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02/24/2016

Amusing Ourselves to Death? The Tension between Entertainment Values and Civic Virtues

Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD

“In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

–Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

With the rise of Donald Trump as a political force, we should take stock of some prescient work of the last 30 years. In 1985, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote his landmark book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (a 20th anniversary edition was issued in 2005 with an introduction by his son Andrew Postman). In this much-discussed work that transcended academic circles and became a popular hit, Postman argued that the medium of television inevitably trivializes our political discourse. The medium of television is so seductive that we would hardly notice that our civic dialogue has become cheapened and coarsened. Indeed, the ascendancy of Trump is a triumph of entertainment values—brief soundbites, aggressive marketing, and appealing to the lowest common denominator. Witness the tenor of the Republican debates in this latest election cycle. Weirdly, the debates echo old school rap battles where rappers would duel with other contenders, belittling their competitors’ rapping skills and generally exuding over-the-top bravado. In this year’s race, Trump mastered this form of political Jiu Jitsu, recognizing that insulting your opponents, moderators, Muslims, and immigrants would not be a liability but rather an asset. This form of political theater left his more politically experienced opponents flat footed and eventually in the dust (see Jeb Bush).

It would be facile to simply dismiss Trump as an aberration in US politics. Indeed, the world envisaged by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest is not too far off the mark—our obsession with technology, popular culture, and ephemeral amusements has taken on a life of its own. This stands in stark contrast to candidates who at least pay lip service to the civic virtues of temperance, restraint, and compromise. Jeb Bush may have been an appealing candidate in 1996 when Infinite Jest was first published. He had no hope in 2016.

I’m no Luddite. I appreciate the fact that television is currently experiencing its latest golden age, with programming that rivals great literary works. Moreover, I believe that social media can be a force for good, mobilizing people to engage, to learn, and to be involved. Yet, with the dominance of visual and social media culture, we all need to become better educated on how to “read” this media culture. We need to reflect on how these new media shape the political landscape. And we need to connect the civic virtues in a meaningful way and harness the great power of these technologies. One way to do this is to adopt the Oxford-style debate format promoted by Intelligence Squared. As Rosencraz and Donvan argue, our current format reveals nothing of substance but rather is an opportunity for entertainment values to reign supreme. The candidate that says the most outrageous thing wins in this kind of format (WWF anyone?). On the other hand, “Oxford-style debate would force the candidates to respond to intense questions, marshal relevant facts, and expose weaknesses in their opponents’ arguments. Memorized talking points could not be disguised as answers.” (See Marco Rubio).

Can entertainment values be used in the service of civic virtues? Certainly, providing a compelling narrative to voters is the hallmark of a successful political campaign. Morning in America. The Audacity of Hope. Make America Great Again. These sound bites focus the micro-attention of citizens who are not just distracted by the cacophony of voices in the entertainment landscape—they also provide a focal point for citizens to direct their energies. What does this candidate stand for beyond the soundbite? This requires more of us. To dig deeper, to read more broadly, to learn with curiosity. It’s been said we get the government we deserve. It’s incumbent upon all of us to participate and to educate ourselves. Being entertained is not evil. In fact, it’s a good. But when entertainment values trump all other values, we are destined for trouble. Our entertainment values shouldn’t co-opt our civic virtues. Why not have our civic virtues co-opt our entertainment values? Perhaps that will compel us to be more committed, energized, and thoughtful voters and citizens.

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