Sometime in high school I read Neil Postman’s criticism of “modern” television-focused culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was first published in 1984, so reading when I did in the early 2000’s, it was already an artifact of another era. I remember finding it very moving at the time, thoroughly convincing. I’m sure it was the kind of book I carried around and would repeatedly jab a finger at whenever making the kind of strained-philosophic point that high-schoolers are prone to. It was an appeal to authority that I doubt resonated with many but felt then like it ought to. Postman knew his shit! Or so I thought.
I don’t know if it was a kind of nostalgia for that time in my life or discontentment with my consumption of media in general that kept reminding me of this book lately. Truth is, both are commonplace enough emotions for me. But when thinking about this book all I could remember was that I loved it and that it tore the much touted mini-series, Voyage of the Mimi, which I had watched in elementary school, to shreds. Why exactly was it so wonderful? I couldn’t remember at all. So I checked it out at the library, which remarkably still had a copy of this thirty-year-old cultural critique on the shelves.
When I reread this book I felt like I understood the atmosphere that I grew up in better. Postman name-checks dozens of politicians, sports figures, celebrities, business and religious leaders. I had forgotten exactly how few women existed in prominent positions of power or influence in my youth but the book makes this fact abundantly clear. The women he does mention he makes fun of as silly. Men are critiqued. Women, ridiculed. It’s painful to read sometimes. When describing an early tele-evangelist, Reverend Terry, he describes her, “…in her early fifties, and features a coiffure of which it has been said that it cannot be mussed, only broken.” To contrast he chooses Pat Robertson. Yeah. The same one you’re thinking of. Postman says of Mr. Robertson, “He is modest, intelligent, and has the kind of charm television viewers would associate with a cool-headed talk-show host. His appeal to godliness is considerably more sophisticated than Reverend Terry’s.” Now, maybe there was a time before Mr. Robertson went off the deep-end and started warning about bringing home demon-possessed sweaters from the thrift store or that accepting LGBTQ people put communities at risk of being hit by meteors. Or maybe Reverend Terry is super-awful*. I find it very difficult to imagine a worse example of a religious person than Pat Robertson. But apparently, Rev. Terry is worse. I mean, think of that silly hair.
Postman claims to have, “watched forty-two hours of television’s version of religion.” Then he lists the names of six people’s shows who comprised most of that time. They are all men, white, Christian, and Protestant. That is a particular view of religion indeed. For God’s sake, a third of them are named “Jim”.
Postman draws heavily from Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase, “the media is the message.” Yet time and time again he fails to note how often the media is driven and delivered by presumably straight, white, Protestant cis-men. That too is a message, and an incredibly loud one. Is it that Postman is a straight, white, cis-man that it is a message he is culturally deaf to? The medium of long lists of male names, checked to show facility with culture and history speaks a message for sure. It says, male names are worth remembering. They go down in history and up in lights.
Postman, in a book that delves deeply into the message of the medium, never asks about the messenger. A story delivered over television, he claims, is vastly different than one delivered on paper. But the difference between it being delivered by a white talking head or a black one? It never occurs to him to ask the question. He never gets into identity as a medium, though identity politics first came into being a decade earlier. I’m not sure he’s ever genuinely thought about identity as a message. I’m not sure it’s been demanded of him yet, living in his sweet, mid-80’s cocoon of academia. Do you know how to finish this sentence, “I am woman, _______”? Or this one, “Black is ____”? Those have respectively one and two decades on this book. Identity already had clear, ascribable meaning by this time. But it wasn’t Postman’s identity and he missed it.
In his lengthy disparagement of the otherwise beloved (and racially and gender diversely-cast) Voyage of the Mimi, Postman complains that children are being taught about whales and navigating at sea, “singularly inappropriate for most students in big cities,” when they should be taught to, “inquire into the ways in which media of all kinds – including television – shape people’s attitudes and perceptions.” I agree with the second point indeed and wonder how Postman missed how centuries of straight, white, male authority and cultural figures shaped our attitudes and perceptions. He falls right in line. Later in the book he again bemoans current educational standards (remember I was in high school at the time and ate this kind of nonsense right up – it didn’t matter if the critique was older than myself, if I could pin it on my school then I would) by saying that students couldn’t tell you when the alphabet was invented, or hell, that it was invented at all. “It is the very nature of myth, as Roland Barthes pointed out, that it transforms history into nature…” I suspect this mythologizing of history into nature is the very spell Postman has fallen under. Straight, white men have always been in power, they are in power, they always shall be in power. It’s not a happenstance of history anymore, it’s a law of nature. It becomes impossible to question. It’s like asking why do things fall down? Well, what direction do you expect them to fall? South-SouthWest? What kind of world would that be?
And that’s the exact spell I too labored under when I read this book. I have no recollection of reading these pages and asking myself, where is everyone else? No thought that life in 1984 was oddly masculine and white-washed or that it was purged of queer or disabled people. My thoughts now as I read it ping between anger at how tiny Postman allows his world to be and frustration at how long I inhabited that world. Postman failed to examine his world for racism and sexism in the mid 80’s, but I read this book early in the new millennium, shouldn’t my experience as a reader have had some profound differences? I am concerned at how blithely unconcerned I was.
All in all, the more time elapses the poorer and poorer this book has fared. Postman commits the great sin of media critics, minimizing the Next Big Thing that is outside his domain of expertise, “…I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology.” In fact, whenever he spoke about computers I had to translate for myself, microcomputers means desktop computer, word-processing means DOS. Postman seems to think that television and the kind of media consumption that it drives is monolithic and unchangeable as if it hadn’t changed from the first broadcast to reruns of Cheers (the finest of television in his opinion) and would never change in the future. Could he envision the ironic t.v.-ad-watching circularity of Mad Men or the female-story driven Orange is the New Black? These are definitely neither Cheers or 60 Minutes (which garners all kinds of Postman hate). Could he have imagined Netflix? Youtube and the democratization of video production? Regular and accessible critiques of media for content and style, indeed that critiquing media, for it’s meaning no less and not just it’s quality, would become it’s own high-demand genre? Never. It was an infinite stretch of tele-evangelists and evening news programs and political commercials and Cheers, Cheers, Cheers. No wonder he shuddered and lost hope for humankind. We’ve come a long way since 1984.
*It’s hard to tell – when I googled her name and her “prosperity Campaign Kits” which was the only sort of identifying information/personal-branding in the chapter and all I got were references to Postman’s book referencing her. I actually doubt her existence a little and wonder if she’s actually an amalgam of different tele-evangelists constructed before readers could check up on these things easily. Her show name, channel, geographical region, church or denomination are not given. Even her last name isn’t listed. Just Rev. Terry. I’ve looked through several lists of prominent and fallen tele-evangelists and found no individual with the name Terry who is a woman. She’s not listed in the bibliography, or at least not as Terry. To be honest, I’m not even sure if I should be looking for a Rev. Terry Something or a Rev. Something Terry.