‘I’ ON CULTURE
The problem with the way media control the news is not, as George Orwell wrote, that they control which content they choose (although that is certainly true) but that we now drown in an ocean of triviality that causes us to lose sight of what is truly important. Neil Postman, a veteran observer of the way the media affect us, has pointed out in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Disclosure in the Age of Show Business, that although Orwell’s world of 1984 is certainly relevant, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may be even more descriptive.
Orwell wrote about a world where the government censored everything, employed euphemisms that totally mischaracterized government actions, and used pain to enforce its will. We see that everywhere now. The so-called Department of Homeland Security has just entered an agreement with Saudi Arabia so they can now vouch for the reliability of their citizens (who made up most of the hijackers on 9/11) so they do not have to be searched and investigated to fly, while our own TSA agents continue to provide “free exams” to all American citizens. And, if you protest the violation of your privacy, you might even get a free informal colonoscopy. Add to that the power with which flight attendants (another euphemism) have been invested. I just read about a family with two small children tossed off a flight that was diverted from its original goal for security reasons because they complained about the adult theme of an in-flight movie. After all, parents with a 3-year old and 5-year-old are obvious possible security risks.
But we are being diverted by nonsense. Worried about increased government spending or corruption? Well, there’s less of it, by all accounts, when we watch television. After all, if Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer and all the others spend too much time on cutbacks in Medicare or the increasing personal and national debt, we would barely have time to hear all the latest news on the Kardashians. Can you imagine Walter Cronkite ever discussing them? But celebrity news has moved front and center. Reporters beg teen idols for quotes about weighty affairs. After all, who would you rather hear discuss national defense issues, some old general or Justin Bieber?
Orwell predicted governments would rule through fear while Huxley posited they would do it through pleasure. We can watch television, surf the web, listen to our own personal music lists and have endless distractions. There are hundreds of television channels, On Demand means we can actually create our own personal channels, we can buffer ourselves from “dangerous” thoughts by findings hundreds of different news sources that we can enjoy without hearing any dissenting tones, all the while believing we know what is happening. It no longer really matters what you believe in; you can ensure that you do not hear anyone speak out against your personal beliefs. That makes it far easier to appreciate harsh criticism against those we are told to dislike; we never hear from those people.
Orwell thought that the truth would be concealed from the public while in fact all that has happened is that most of the public is too distracted to get a complete, multi-sided view of anything. And, safe in the cocoons we have constructed to protect ourselves from those views that might disturb us, we find diversion. Remember that a lot more people are watching American Idol or Dancing with the Stars than any nightly news program. And we do it to ourselves, all the while congratulating ourselves that we are well-informed.