Thursday, August 16, 2018

Who's Amused: Ezra Klein on Neil Postman on Orwellian Versus Huxleyan / Trumpian Dystopia

San Gregorio Beach, near Half Moon Bay, Calif.

The pictures in this entry are scenic ones from various places in the United States and some of which I've previously posted. Click on / download the images -- all JPEGs -- for location information.


I'm home tonight still recovering from what happened to me and watching the weeknight MeTV lineup. I'm getting better. I'm functional although, obviously, not whole. I'll write more on this in a subsequent entry.

In the meantime, I'd like to post a few excerpts of this Ezra Klein piece from August 6th. This entry started out a political-themed entry with multiple initial topics that never got developed.

Amusing ourselves to Trump

We are buried under ignorance disguised as information.

By Ezra Klein
Source here.

In his classic 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," Neil Postman wrote of the difference between George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s visions of fascism.

"Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information," wrote Postman. "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."

Postman's warning rang out in a different era. He worried over the rise of television, not Twitter; he was reacting to Ronald Reagan, not Donald Trump. And yet the facts of our age are more absurd and insulting than anything Postman prophesied.

The point of "Amusing Ourselves to Death" is that societies are molded by the technologies atop which they communicate. Oral cultures teach us to be conversational, typographic cultures teach us to be logical, televised cultures teach us that everything is entertainment. So what is social media culture teaching us?

Since Trump was elected, the bookshelves and op-ed pages have been alive with fears of Orwellian fascism -- fears that, for the most part, remain far from manifesting. But even as Orwell's dystopia has failed to materialize, Huxley's dystopia has:

We are buried under ignorance disguised as information, confused by entertainment masquerading as news, distracted by a dizzying procession of lies and outrages and ginned-up controversies, inured to misbehavior and corruption that would’ve consumed past administrations. We have lost control of our attention, if not of our government.

It is hard to read this paragraph from Postman without feeling he is speaking specifically about us:

"When Orwell wrote in his famous essay 'The Politics of the English Language' that politics has become a matter of 'defending the indefensible,' he was assuming that politics would remain a distinct, although corrupted, mode of discourse. His contempt was aimed at those politicians who would use sophisticated versions of the age-old arts of double-think, propaganda and deceit. That the defense of the indefensible would be conducted as a form of amusement did not occur to him. He feared the politician as deceiver, not as entertainer."

The chaotic swirl of information, anger, conflict, identity, performance, and trivia that characterizes Trump's governance also characterizes the mediums that created him. For all the talk of normalizing Trump, it was our normalization of the platforms he thrived on -- reality television, cable news, and Twitter -- that made Trump possible.

Could Trump have won the Republican primary and the presidency in the days before he could call into cable news shows at will, get his rallies carried live on television, drive media coverage from the comfort of his Twitter account? Could he have won if we hadn't come to see our politicians as entertainers, to believe conflict the true story of governance, to connect the quantity of media coverage with the quality of candidates? I doubt it.

"To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple," Postman warned.

We have been, to our credit, alert to the dangers of Orwellian tyranny. We have been much less vigilant against the threat of Huxleyan distraction. Trump manages the government clumsily, but he controls public attention masterfully. He is showing, daily, how the truth can be drowned under a sea of irrelevance, how easily the defense of the indefensible can go down if it is cast as entertainment.

Trump International Hotel, Washington, D.C., 7:24 p.m. August 1, 2018.


OK, I'm signing off for now. I'll try to -- but probably won't -- post another entry later tonight (after midnight). I continue to be quite tired and no where near a regular schedule.

-- Regulus

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