Watching (or truthfully trying to avoid watching) coverage of Michael Jackson’s memorial service made me think of how inundated we are with celebrity news, with gossip, with pop culture and how glutted we are by it.  We read celebrity blogs instead of classics.  We are drawn to what is new rather than what is old.  We get our news from Comedy Central and SNL.  We are a society that, in many ways, no longer thinks for ourselves.

Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age of Show Business points out the difference between two apocalyptic scenarios given in George Orwell’s 1984 which predicts a society that is ruled by a totalitarian regime.  We’ve avoided that, but Postman says we have forgotten Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which describes a self-imposed captivity.

As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their captives to think.  What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.  What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.  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, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

In the United States we have avoided totalitarianism only to find ourselves enslaved by our own trivial desires.

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  1. Niel Postman is a great writer!! Unfortunatly, he he passed away a while ago. His books still ring true today.

  2. Not that I disagree with the central message of the post but…

    “We get our news from Comedy Central and SNL.”

    Clearly not from all shows on Comedy Central. And surveys suggest that Daily Show viewers were better informed on many issues. Perhaps it's not that these viewers get all their news from the Daily Show and the Colbert Report but that they simply follow news more intently. After all, to get the jokes one must be aware of the their context and that requires some depth.

    What is sad is that so often, people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert actually do a better job of cutting through the mud better than the media they spoof.

    In this regard, print media often does better.

  3. Heh, I had no trouble avoiding it– we don't have cable or rabbit ears.

    That said, I always wonder… how many people *use* to read the classics? (Not to mention the old question: who gets to choose what is classic. The “classics” I read in school, barring old Billy S, were horrible, dead things without purpose or uplift.)

    What makes reading a “classic” better than reading something else that feeds your mind and enriches your life?

    What makes the beauty of this lesser than the beauty of classic music– at the very time when it is so amazingly easy to listen to the classics, if you wish?

    Is my Gilbert and Sullivan habit better now, because they're old, than it would have been if I'd been enamored of the songs as they were coming out?

    Without the culture we have now, I'd have never caught sight of Mr. Chesterton's writing– let alone been able to read so much of it for free, simply for the price of finding it on the magic box in my living room! It took weeks and a lot of work to find a book of Tolkien's writings before I even thought to look online.

    It seems to me that the real problem, pardon the phrasing, is this:
    “People like crap. And 95% of everything is crap.”

    We've got to be careful that we're responding to a real flaw, not focusing on the bad parts of what is and exaggerating that into an overwhelming movement.
    The best example I can think of is the similar thinking, but aimed at people themselves, that resulted in eugenics, constant claims for the past 150+ years that the world is over-populated, and Planned Parenthood.

  4. I linked to a post “I read dead people”. My contention is that you shouldn't just read what is contemporary. Obviously not everything that is old is good, but some people avoid reading things that are old to their determent. I probably see more of this within the evangelical community, and especially true with youth pastors. But I also think when people know more about pop culture than they do current events or our history, that's a problem. It is one of the reasons we have such an uninformed electorate. That's just one example.

  5. *evil grin* Almost *everything* religious that I read is old. Some of it, centuries so. But I won't give you any more trouble on that, it's hard to walk a line between ribbing and picking a fight. *grin*

    People will always know more about “current” things than old things, even if they were taught the old things. Add in the horrific atrocity that is our “social studies” (new name for “history” class) in public school, and it's no shock that folks have amazing holes in their knowledge. Shoot, the fact that books like “Hitler's Pope” even exist are testament to this.

    The sad thing is, history is *delightful* to learn about– if taught right. Approach it as a story, and folks will eat it up. I wish I had the word-skill to do this.

    I think we've as much chance of getting basic logic and reasoning back into the schools as we do of getting a broad basic history curriculum.

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