“I raise no objection to television’s junk. The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it. Besides, we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations. The irony here is that this is what intellectuals and critics are constantly urging television to do.”
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York, 1985), p. 16
There is much to like in the work of the late Neil Postman, and much to quarrel with. I plan, at some later date, to critically engage some of his claims – in particular, that media embody determinate epistemologies (we pragmatists are innately suspicious of the term “epistemology”), and more importantly that he is insufficiently aware of the protean ways in which capitalism, in its present-day “neoliberal” form, has morphed into something both quite alien to anything its 19th century critics could have imagined, but which nevertheless is still vulnerable to certain aspects of their critiques, especially those of Marx and Weber. But generally, I take Postman to be in the party of the angels: concerned about the corrosive effects of the media on intelligence and on the quality of democratic life.
For the moment I want to reflect on that often-cited quotation above. Postman’s consistent opinion was that television was all about images – transient, evanescent images – which are fine when one realizes that this is what they are, but perilous if we make a serious cultural investment in them as bearers of permanent, considered, rationally-funded value. The message of this imagistic electronic medium is show-biz. Now there may be no business quite like show business, but there are many human endeavors that are different from it, and they should be kept distinct, both in theory and in institutionalized practice. When they aren’t we are in trouble, according to Postman. Television is great when it sticks to I Love Lucy or Seinfeld. It courts disaster it fancies itself the heir to the Globe theatre or, worse, the Athenian assembly.
Before you reject Postman as a crabby dead white guy, please remember that he wrote these words in 1985. Much has changed. The idea that serious drama on cable television could challenge the dominance of that genre on film, would be rejected as ludicrous, even bizarre. Yet it is hard to deny that Breaking Bad and House of Cards are both better written, better acted, more humanly engaging, and more aesthetically complete than most Hollywood productions these days. As for serious film, it still exists, but it struggles. What hath Star Wars wrought?
Contrary to what Postman seems to suggest, images can be serious, and as discursive as words. Think, for a moment, of Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi, scored by Philip Glass. Without words, the images and sounds constitute a serious critique of (post)modern (post)industrial life, a critique as powerful as anything you might find in the texts of Horkheimer or Adorno or Jacques Ellul. But the point I think Postman was actually making (or perhaps should have made more clearly) is that the culture of images finds its natural complement in a culture of words that moves steadily alongside it. Without this complementarity, both the world of images and the world of words suffer together.
What we are witnessing, politically, now, in the United States in 2016, is Postman’s nightmare uncoupling of the culture of words from the culture of images. What I have been calling the “culture of words” should be understood as all the practices of speaking and writing that shape and govern the way language looms as a background of life, which in turn provides the structure for everything uttered in the foreground. The culture of words prizes consistency, openness, reflectiveness, a willingness to listen to and learn from others including (especially) one’s opponents, both a willingness to doubt when it is warranted and a refusal to doubt when it is unwarranted, sound practical judgment, and so on. But above all, it involves a certain sense of seriousness. Gravitas, if you will. Postman’s nightmare, which I can well imagine keeping him up at night, is the end of gravitas. Not only its fading towards disappearance, which Postman felt was well on its way, but its vanishing without being noticed or missed.
Consider just the following cultural tidbits that have passed into our fields of vision (and Twitter feeds) in the past few weeks:
- Leading Republican candidate Donald Trump has managed to secure former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s endorsement. In her speech (full transcript here) Ms. Palin regaled her audience with a text so jumbled, so semantically and even syntactically challenged, that it immediately became, with full warrant, a vein of gold for television comedians to mine. See, for example, Stephen Colbert’s treatment, which I present in lieu of my own analyses – I couldn’t come close to Mr. Colbert’s spot-on appraisal if I tried. Two points: first, some (not all) of these television comics have managed to evade Postman’s complaint that television does poorly on matters of world-historical moment, and should stick to plain-vanilla entertainment. Colbert is both entertaining and serious – that is, he is a true satirist, the stock-in-trade of which is to combine gravitas and levitas in a single act or work. Perhaps despite itself, “serious” television can continue to thrive in the work of its satirists, such as Colbert, Noah, Wilmore, and Oliver. Second: the satirists really will not matter much in the long or even the short run. Trump’s gambit, like most of his narcissistically driven campaign moves, worked brilliantly. His base loved it. He got noticed. Everybody got the connections – “hey, she really is just like Tina Fey! Hilarious!” – and nobody really noticed the true crime in the area that is the debasement of democratic discourse and practice, taken in stride. Hilarious!
- The National Review, trying to reclaim once again the mantle of intelligent Buckleyite conservatism it had long since compromised, published an entire issue devoted “Against Trump.” This promptly got them disinvited from co-hosting the next Republican debate. In an NPR interview with Brian Lehrer, editor Rich Lowry admitted that this was a price that they anticipated paying. Yet the recent track record of this issue’s contributors – Glenn Beck, William Kristol among others – has generally shown neither prescience nor acumen: present-day Buckleys or Leo Strausses they are not. And in any event, this is again completely beside the point: Trump immediately took to Twitter and dispatched the “dying” National Review with insults. And his crowd loved it, of course: another media “win” for Trump. The elán of the intellectual right had often been suffused by the dire insult disguised as reasoned critique – Buckley was a master of this technique. Now that insult is taken straight-no-chaser in the precincts of the Republican Party, both elite and “base”, the thin veneer of “reasoned critique” seems like so much fake politeness. National Review was rarely a repository of real gravitas in its Vietnam and Reagan era heydays, but at least it felt obliged to feign it pretty consistently. As St. Kurt would say, “So it goes”.
