“Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.”
I have rarely – as in never before – thought of the televised Emmy award show and at the very same moment also reflected on Aldous Huxley’s 85-year old novel Brave New World.
Sean Spicer, yes that Sean Spicer, provided the connecting tissue between the glitz, phony seriousness and absurdity of the Emmy’s and the stunning relevance of a book written when Herbert Hoover was in the White House.
Spicer, the truth challenged former White House press secretary who shamed himself with six month’s worth of daily prevarications from behind the White House podium before finally resigning when The Donald brought The Mooch into the White House, was the talk of this year’s Emmy show.
How far, how very far, we have fallen.
Spicer, as everyone on the planet no doubt has seen by now, made a surprise appearance at the top of the award show pushing his podium on stage. It was all part of an elaborate inside joke, the kind that both Washington, D.C. insiders and celebrity A-listers find so irresistible. (Politics is show business for ugly people, as they say.)
Spicy was, it was pointed out, poking fun at himself from behind the same kind of moveable podium that Melissa McCarthy and Saturday Night Live used to make him, a political hack in service to a political disaster, into a national celebrity. By delivering a slight variation on his lie about the size of Trump’s inaugural day crowd and applying it to the Emmy broadcast, Spicer was apparently hoping that poking fun at his lying would remove the stink of his White House tenure. It was as if he were hoping that joking about being a lying joker would be as good as a confession before Saturday Mass.
As Mark Leibovich wrote in the Times, Spicer “for all his professional sins, achieved something far more pertinent to the current environment: In the space of barely half a year, he became the most famous White House press secretary in history, hands down. After a while, the celebrity itself becomes the thing. Spicer’s embattled narrative became its own subplot in the greater Trump reality show. How long could he last? How much could he take? How low would he go? People tuned in to watch his briefings in record numbers.”
Yet, now a small time political operator who made White House “alternative facts” the new normal has a visiting fellow gig at Harvard and a seat next to Jimmy Kimmel on late night television. And he’s a “star” posing for photos with complete strangers and lining up speaking engagements like someone who might have something important to say. He doesn’t.
Spicer is alive and well on national TV and on the lecture circuit even if he is not yet quite settled into a well padded sinecure on cable TV. None of this is because he has done anything significant or great and not because he’s a thoughtful fellow (who just happened to lie and bluff his way to the top of the Trump heap), but simply because he’s now considered amusing.
Spicy is our living proof that Neil Postman’s seminal 1985 book – Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business – has become the handbook for our times.
Postman, who died in 2003, was a professor at New York University and perhaps our most authoritative analyst of the intersection where modern communication collides with culture and politics. Our great national reality show has prompted a wide revisiting of Postman’s prescient work, to read Amusing Ourselves to Death in the Age of Trump is to come face-to-face with the perilous nature of our times.
Postman’s great subject thirty years ago was television and its role in shaping and diminishing American life. His 1985 dissection and critique of the vast wasteland of the blinking tube amazingly applies perhaps even more to our present Facebook/Internet-centric age. Television remains a huge force in modern lives, but the new sinister force that daily wads up truth and sends it to the trash lurks not in the corner of our living rooms, but on our laptops, smart phones and tablets. Spicer and his former boss remind us daily – hell, minute by minute – that distraction, diversion and decidedly fake news are always just a click away.
”When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” Postman wrote in the 1980s, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” This is where we are, my friends, starring down the national vaudeville act that threatens everything from the rule of law to the law of common sense.
Neil Postman didn’t really predict that America in the second decade of the 21st Century would place a faux billionaire whose real claim to fame was hosting a reality television show in the most important job in the world, but he would not have been surprised. He predicted the enthusiastic embrace of ignorance that inserted Donald Trump into a role that he is demonstrably unfit to manage let alone master.
Postman, predicting our appetite for stupid over substance, would not have been surprised that Trump actually declined to fire Sean Spicer earlier this year because the guy “gets great ratings.” Postman would not have been shocked that the president of the United States began his Tuesday by delivering a juvenile and disjointed rant before the United Nations – praised by his “base,” of course – then ended Tuesday with a tweet bemoaning the poor ratings for the aforementioned Emmy awards show.
My pal Roger Plothow, a newspaper publisher who is actually trying to do something about our appalling lack of media literacy – he visits schools and talks about real news to anyone who will listen – is as worried as I am about the sewer we are swimming in.
