A few months ago I posted on Andy Unedited some brief thoughts on re-reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. At the invitation of The Gospel Coalition, I extended those thoughts. This time I saw that it wasn’t the loss of our print culture that grieved Postman the most. To find out what did, you can click this link. Enjoy!
Reading the Times
For the last dozen years I have consistently avoided the news, and I feel I am a better person for it. In the spirit of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Jeffrey Bilbro goes even deeper in his literary, social, and theological analysis found in Reading the Times.
Bilbro hits his stride in Part Two with his penetrating comments on time. That may seem especially theoretical, but it makes all the difference whether we are beholden to chronos time (chronology; quantitative clock time) or kairos time (often defined as qualitative moments of significance). The news is imprisoned by chronos. It isolates and disconnects events from their meaning and leaves us barren.
The author goes even further, saying that with kairos time “history’s true meaning emerges in the light of Christ’s life.” Our lives are not empty, trivial moments that are doomed to be forgotten centuries and millennia hence. Rather, quoting Paul Griffiths, “the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus lie at the heart of time. . . . Time is contracted by these events, pleated and folded around them, gathered by them into a tensely dense possibility.” Every laugh, every tear, every act of love is caught up in the kairos of Christ for eternity. Death is defeated. In Christ, nothing is lost.
How do we apply all this to the dilemma of our current hyper-contentious news environment? Bilbro, perhaps surprisingly, critiques the conventional wisdom that we need more fact checking and that we need to diversify our news feeds. I’ll let you read the book to find out why, but here’s a hint: it has to do with forming community.
In this way Bilbro offers more ways forward than Postman. “Instead of allowing the news to create our communities, Christians should seek to help their communities create the news.” This can begin with the simple act of walking our neighborhoods rather than isolating ourselves in cars or behind screens. On another level we can, for example, pursue redemptive publishing by reading, he suggests, things like Civil Eats, American Conservative, The Atlantic, Commonweal, Hedgehog Review and more.
This book is so much more than about the news. It is a rich and profound book about life. And you can easily find the time to read it with all the free time you will have from not following the news.
Still Amusing Ourselves to Death
After re-reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, I thought about taking a 24-hour fast from media. No TV, no radio, no smart phone, no laptop–for a whole day. Then I remembered it’s winter here in Chicago and weather forecasts are nearly a prerequisite for citizenship. And I’m expecting important emails soon. And what about those text messages I’d miss? And . . .
And I realized that though I think I control my technology, maybe it controls me as much as the next guy.
When Postman wrote his book in 1985, Pac-Man was five years old. USA Today was three. The Mac computer was one. Cable TV was in its infancy. Google was twelve years into the future. Netflix wouldn’t open for business for fourteen years. We’d have to wait twenty-two years for the iPhone and Kindle. Despite this or perhaps because of this Amusing Ourselves to Death is a classic that remains as important as ever.
The problem is that such media have created an entertainment culture, and all the new technologies have only reinforced that. What have we lost? The substance of public discourse that a print culture offered us in the previous centuries. Thousands heard Lincoln and Douglas debate in three- and four-hour-long sessions. But it was the dominance of print that made it possible for listeners to be able to follow and to be interested in these events.
Our civic life has been consumed by sound bites and Twitter feeds, reducing millions to passive consumers of media instead of active citizens. Even those outlets that are supposed to provide substance are mostly focused on capturing audiences. MSNBC and FOX have more in common than we think for neither are in the news business. Rather both are trying to make as much money as possible in the entertainment business.
In the introduction for the twentieth-anniversary edition of book, Postman’s son points out that though we are not dominated by network television anymore, the underlying issues of our entertainment-saturated culture remain the same. Has media improved our democracy? Has it made our leaders more accountable? Are we better citizens or are we better consumers? Have our schools improved as a result?
Solutions? Postman admits he has few. Certainly recognizing our disease is a necessary step. Asking questions about media is also needed to break the spell technology has over us. So are periodic fasts such as technology-free family nights once a week or even once a month. We must start somewhere. And reading Postman’s book can be just the place to begin.
When Persuasion Dies
Eighty years ago, as World War II was erupting, the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, made a speech which sounds like it could have been given today.
He leads with a strong assertion. “Democracy is not merely a good form of government; it is the best.” His reason for this is interesting. “It is,” he said, “the only form of government that can combine three characteristics: law, equality, and justice.”
