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Not Just Gulag Bound, But Amusing Ourselves to Death: What Orwell Missed // Bryana Johnson // 12.02.2011

The political activists which are the most astute when it comes to history today are conservatives.  This is why we are the ones concerned about government overreach, the breakdown of the family and the moral bankruptcy of our nation. By studying the past, we’ve come to understand the inevitable consequences of these courses of action.  We realize that excessive government involvement leads to tyranny, and that the disintegration of the family unit is sure to produce a disoriented and emotionally unhealthy citizenry.  We know that the searing of a society’s collective conscience is a sure road to chaos, and that widespread idleness and disdain for wholesome labor opens the door to depravity and perversion.  But the one thing that we history buffs find most alarming is the communist ideology – because it’s been arguably the most destructive ideology in recent history.  Communism, which is “scientific socialism,” and the only form of socialism that has been implemented in a significant way, is estimated to have caused the deaths of between 23 million and 149 million people.

George Orwell and Ayn Rand, two firsthand witnesses of totalitarian communist regimes and vehement critics of the system, both became popular and influential writers whose works have had a profound influence on the conservative movement. Orwell is known for his satirical Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Ayn Rand authored Atlas Shrugged and Anthem. Their works depict communist societies, where manipulation and coercion are masked as equality and justice. They create fictive settings in which government employs the despised tactics of book-burning and censorship and silences the press in order to effectively control the public. Today, conservatives hold up these writings as examples of the consequences of unfettered government, and suggest that we are “Gulag Bound.” Liberals make a big show of promoting banned books and support campaigns like “Delete Censorship”. Neil Postman says we’re all wrong.

In his landmark book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, Neil Postman turns on its head the notion that the absence of Newspeak and the renewed interest in opposition to censorship,which has reached historically unparalleled proportions, is a positive sign, or that we are to be congratulated for having avoided the doom laid out for us by Orwell. Orwell, he suggests, did not warn us of the real threat we are facing. Orwell could not have warned us, because Orwell could not have known. It probably didn’t even occur to Orwell that the world in 1984would not need to be scared into submission by heavy-handed policies, but would walk docilely into the slaughterhouses of the intellect with their iPhones in their hands and their headphones in their ears. Orwell didn’t tell us that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.

Postman’s main premise in his book is that the medium used to communicate a message affects what that message will be. Television, he explains, is not just a different medium of communication than typography – it expresses a completely different message. Being image-based, television has, in taking over communication in the Western world, put the lid on the long Age of Exposition which was made possible by the printing press, and ushered in a new Age of Show Business. Television has fragmented the mental powers of our culture, divorced information from action, and served, in general, to distract our national consciousness through consistent entertainment away from relevant issues. In short, television has made government suppression of ideas unnecessary because people are no longer capable of deep and complex thought.

While censorship is a subject that people on both sides of the political spectrum love to get riled up about, Postman explains why it isn’t really an issue:

I would venture the opinion that the traditional civil libertarian opposition to the banning of books…is now largely irrelevant. Such acts of censorship are annoying, of course, and must be opposed. But they are trivial. Even worse, they are distracting, in that they divert civil libertarians from confronting those questions that have to do with the claims of new technologiesThe fight against censorship is a nineteenth-century issue which was largely won in the twentieth. What we are confronted with now is the problem posed by the economic and symbolic structure of television. Those who run television do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously. But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual.

We are a “public adjusted to incoherence and amused into indifference,” he ventures. And our danger is not that we are unable to read the controversial books that have acted upon our culture, but that we no longer care to do so.

So, are we “Gulag Bound?”  Probably.  Thinking people are watching the times and warning us of the fast-approaching totalitarian chasm splitting the road.  But the immediate danger facing us is the fact that there are so few thinking people left, and that most of them are non-thinking by their own choice  simply because Jay Leno and football are so much more fun.  If we are heading for the gulag, we are heading for it in perfect freedom, with our eyes wide open.

Bryana Johnson // Texas A&M University // 12.02.2011

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Comments

  1. Another great article Very useful, informative and well written.This is an amazing hub,
    you definitely caught my attention. Thanks and Keep up the good work.

  2. parentingtoddlerstoteens says:

    Very informative and honest article. Please continue to write with the zeal and boldness that you do. Your generation needs/must hear these truths… again and again and again…