- In fact politeness itself is now often repudiated as “political correctness”. Accusing one of being “PC” is now used to shut down discussion and serious argument, rather than to complain that one is being unfairly shut down oneself. There is irony in this. The right has always grumbled that the “PC Left” wanted to summarily dismiss their point of view, in the public forum of debate and discussion, by ruling certain race/glass/gender topics beyond the pale of compromise and unworthy of recognition. But think about when the “PC” trope is generally employed in our own post-gravitas age. When someone center-to-left cites evidence for worrying about “blowback” in those Middle Eastern countries the United States is drone-bombing with impunity, or reasons that maybe it is somewhat close to outrageous (or unconstitutional) to speak seriously about banning all Muslims from entry into the USA, the reply is often a bellicose “there is too much Political Correctness in this country! We should not have to worry about offending Muslims!” (As if offense, rather than death and vengeance, is what is being adverted to here.) This effectively shuts debate down, on terms favorable to the political right, since they do not stoop to respond to mere “political correctness”, brushing off rather than responding to challenges, challenges based on things happening in the observable, common world. This is not a serious way to defend your own beliefs and convictions. But why be serious? Twitter isn’t, FOX isn’t, and CNN isn’t. Not even MSNBC, which has become Trump central, 24/7. Gravitas has vanished down the drain of the auditory equivalent of images — the insult as argument substitute.
- While it would be wrong to attribute a moral equivalence between the lack of gravitas on the Right and that on the Left today, it would be equally wrong to insist that the liberals are without guilt. Consider the moment, in the last Democratic debate, where Hillary Clinton, challenged by Bernie Sanders on the issue of the economy and her ties to big finance, evaded the issue by insinuating that Sanders was aligning himself against President Obama, he who saved the economy. When Sanders floated his single-payer health plan, Ms. Clinton once again rhetorically invoked Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and raised alarms that, instead of “building on it”, Sanders would risk losing it all in a hostile, Republican-dominated Congress. Ignore, for a moment, that Mr. Sanders has consistently argued that his program is not one he can accomplish on his own but requires a “revolution” which, one would think, involves getting out the vote to reverse said Congressional Republican domination. And ignore too, whether President Obama’s “rescue” of the economy was not just weak-kneed Keynesianism, too little too late, leaving all the dangerous financial institutions and practices intact and poised for the eternal return of the same. Ms. Clinton’s responses, besides being informal logical fallacies, were all about optics rather than content. She wanted to look good rather than seriously tackle Sanders’s criticisms head-on. So she – rather amazingly, given their history – rushed to appear to be Barack Obama’s best friend, to re-embrace the neoliberal gradualism that, once upon a time, the President was supposed to be the “hopeful” alternative to, and of which she has been the poster-child since 2008. She “looked” good in doing so – gracious, competent, realistic. That it could be argued that the opposite is the case is beside the point. A Trump/Clinton race will be a ballet of public relations and images to rival the best of Nijinsky.
While the last thing I want to come across as is a crabby old (well, middle-aged) living white guy, I share Postman’s curmudgeonly attitude toward the triumph of image and spectacle over gravitas in politics. I wince, for example, at the nonsense that is the White House Correspondents Dinner: yes, it is funny and a relief to see politicos in skits with the likes of Kevin Spacey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but no, it is not, as my elders used to say, “appropriate”. We at least pretend to be a democracy, and I would think democracy is serious business. You can laugh at it, like you can laugh at sex, but it’s pretty bad form in both cases to laugh at it while you are doing it. Presidential candidates have no business going on late-night talk shows, not because we should not see them “being regular human beings”, but because they are representing themselves as servants of the public, the demos, and it is none of their business to conflate this service with entertainment. It degrades the gravitas of their public station.
Yet the demos itself also has to grow up and regain a sense of gravitas. Stop watching this nonsense. Stop, for example, watching the televised debates: they are not exercises in rational discussion about the common good and sound policy. They are public relations gambits. Democratic publics need to inoculate themselves against this kind of manipulation. Read about the debates instead – read the transcripts. You will benefit from having the image-mongering bleached out of the presentation of politicians’ selves in the video marketplace.
And while you are at it, consider turning off your television altogether, or at least severely limiting your consumption, when it presumes to take on political matters. Watching reflexively only encourages the corporate media’s appetite for first blurring the line between entertainment and rational inquiry before erasing it altogether. Without advertising dollars, they die, and they fully deserve to perish given the damage they have done to our democracy. Watch snippets of the great satirists – and yes, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are great satirists, our analogs to Daumier or Swift in their own way – on YouTube where you can edit out the commercials. You can live without Sixty Minutes or Meet the Press. Some things are worth sacrificing for the greater good. I doubt you’ll miss them.
There is a time and place for entertainment. Goodness knows life would be grey and empty without it. But there is also a time and place and season for gravitas. One such place is the commons. If Postman had anything to teach us, it is that.