Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Neil Postman: "Voting...Is The Next to Last Refuge of The Politically Impotent"

I've been curtailing my blog and news reading for a few months now. I'm curtailing it even more as I read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. The thesis of Postman's brilliant book is simple: Orwell was wrong and Huxley was right. Orwell warned that we risked having our freedoms crushed by dictatorship; Huxley warned that we risked throwing our freedoms away in an orgy of distractions.

Postman wrote his book in 1985, 10 years before the New York Times heralded the Internet as a consumer tool. What he has to say is even more relevant in the age of the feed reader and the 24-hour news cycle than it was two decades ago. Information, says Postman, can be judged by how it impacts our lives. By this bill, most of the daily information we consume is sound and fury:
You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha'is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan
to do nothing about them.
But...but...but I can vote, right?! I need all of this information to be an informed citizen! Sorry, but Dr. Postman saw that one coming:
You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is, of course, giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a dessicated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagara of similar opinions, and convert them into - what else? - another piece of news. Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing. (pp.68-9)
The Internet at least has the redeeming feature that it supports organizing around causes. But how much can we accomplish in these national causes? What can you do about, say, the war in Iraq on the level of the Internet, except sign a petition and bitch on your blog? Blogging and commenting provide every individual an international forum for spleen-venting, but do little in the way of affecting true change.

We can make greater, longer-lasting impacts in our local communities. Instead, we lose ourselves in the flood of information available online, believing that we're "educating" ourselves. As Dr. Postman notes, this is junk education. It's education as entertainment. Why did blogs become popular? Because Joe Schmoe Blogger scored mainstream press write-ups and six-figure book deals. Apply Dr. Postman's utility test to Joe Schmoe's literary output, and it's clear that Joe won the Internet equivalent of American Idol through a blend of 99 parts amusement to 1 part utility. That Joe dolled up his amusement in the guise of the day's headlines doesn't make it any more useful than a week's worth of LOLCat pictures. It's all sound and fury, signifying - and changing - nothing.