I had just finished reading P. J. O’Rourke’s “I Agree with Me” in the July/August, 2004 issue of The Atlantic when my mind drifted to a lecture I attended at a small San Antonio college in 1996. The speaker was author Neil Postman. I was jolted into my reverie by O’Rouke’s assertion that “Arguing, in the sense of attempting to convince others, seems to have gone out of fashion with everyone.” O’Rourke, who boasts that he is to the right of Rush Limbaugh, argues that the likes of Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Al Franken and Michael Moore are doing no more than preaching to their respective choirs, and preaching to one’s choir is famous for changing no minds.
Postman’s point eight years ago was that our national thought process has been short-circuited by modern technology, that we have been entertained into stupidity, and that we are no longer able to make or understand rational arguments; O’Rourke’s point is that we just won’t hear them. If either man is right, logical argument is becoming irrelevant.
Postman’s most famous book was Amusing Ourselves to Death. Its Foreword contrasted the ominous futures envisioned by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. “What Orwell feared,” wrote Postman, “were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
Postman’s contention was that Huxley’s vision was not only the more likely, but also the more terrifying. He saw Orwellian culture as a prison, but Huxley’s as a burlesque, with Huxley’s the more ominous because “an Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan.”
While it may seem that Huxley was wrong and that Orwell has won out with the likes of the Patriot Act, I would disagree, for a Patriot Act could have never been pulled off on a thinking people. It was an Orwellian world that gave us the Patriot Act, but a Huxleyan one that made it possible.
While I don’t disagree with Postman that television, broadcast over airwaves that the American people simply gave away to giant corporations, is a major factor in the dumbing down of America, I believe it is more a tool than a cause. The cause is humans (who can) pursuing their self-interest, the very essence of capitalism, ultimately based on instructions imbedded in all our gene codes. One’s self-interest is always advanced by the inability of those around one not being able to think critically.
While the technologies that bring us television, sports, computer games and our everywhere present music addiction were not invented to distract us from the business of learning to think critically, the majority of their benefits, like most of the fruits of technology, flow to the top. That which historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote more than thirty years ago is more timely now than then. “Every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker than before.” The American people do not know how to think critically and technology helps keep it that way.
Progressives don’t need more alternative publications playing the loser’s game of trading punches with the bigger opponent. The latter has the money, the time and the non-stop resources that cry out “Please keep doing what you’re doing. Please keep trying to overcome us with your charismatic new leaders and the ever-more outrageous revelations in your alternative rags. We can match each one of yours with ten of our own. Don’t you understand? You cannot reach the faithful. They will not hear you. They are ours from the cradle.”
My professor of sociology friend from that same small college in San Antonio told me that he never tried to reach adults. He only tried to reach the young. The worldviews of adults were too calcified. He would certainly agree with O’Rourke’s take on the futility of modern political proselytizing.
Has the present trading punches formula outraged and rallied the oppressed? Will blacks en mass, for example, vote their oppressors out? The median income for whites in America remains 50% more than blacks, who are on the bottom rung of the income ladder. More blacks are in the criminal justice system than are in college; one in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is under correctional supervision or control. While blacks constitute only 12% of Americans, half of all prisoners in the United States are black, ten times the percentage in 1974. Where is their outrage? Where are their leaders? What could possibly account for all this passive silence?
I watched a stirring and inspiring movie the other night about the brave battles fought by the organizers of the union of the Pullman Porters, who finally achieved their goal in 1937. At the end of the movie I wondered why its makers had even bothered. Those thousands of Americans who fought and died for the right to organize would spit in the faces of the wimpy American worker today for squandering their legacy, for not even knowing what the hell happened to them. It would turn their stomachs to witness the contempt the man in the street (the man who would benefit most by union organizing) has been conditioned to profess for the lousy 8% of the non-governmental workforce that remains organized. We’re the only industrialized country in the world with no labor party and the only whimpers of protest are being drowned out by that guy in the street shouting his admiration for rugged individualism.