“The fundamental inability of people to differentiate fact from fiction has always been a critical problem,” Plothow wrote recently. “The percentage of any population with highly developed critical thinking skills has probably always been low. When technology allows the spread of ‘alternative facts,’ and altered or invented ‘photographs,’ and it makes possible the viral proliferation of sources that intentionally spread fiction, the stakes are magnified beyond even Postman’s imagining. It creates a circumstance in which a man can be so convinced that a presidential candidate is operating a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria that he appears at the restaurant armed and ready to act. Amusements are so readily available that families sitting at a restaurant table may be more engaged with their smart phones than with each other. Taken separately, these are troubling. In aggregate, Postman would consider these circumstances a grave danger to our very survival.”
Trump’s great triumph was not his improbable and unprecedented winning of the White House (while losing the popular vote) it is rather the success he has had in destroying objective truth among a significant number of Americans. And, of course, the president has succeeded in replacing facts and most all political norms with chants of “lock her up” and “Make America Great Again.” He can call for terminating the internationally supported Iranian nuclear agreement without ever really grappling with the substance of the deal or what might replace it. He lobs Twitter barbs at North Korea’s “rocket man” with no apparent attention to the real world dangers that bombastic miscalculation might have on literally millions of people.
Sean Spicer, a small man with a small brain always so obviously on display is just one of a thousand exhibits in Trump Museum of Mendacity. The president of the United States lies about everything and trivializes all things. The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has been keeping track and records 588 lies (and counting) of varying seriousness since January. Meanwhile the Trump “base” and Republicans in Congress, most of whom really do know better, just keep smiling, amusing themselves en-route to the mid-terms.
Trump Tweets a short, fake video where he appears to drive a golf ball into Hillary Clinton’s back. He brags that the economy has never been stronger. He boasts that he has had the most productive start of any president, ever – period. The Russian election interference is “fake news” and, oh yes, his opponent last year is the “crooked” one.
It is all a show, a roiling, distracting, disgusting show of trivia and piffle, a show that Neil Postman, God rest his soul, forecast a generation ago. These smiling idiots, Postman warned, will destroy the very nature of democratic culture, which brings me back to Huxley.
Postman’s book is in some ways an analysis of the two great 20th Century dystopian novels that dealt with our communication culture – George Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932. Postman correctly concluded that while Orwell’s book was supremely interesting Huxley’s was spot on correct.
“What Orwell feared 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 wrote. “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
Andrew Postman, the professor’s son, wrote recently in The Guardian about the renewed interest in his father’s thinking about our willingness to replace relevant reality with phony amusement. “While fake news has been with us as long as there have been agendas, and from both sides of the political aisle, we’re now witnessing – thanks to Breitbart News, Infowars and perpetuation of myths like the one questioning Barack Obama’s origins – a sort of distillation, a fine-tuning,” Andrew Postman wrote.
Postman continues: “’An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,’” my father wrote. ‘Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?
“I wish I could tell you that, for all his prescience, my father also supplied a solution. He did not. He saw his job as identifying a serious, under-addressed problem, then asking a set of important questions about the problem. He knew it would be hard to find an easy answer to the damages wrought by ‘technopoly.’ It was a systemic problem, one baked as much into our individual psyches as into our culture.”
There is no easy solution to a political culture rotting in real time. Obviously, as my publisher friend Roger Plothow has shown, we must begin to foster a more media literate citizenry. This starts early with education and must include a genuine recommitment to education in the humanities, particularly courses in basic civics and American history. We all need to burst out of our bubbles and be willing to confront information – and facts – that we find uncomfortable and at odds with our own well-baked views. And we must engage, all of us, in citizenship. Put the country first. Think and behave with inclusion in mind rather than tribalism. In other words, act like a citizen who deserves a place in a society that was created around the ideal that all are created equal.
And here is another idea. Read. Read Huxley and Orwell and Postman and read Timothy Snyder’s marvelous and chilling little book On Tyranny, a call to arms for our age where the unimportant has trumped the vital.
Snyder, a Yale historian who specializes in European history, reminds us in his tiny and profound book that 20th Century history holds great lessons for our time. “Believe in truth,” Snyder writes. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then it is all spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
Failure of the world’s most important and enduring experiment in democracy is not a laughing matter, yet we confront the very real possibility that we are permitting the essential fact-based, serious work of citizenship to be perverted simply because we don’t care enough to keep from being amused to death.
Sean Spicer doesn’t matter. He really doesn’t. What he represents matters a very great deal.