“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. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
Neil Postman “Amusing Ourselves to Death”
Some books are ahead of their time. The quote above is from a book written in 1985, well before the Internet added to the white noise of what passes for information, before Reality TV reduced things to static and encouraged us to see good guys and bad guys. A couple of days ago, I was reminded of it by a comment about the ten second grab for the evening news, so I searched my bookshelves and found it. It’s been years since I read it, but flicking through, I found it quite amazing.
In one chapter of the book, Postman talks about a debate between Lincoln and his political opponent in 1854 where, after a three hour address by his opponent, Lincoln suggests that the audience go home and have dinner before he begins his three hour reply. Of course, there was nothing much else to do in 1854. No Internet, no TV, no Radio. So listening to political opponents speak would have been a novelty. But it would be hard to imagine one of our leaders today letting his audience walk out before some sort of reply had been given – even if it were only a promise to stop the boats.
For years I’ve felt that what we call “News” is a voyeuristic prying into things that don’t really concern us. Spectacular film of something will get greater coverage than Government decisions that affect us all. A ten car pile-up with exciting footage will get more airtime than an earthquake in a third world country that kills thousands. I suspect this book has influenced the way I see such things, but re-reading it, I find its message more accurate than I did when I first read it twenty five years ago.
Is politics a version of “Big Brother” or “MasterChef”? – Julia has been voted out of the house. Kevin Rudd has taken over and reduced the lead according to the latest opinion poll. Who’s in front? Who will win? Exciting, isn’t it? This soap opera will only mention policy briefly, if at all. Kevin offers to debate Tony at the National Press Club. Tony says he’ll wait until the election date. But I very much doubt that there’ll be a three hour debate. We don’t have that much interest in politics. We don’t care about how we’re governed enough to listen to these people for more than a few minutes at a time. There is no widespread condemnation of Abbott’s refusal to debate. It’s only to be expected. This is not about getting your point of view out there. This is about winning. Political commentary is often about whether the strategy is effective.
I once suggested that before people were allowed to vote that they needed to pass a test which showed that they had some understanding of the issues they were voting on. Someone wanted to know if the politicians had to pass the same test. I thought he was joking. Now, I’m not so sure.
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