Our corporations are merging like rabbits, destroying legitimate competition, especially in the media, and the average citizen doesn’t care. Our income inequality is the greatest of all industrialized countries with 1% owning more than the bottom 95% combined and we seem to think it natural, maybe even wholesome. We are the only modern industrialized country with no national health care and we are apparently proud of that same rugged individualism and loner cultism that keeps it that way. The weather changes that threaten the future of our children are not our concern. Our political choices are a joke as we argue passionately over which voting machines will be used to elect one of the two Business Party candidates, either of whom will be celebrated by Wall Street.
Of course we’re not totally passive. Arguments over abortion, gay marriage, keeping God in the Pledge, Kobe and Scott Peterson arouse our passions and make our blood boil. You know, the important stuff.
So, what is to be done? We have our alternative media and our gutsy Frankens and Moores, but the latter are touting a candidate who will change none of the above. We have our progressive candidate heroes, but those who could be helped the most by them regard them as fringe lunatics. If O’Rourke is right about all of them and all of their messages, they don’t matter.
Our Chomskys and our Z Magazines are indispensable for telling us the “what.” If it weren’t for them I personally wouldn’t understand the extent of the problem. What they aren’t telling us is the “how.” What is our standard solution? We must work harder to educate and organize the voter and just not give up. In short, keep doing what we’ve been doing, only more. We’ve been doing that for the past 50 years and things are only getting worse.
We’re starting too late!
Postman knew it two decades ago and Huxley knew it 70 years ago. Here’s how Postman ended Amusing Ourselves to Death:
What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with H.G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
If progressives are so sure they are right then they will welcome the first of many generations of critical thinkers in America. They will push for critical thinking classes to begin as early as elementary school. They will celebrate the logical chips falling where they may and they will reject that great enemy of critical thinking, common sense, a quality that all 293 million Americans believe they already possess. Every political party and every ideologue around is convinced that common sense is his ally. It is common sense that has gotten us into the mess we’re in. This world is just too complicated for common sense to be any kind of a guide.
This is not a quick fix. After all, we didn’t get this dumb quickly. Do you remember your own constant asking of “why” as a child? Where did it go? The socialization process beat it out of you, and it beat it out of you because not asking “why” is good for order, and order is control.
All the quick fixes have been tried. A disaster will not fix it. Our great national disaster called the Depression ushered in an era of concern for the little guy, but as soon as the tightened sphincters eased the smart guys picked up where they left off in the twenties, to the point that today’s income inequality has eclipsed the days preceding the Great Crash. This is how it has always happened throughout history.
They have been able to do it because we’ve been too dumb to stop them. We have bought their garbage about the purity of the market because they have told us it was so and who are we to question those smarter than us? We have bought the bullshit about the necessity of outspending the next eight countries combined on defense because those who profit from those expenditures are smarter than us and have frightened us and convinced us that those who stand up to their sophistry are wrong and are nothing but pointy-headed intellectuals.
We rail that they cannot stand up to fact and to logic, but they know what we do not know. They know that the grand audience they are playing to is not logical. An indispensable start in teaching the American people to be critical thinkers is to stop pandering to them about how smart they are, because they aren’t. We’re not genetically stupid; we’re conditioned stupid and it should piss every one of us off almost as much as if we’d been lobotomized.
We have let them take over because we as a country, where between a quarter and a half of us believe in astrology, do not know how to think. There is no nation on earth that can stand up to the machine that our country has become. The only way to stop the already rich from further destroying the environment and exploiting the planet is for the people inside our country to do it. No foreign power has a chance and no great American hero can do it.
Critical thinking is not without its risks. It will come head to head with the argument from unacceptable consequences. There are places critical thinking will lead us that we just won’t want to go. It will almost surely challenge our political, legal and economic systems, our religions and our social institutions. We have to decide whether we want to take that medicine or to continue to plod along with our David slaying Goliath myths.
And finally, we can amuse ourselves to death just as we can drink and drug ourselves to death. Once we are on any of these roads it is extremely difficult to stop because, just up to the point of death, it’s really addictive and it’s really fun.
* Jerry Kurelic is a free-lance writer living in Las Vegas. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.