  3. The problem with the analysis is pretty much the same problem Postman finds with Orwell. Orwell could not have known, says Postman. Same is true of Postman, actually. Because his book was written in 1985. And Postman missed that tightly controlled TV was entering the period immediately antecedent to its death throes. That was a few years before the internet came along and disrupted the power of the those controlling a relatively few stations. But now we have so many options……..thus things are different. I have so many channels on my cable, that I can’t remember the numbers of them, because they are all in the four digits. And that leads me to giving up on watching TV and turning to something else, more often than you might think. We can watch TV shows which we actually find informative ON DEMAND, and we can get just about any movie we want piped directly to us when we want it. I am usually choosing something which helps me know more about history. But we also have a profusion of talk radio sources we did not have before, and we have new ways of watching and finding and SHARING news which is in no way endorsed by big media. There is Youtube, there is Twitter, there is Facebook and Google Plus, there are blogs. All these serve as entertainment for some, but are also ways of spreading news that the media would just as soon see buried. Every one of us conservatives is a repeater station! We make sure that people see the footage where the President speaks about the English Embassy. We make sure our friends know that the President says “We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.” as the military. That is up to us, and we get the word around. Media outlets be damned.
    And we have the Kindle and the Nook, which actually make reading easier than reading has ever been before! At this point, you can even get National Review downloaded directly to your Nook, for example. Atlas Shrugged recently reached some kind of an amazing peak in sales. So no, we are not descending into some kind of an entertainment den where we care only about amusing ourselves. No, not at all. Millions of us are waking up and are learning how to inform ourselves to a greater extent than was even imaginable just a few decades ago.We are reading the Constitution (which we were never taught), and the Federalist Papers. We are joining conservative bookclubs, we are meeting in small groups across the land and inviting speakers who bring us up to date on the most crucial issues of our times. Postman wrote in 1985. He could not have known.

  4. @Crayon Purple, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

    I can see that you’ve spent some time thinking about the issue, and I wish I could agree with you. But, in reality, I think internet has only compounded the problem. Postman agreed with me. Although “Amusing Ourselves To Death” was written in the ’80s, Postman himself lived until 2003, and thus had opinions on internet as well. This page has just a few of his statements about the internet: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/january96/postman_1-17.html He did not miss the fact that internet is fundamentally different from television in some regards: it is not as centrally controlled, and we can pick what we want to watch/hear/read about. However, the main premise here is that a huge majority of us don’t choose to read/watch/hear about the important things, even though we have the opportunity to do so, and that this is because we already have a culture obsessed with entertainment, and rendered unfit for complex thought. Internet adds more options, yes. The question is, what options are being picked? And, overwhelmingly, people are wasting time on the internet rather than learning about the state of the world. This is only natural. When amusement and pleasure is so readily attainable, what percentage of the population is actually going to pick mental exertion?

    I don’t know if you’ve read Postman’s book, but, if you haven’t, you really should. I think you’d enjoy it, and would be surprised to find that it doesn’t just cover television, but exposes our entire communications culture.

  5. I can’t find a way to that your writers…. I copy in the address listed and it bounces back.

    Help, Ron

  6. Mark L. Earnest says:

    If I may be allowed to offer some examples from my own family, I would like to see the discussion of this subject continue. Last night, I played a game of chess with my youngest son, a sophomore in high school, to a stalemate. His mother informs me that he has chosen to quit the school chess club and pursue other things because “nobody else can beat him.” I mention this to underscore how bright this kid is. This is the same 15 year old video game enthusiast who can spend hours playing a video game, but whose eyes glaze over from the tedium of 10 minutes of geometry homework. When I physically demonstrate (in gentle, painless ways) how truly limiting is the experience in these violent games, he argues that they are not. I try to hold my fear in check, (my fear for my son, his siblings, and our country) but I may need supernatural help.

  7. Bryana: Haven’t read it…….may add it to the list. Currently working on David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge. Next up……Hayek, the Road to Serfdom. And after that it’s going to have to be Bastiat’s The Law.

    And yes, you are entirely right: many have their heads buried in the entertainment…….but I am seeing a rebirth in those wanting to inform themselves, too. So let’s not completely lose hope!

  8. Bump–late to the commentary but was following your bio from the recent piece you did on Ron Paul when I came upon this article… Do keep writing, you have a very penetrating mind.

    very incisive, but only part of the equation, though a large part.

    couple it with the purposeful “dumbing down” of America via our socialized edu systems, where the majority are groomed not to think critically but to “fill a role” in the massive wheel of society (i.e., vocation vs. EDUCATION).

    Note that education has been turned on its head in the past 40-60 years and is now, for the most part, equated with “getting a good job” which conforms to, “gaining a better standard of living” which translates to “having things,” especially under our gradated reward systems. The excess of this forms the 2nd axis of the entertainment trap while exponentially reinforcing the first as was noted in the article. Shiny objects and no more worries.

    Further, there is what I refer to as the “desensitization factor” as purposefully or incidentally promoted via all communication mediums and that, by reaction, has now rooted in our society as instilled apathy. Information dissemination has sped up to such a degree, especially since the advent of the internet, to now inundate the (uneducated) human mind with a boggling number of inputs–the mind parses the ever growing array of “bad” from the “good” and shuts out those parts that would cease providing its fix from entertainment stimuli. We now have what is essentially a teenager’s mind (need based existence) in a growing number of Americans. This situation has existed long enough to become generational.

    “If I am what I have and I lose what I have, who then am I?” — Erich Fromm

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