A Media Star Is Born

Given the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election, everyone needs read Neil Postman’s 1982 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Reading it won’t change the outcome of the election, of course, but it will provide understanding for how and why it happened the way it did. Postman’s main point is that print encourages logic and reflection. Visual media, and television in particular, encourage the feelings of the moment. To be taken seriously and believed, written documents need to be logical and coherent. To be successful, visual media need to influence feelings. We do not expect one show to be related to the next, whereas we expect a book to maintain coherence from start to finish.

Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death long before Donald Trump decided to run for office, and Trump was not the first “media mogul” to choose politics for his staring role. Ronald Reagan was his role model, and Postman addresses the differences between Reagan and presidents born in earlier centuries, including Abraham Lincoln. Postman also discusses two of the books that were commonly assigned in high school English classes. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. These dystopian novels are still well worth reading for their vision of the future. What was future to them has become our present. One of Postman’s points is that we have become more like Huxley’s “brave new world” than the dystopia described in 1984. TV is our drug of choice, and we don’t need to be coerced into “serving the state” by threats and punishments, we simply need to be entertained.

We do, of course, resemble 1984 in the way the world is divided into three major “nation-states” competing for resources. But at least in the West most of us, with the exception of ethnic and racial minorities living in some areas, are free from direct governmental coercion and treats of severe punishment for small infractions. In Brave New World, people are bred for their station in life, with Alpha’s at the top of the hierarchy. Everyone is kept happy with his or her station in life by taking soma, a recreational drug that facilitates compliance with the social order. Unless something goes wrong (as it did for the protagonist of the novel), everyone lives happily from birth until death.

Postman’s principal concern was that visual media, and especially television, were reducing people’s ability to think logically. TV, he feared, was essentially our “soma.” My own experience suggests that he was correct. Readers who know my history know that my background includes a Ph.D. in English literature, with emphasis on the nineteenth century—the century of the long novels…. My bias is essentially the same as Postman’s. I enjoy TV (and especially movies once they make it to cable), but I find print a better source of “quality” information. Not too long ago, I used to get much of my news from magazines (primarily “Time” and “Newsweek”), but I no longer subscribe. Too much of what was in the news weeklies had become “old news” by the time the magazines arrived. The same stories had been covered by the evening TV news. The pace of life has been increasing since the nineteenth century, and print is basically a “slow” medium.

In the eighteenth century and before, the only way you could travel between Europe and the Americas was sailing vessel. In the nineteenth century, steamships reduced travel times. In the twentieth century, air travel reduced travel times again. We don’t yet know how that will change in the Twenty-First Century, but it is safe to assume that travel times will be reduced. Communication technologies have, of course, also changed. A very long time ago, the only way to get a message from one location to another was to carry it physically, either by individual or by horseback. In the nineteenth century, the telegraph speeded the transmission of information anywhere the wires were strung. (Before that, the Pony Express did its best to get information from St. Louis to San Francisco as quickly as horses could be made to run.) I spent my time in the military as a clerk-typist, creating documents that had to be physically carried to their storage location. Although electric typewriters were available at the time I typed my dissertation, they were still too expensive for most college students. And look at where we are now with keyboards, screens, and computer memory….

Things have changed, and it is not surprising that politics have changed along with them. My sense is that neither Washington nor Lincoln could have beaten Donald Trump in this last election. (As I write this, I am aware that if Trump should somehow see this blog, the part he will quote is that “neither Washington nor Lincoln could have beaten [him] in this last election.”) Trump knows how to use modern media. He received more free publicity than any other political candidate, not only during this election cycle, but ever. No matter how offensive some of his statements and behaviors were, they worked for him rather than against him. Like a “rock star” (think “Elvis”), he has loyal fans who will stick by him and accept his self-indulgences. The real question is what happens next…. Rock stars tend to burn themselves out with drugs and or alcohol, but we can probably think of a few with steel wheels even though they’ve been running against the wind.

The question now, of course, is what’s next? As is true of many TV shows, Trump has been fairly unpredictable. If he and the Republicans do much of what they seem to be planning, many of those who voted for him may be greatly disappointed. Many, of course, vote against their self-interest with regularity, much the way some individuals will remain with an abusive spouse. I once had a colleague (with a Ph.D.) who was choosing to remain with an abusive spouse. I asked her why she stayed. She said, “The hell you know is better than the hell you don’t.” I suspect that something similar is at work with voters: the familiar is more comfortable than the risk of change. The great family therapist, Virginia Satir referred to the “lure of the familiar.” The rule is that most people choose familiarity over comfort, especially during times of stress.

Many of those who voted for Trump found him “unfamiliar,” but their anchor point was the Republican Party, and they were thinking that this time giving additional tax breaks to the wealthy really would create prosperity for all. Some of those who found him familiar, primarily those Hillary Clinton said were in the basket of deplorables, are hoping that they will finally receive everything that’s rightfully theirs.

It is, of course, hard to tell what comes next. Every week the NCIS team has a new crime to solve. Every season, True Detective has a new plot line and new characters. Trump will become President on January 20. What will the new season bring, and who is busy writing the script and working on camera blocking?

Be sure to stay tuned….

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