“We live not for today, but for the ages yet to come, and the children yet unborn.” — Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Archive for October, 2016

Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

First, let me be clear I am aware this book was written in the mid-1980s. However, that doesnamusing‘t mitigate the opinion I developed after the first chapter, and didn’t change after reading the rest of the book, that this is a prime example of upper-middle class WASP academic male privilege in action. The author’s vision of the past he finds so glorious is colored by that privilege, and it’s that vision he holds up as the preferred lifestyle we are all being deprived of by the evils of television.

It also, one suspects, is the basis for his inability to consider that the evils that so horrify him aren’t a natural outcome of the medium he detests but rather a carefully designed propaganda machine utilized by a government-corporate oligarchy to cause the very “dumbing down” of the general population he insists television creates.

To refute all of the holes I found in his presentation would require another book. His alleged conclusions are often based on his personal, unsupported interpretation of another author’s commentary, which are presented with weasel-words like “we can assume” and “I feel justified in concluding.” For example, on page 71, he includes a quote by Daguerre defining the photograph then proceeds to tell the reader “what Daguerre meant.”

That’s not how an attack on an entire medium of communication is supposed to be done, and doing so flies in the face of his own oft-stated yearning for a return to the carefully designed discussions of yesteryear is ironic. His conclusion is further undermined by the 30 years that have passed since he wrote his book, especially his attack on Sesame Street as having no educational value and, in fact, being dangerous to the development of young minds.

In short, Mr. Postman’s argument, which is apparently revered by those like him as a dire warning that we’ve become (or at the very least are becoming) like the mind-numbed denizens of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, reveals to someone not of his world a great many gaping holes through which his conclusions sink. The condescending tone that escapes into his prose doesn’t help. In the end, though, my problem with the book is that Mr. Postman is blaming the tool for the problem instead of the wielder—blaming the hammer that’s been thrown through the window, if you will. Any medium, be it print or photography or TV or the internet, is constructive or destructive based on the intentions of those who are using it.

So, with shameless hindsight, I’ve only given this book three stars, because I’ve had those 30 years I mentioned to study television and so can fault some of the conclusions offered. However, I do recommend anyone interested in the effect a medium as pervasive as TV is can have on the population in general, and to initiate consideration of just how easily it has been used to channel narratives in directions other than might be good for us, read it and ponder.