A Book for Our Time

A Book for Our Time

The best book about contemporary culture I’ve ever read was published in 1985.  It’s called Amusing Ourselves to Death, written by Neil Postman.  It’s about the way that media entertainment (notably, for 1985, television) is infecting and corrupting everything else in society – not because there’s anything wrong with entertainment being entertaining, but because we come to expect everything to be entertaining: even things that are deadly serious, like education, politics, and religion.  Here’s a quote:

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

I mention this in the context of today’s readings, most notably the Gospel of the Rich Man who “dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously every day” – but did not notice the needs of the beggar at his gate.  The Rich Man is not evil – or, rather, his evil consists in his distraction.  Postman again:

There is nothing wrong with entertainment. As some psychiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.

In today’s first reading the prophet Amos complains about people who “live in castles in the air”:

Woe to the complacent in Zion, lying upon beds of ivory…
Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment…
Yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!
Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile,
and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.

[“Joseph” is the northern section of the country, conquered by Assyria.  Those not directly affected don’t take notice or care.  And, the prophet says, they will suffer the consequences.]

In my observation the problem of distraction has grown worse since Postman wrote twenty years ago.  (He knew nothing of smartphones or round-the-clock “news.”)  One final quote:

In America, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But … it is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us. What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this world almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?

More next week.  Until then, Peace.