Notes philosophy

Chapter 9: Reach out to elect someone (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

Chapter 9: Reach out to elect someone

By bringing together in compact form all of the arts of show business—music, drama, imagery, humor, celebrity—the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital.

To understand Postman’s point here, it is useful to remember that capitalism, like science and democracy, came from the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists believed that both buyers and sellers were mature enough, well informed and reasonable to conduct transactions that were mutually beneficial. If greed fuelled the capitalistic engine, rationality was the driver.

Competition in the market, under the theory of capitalism, requires the buyer to not only know what is good for him, but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing valuable, as determined by the rational market, then he loses out.

Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate transactions, as, for example, those which prohibit children from making contracts. In America, there even exists in law a requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational decision-making is seriously impaired.

The advertiser does not need to know what is right about the product, but what is wrong about the buyer. The result is that more is invested in market research than in product research. The television commercial has changed the focus from making valuable products to making consumers feel valuable.

This would be a surprise to Adam Smith,

It is true, as George Steiner has remarked, that Orwell thought of Newspeak as originating, in part, from “the verbiage of commercial advertising.” But 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.


We do not refuse to remember or find it useless to do so, but we have become unfit to remember. If remembering is more than nostalgia, it needs context – theory, vision, metaphor – a way that allows facts and patterns to be discovered. The politics of instant news gives no such context. A mirror only shows you what you are wearing today but says nothing about yesterday. Television launches us into an incoherent, continuous present.

If this is true, then Orwell was wrong again, at least for Western democracies. He thought that history would be demolished by the state or some equivalent to the Ministry of Truth. This may be true of the Soviet Union, but as Huxley foretold, nothing so dramatic needs to happen.

Seemingly benign technologies devoted to providing the populace with a politics of image, instancy and therapy may disappear history just as effectively, perhaps more permanently, and without objection.

We should look at Huxley, not Orwell, to understand the threat of television and other forms of imagery pose to liberal democracy – specifically, to freedom of information. Orwell reasonably thought that the state would explicitly control the flow of information, by banning books. History was strongly on Orwell’s side.

For books have always been subjected to censorship in varying degrees wherever they have been an important part of the communication landscape. In ancient China, the Analects of Confucius were ordered destroyed by Emperor Chi Huang Ti. Ovid’s banishment from Rome by Augustus was in part a result of his having written Ars Amatoria.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessChapter 9: Reach out to elect someone (Amusing Ourselves to Death) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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