But, Hutchins asks, how can we know these three make a valid foundation? Because, he says, this basis for democracy is moral. “Its end is the good for man. Only democracy has this basis. Only democracy has this end. If we do not believe in this basis or this end, we do not believe in democracy. These are the principles which we must defend if we are to defend democracy.”
Here we come upon a problem, however. How can we know these characteristics are moral? How can we know anything is moral? It’s a problem because “for forty years and more” (and again, he was speaking in 1940) “our intellectual leaders have been telling us they are not true. They have been telling us in fact that nothing is true which cannot be subjected to experimental verification. In the whole realm of social thought there can therefore be nothing but opinion. . . . There is no difference between good and bad; there is only the difference between expediency and inexpediency. We cannot even talk about good and bad states or good and bad men. There are no morals; there are only the folkways. The test of action is its success, and even success is a matter of opinion. . . .”
Who is to say what is moral and what isn’t? If everyone is doing it, why not me or you? Who’s to say who is a moral person and who isn’t? I can justify anything I do as long as I can avoid the consequences of the law.
But an even more sinister consequence of this line of thinking awaits. If everyone’s opinion is equal, if there is no real way to convince someone that I am right and you are wrong, then we are left with yelling at each other. And if yelling doesn’t resolve disputes, the only option remaining is coercion. As Hutchins said, “If everything is a matter of opinion, . . . force becomes the only way of settling differences of opinion.”
What can we do in the face of all this? This is a huge question which requires a multifaceted response. Allow me, however, to mention just one simple step we can all take.
We can stop listening to people who yell, and start listening to people who are trying to make a rational argument. We can stop listening to those who are trying to manipulate, name call, or overwhelm us with hot rhetoric. As I’ve noted in my chapters on persuasion in Write Better, instead we should listen to those trying to persuade fairly, speak calmly, and appeal to the common good. We can also choose to listen to these who present different sides of an issue (not just one) while exercising this sort of principled persuasion.
Listening to or reading such persuasive arguments is harder than it may seem because it takes effort to follow such reasoning. It is also hard because doing so opens us up to the possibility of finding out we are wrong. And we don’t like to hear reasons or information that disagrees with conclusions we’ve already come to.
Being open and willing to learn is difficult but necessary because if we won’t practice principled persuasion or allow ourselves to be persuaded, force is all we have left.
Image credits: Dr. Robert Hutchins becomes Chancellor of University of Chicago, 1945. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/91481464/; Faces–Pixabay, Clipart-Vectors
Better Than the Movie?
“The movie is never as good as the book,” so the saying goes. As always, there are exceptions; for example The Hunger Games and Tuesdays with Morrie were both better on the screen. Having read Unbroken when it first came out and now having seen the movie, I feel that the question is somewhat irrelevant. Both are excellent–and different.
Hillenbrand’s book tells an astonishing true tale. Louie Zamperini had a half dozen amazing episodes in his life–and if only one had happened, the book would have been a remarkable account of perseverance and strength in the midst of adversity. But all six episodes happened–to one man.
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The Shallows 5: Google’s Narrow Vision
Over a hundred years ago [Frederick Winslow Taylor](http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/fwt/taylor.html) took a stopwatch to a steel plant in Philadelphia and changed the industrial world. By timing every step and movement in the process he came up with the one, most efficient way each worker should work. Productivity exploded, and manufacturers across the country eagerly adopted his methods. Taylor saw humans as extensions of the machine.
In [*The Shallows*](http://www.amazon.com/Shallows-What-Internet-Doing-Brains/dp/0393072223/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1282160698&sr=1-1), Nicholas Carr contends that “Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters—the Googleplex—is the internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism” (p. 150). But at Google humans are extensions of a very particular kind of machine—the computer.
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The Shallows 3: Driven to Distraction
When the Net first hit big in the mid-1990s, I would tell others, “This is a good thing. People are doing a lot more reading now. Teens are not just playing video games on their computers. Anything that encourages reading is for the good.” Now, especially having read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (see here and here), I’m not so sure.
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To Sociologists: Duh!
It’s tempting to roll our collective eyes when someone recognizes the obvious. Now we learn that sociologists have got religion. They have made the absolutely amazing discovery that religion is actually important.
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The New Newsweek
For a couple of months now, Newsweek has trotted out its new format–new print design and new organization of its content inside. From my reading of the comments, most (usually die-hard, lifelong Newsweek readers) unequivocally don’t like the new format. I’m not one of them.
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