Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of those books that changed my life. Now run your eyes down to the bottom of the page. This is RC talking, not Laurence. Laurence has a tendency, an endearing tendency to be rather free with superlatives. I’m stingy, but not about this book. The first thing about the book is its title. Though I have just recently re-read it for one of our Academy classes, I don’t remember whether he makes this point, or someone else does, about the term, “amusing.” We have a tendency to think of amusement as synonymous with entertainment. But its root reveals a more sinister element. “Muse” is Latin meaning to think. The prefix a means to not. An a- theist is one who says there is no God. A person who is a-moral has no morals. And to be a-mused is not to be entertained, but to not think.
We often speak about the idiot box this way. After a long and tiring day we just want to sit and look, to “veg-out.” We don’t want to think, and our friends in Hollywood are happy to oblige. We stop thinking for a few hours, and take a mental nap, the kind you can be awake enough to enjoy.
Then Postman begins the book with a powerful analogy that has, on more than one occasion, made its way into these pages. He notes that while conservatives around the world have manned the ramparts against tyranny, against Orwell’s vision of 1984, too few of us have sounded the alarm about a less well-known, but more chilling dystopian future, that laid out by Alduous Huxley in Brave New World. Orwell, you remember, gave us the terror of Big Brother, that all-seeing totalitarian monster. Huxley gave us the more benign vision of a populace lulled to sleep and complacency through the twin evils of perpetual amusement, and soma, the euphoric, sleep-inducing drug of the masses. Like the poppies placed by the Wicked Witch, as Dorothy and her companions had almost reached their goal of Oz, soma calls us to sleep, to forget, to rest. It calls us to a black sabbath.
And so, Postman argues, has television lulled us asleep. Of course, as with all the devil’s ploys, television not only carries a deadly downside, but it doesn’t even provide the thing promised. That is, not only do you lose your soul, but you don’t ever really get what you bargained for either. The television may give a rest to our bodies and minds, but it only agitates our souls. The constant shifting of the camera angle, the incessant flow of disjointed images can give no rest. To be sure our guard is down. Our rational faculties are not engaged, television being an image and not proposition based medium. But those images stick with us, and as we sleep, turn themselves into propositions, straight from the source, the father of lies.
Postman, who is not a believer, does not argue that such is the result of some sort of conspiracy. The overlords of Hollywood are interested in two things. They want to make a lot of money first, and second, want us to think like they do. But they are not self-consciously trying to put us to sleep. But for all his wisdom, Postman’s worldview does not allow for conspiracies so well buried that they reach down into the very pit of hell. He is right. The moguls do not know what they are doing. But the serpent who pulls their strings knows exactly what he is doing.
What makes the Huxleyan view most chilling is perhaps this. We do not need to be cowed to be put to sleep. Instead we ask for our dose, and take it happily. Big Brother does not threaten that he is watching us, but we watch him because we want to. And like soma, we need a stronger and stronger dose each time to get the same non-rush, whether it be more time in front of the machine, or more action, comedy, or melodrama while we’re there.
But that’s also the good news. I’ve made an amazing discovery in my own journey away from the poppy fields. When you turn off the TV, there are no flying moneys that come to get you. Big Brother doesn’t send the local gendarmes down to teach you a lesson. There are no jealous bureaucrats that tell the King that we’re not bowing down to the proper idol, and we need a serious sauna. All we have to do is turn it off.
And then came another blessing. I discovered, once I got out of the poppy field, that poppies stink. I didn’t want to go back, not because I knew it was wrong or dangerous, but because it wasn’t any fun anymore. Professional TV bashers, including Postman and Ken Myers always shy away from the big application. Having decimated the legitimacy of television, they stop short of telling us to never watch. And so we go on the way we were. I too will not tell you to never watch the television. But I have a suggestion as to how you can judge is too much. If you find that you want to watch it, then you’re still at least half-asleep. You’ll know you’ve cut back enough when you don’t want to watch at all. That’s a joyous thing, like discovering that ice cream is good for you, and zucchini stunts your growth. For what we do with out time should be joyful. Play cards with your family. Read a good book, like Neil Postman. Write a letter to the editor of Every Thought Captive. Try raising chickens, well, don’t do that. Start musing, and you just might find it entertaining.
You’ll discover, if you can just gut it out until the withdrawal symptoms go away, that better than Central Perk, better than Springfield, better than Providence, that there’s no place like home.
By R.C. Sproul Jr.