star with no record of public service or experience with policy and an attention span inversely proportional to his proclivity for impulsivity, vulgarity and prevarication — would it look much different? In Trump’s hands, it is the devolution of the bully pulpit, without filters and without consequence — and seemingly without much obvious connection to either truth or reality — where each spectacle is simply supplanted by the next one as an American public, by the millions, either spoons it up or struggles to make sense of it.

The trouble is that beneath the surface there may be nothing at all of substance or little sense to be made. Postman pointed out that actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan — who in retrospect represents a level of statesmanship in the White House that we should be so lucky to have today — once said that politics is just like show business, and went on to extrapolate the implications of making that equivalency:

“Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but its main business is to please the crowd, and its principle instrument is artifice. If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.”

And so here we are. But why?

The answer might lie in Postman’s most telling and unsettling observation. Never have we lived in a world with more information media available to us, yet never have those media been more disjointed and bewildering. It was true when he wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, when the news of the day was still delivered primarily by broadcasters whose use of the phrase “Now … this” allowed them to transition from one completely unrelated story to the next. And if it was true then, it’s doubly so today, when context is all but dead. Think for a moment about the typical news feed — let alone the typical social media feed — chockablock with items that, taken together and regarded objectively, present an utterly incoherent worldview. How else could one reasonably describe an information stream that can serve up news of children dying in Aleppo alongside celebrity gossip and sports scores — and, heaven help us, selfies — where the volume and the speed of the flow makes serious discourse or reflection all but impossible?

Or as Postman himself put it:

“The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly… that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now … this.’ ”

It is, as Postman suggested, “a new part of speech, a conjunction that does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything.” In two words and an ellipsis, it captures the essence of our media consumption: immediacy and irrelevance. And it is this sense of disconnection and dislocation, whether real or imagined — at this point, does it make a difference? — that not only breeds both divisive ideologies and autocratic tendencies, but also lies at the heart of the widespread dysfunction that allows them to take root and to flourish.

And so it is, for far too many of us, that social injustices, humanitarian crises and environmental catastrophes in the wake of our rapidly changing global climate can be swept clean from the mind as fast as one can scroll — or, from our new vantage point through the looking glass, as fast as a Chief Executive can tweet.

Or at least, that is, if we let it happen. One could argue that it may no longer be true that people get the government they deserve. What is harder to escape today, however, is the realization that they do indeed get the government they allow.