Laughing right up to the cliff: a diagnosis

Photo by Casey Gomez

In a day and age focused on technology, data collection and constant government monitoring, it can feel at times as though George Orwell’s “1984” has come to pass — as arguably the most popular dystopian novel of all time, I see frequent references to it in the news day after day.

And yet, prescient as it may have been, Orwell’s work pales in comparison to the work of media-theorist Neil Postman, whose work, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” may very well have predicted our current political environment.

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” derives its theory from dystopian literature, but less so from Orwell and more from Aldous Huxley’s work, “Brave New World,” which depicted a world where people voluntarily surrendered their rights in exchange for pleasure.

The crux of Postman’s argument relies upon the sustainability of information within a medium — certain forms of media are best suited to carrying rational ideas, because their presentation belies that they are to be taken as such.

Postman’s principal example for this argument is notably prescient — he points to television news (at the time of its publication, cable news was only in its infancy) as a medium unsuitable for carrying out rational discourse, as its presentation on television makes the news itself best suited for entertainment and less for a rational exchange of ideas and information.

As a result, television news that attempts to focus on rationalism instead of sensationalism fails, and television news that focuses on sensationalism finds success.

Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that the 2016 election attracted such high ratings — the lure of a businessman and reality television star running for president proved too enticing for networks to look away, to focus on genuine candidates with messages, and it is undoubtedly a result of this extensive-yet-undeserved coverage that Donald Trump won in 2016. The story was first the spectacle — a reality television star running as candidate with outlandish, racist, xenophobic ideas — and then the story itself became the story, with Trump’s feuds with the media attracting ratings. It was to America’s own detriment, but to the networks’ boon that Trump continued to receive coverage, and thus, he received more airtime that he should have been due compared to a medium based on rational discourse.

In his work, Postman levies criticism at how Ronald Reagan became president — Reagan was an entertainer who wove his charisma, charm and looks into politics, with the result being extreme popularity. After Trump’s victory in 2016, a number of celebrities and media icons, including Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban and Mark Zuckerberg all have been rumored to be seriously considering a run for presidency.

But therein lies the problem. Any number of those people might find extreme popularity nationally and in turn be able to parlay that popularity into a presidential run. But is that truly what’s best for the country?

Simply because celebrities are extremely adept at making use of the medium of television does not mean they would be suitable presidents. And the limitations of television in presenting rational discourse likely means that their celebrity would overshadow their platform, for better or for worse.

Oprah Winfrey has a non-zero chance of winning the presidency should she run, but could one reality television host be that much an improvement over another?

We truly are “Amusing Ourselves to Death;” delegating policy decisions to those grossly unqualified to do so simply by virtue of being a fan of the celebrity, rather than voting for candidates who represent your values and have a history of enacting positive, meaningful change in the government is a ruinous trend
for government.

Do not get me wrong, I love Kanye to death. But should he be president? Maybe “music is the only medicine” Kanye is qualified to administer to the country.