The political activists which are the most astute when it comes to history today are conservatives. This is why we are the ones concerned about government overreach, the breakdown of the family and the moral bankruptcy of our nation. By studying the past, we’ve come to understand the inevitable consequences of these courses of action. We realize that excessive government involvement leads to tyranny, and that the disintegration of the family unit is sure to produce a disoriented and emotionally unhealthy citizenry. We know that the searing of a society’s collective conscience is a sure road to chaos, and that widespread idleness and disdain for wholesome labor opens the door to depravity and perversion. But the one thing that we history buffs find most alarming is the communist ideology – because it’s been arguably the most destructive ideology in recent history. Communism, which is “scientific socialism,” and the only form of socialism that has been implemented in a significant way, is estimated to have caused the deaths of between 23 million and 149 million people.
George Orwell and Ayn Rand, two firsthand witnesses of totalitarian communist regimes and vehement critics of the system, both became popular and influential writers whose works have had a profound influence on the conservative movement. Orwell is known for his satirical Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Ayn Rand authored Atlas Shrugged and Anthem. Their works depict communist societies, where manipulation and coercion are masked as equality and justice. They create fictive settings in which government employs the despised tactics of book-burning and censorship and silences the press in order to effectively control the public. Today, conservatives hold up these writings as examples of the consequences of unfettered government, and suggest that we are “Gulag Bound.” Liberals make a big show of promoting banned books and support campaigns like “Delete Censorship.” Neil Postman says we’re all wrong.
In his landmark book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, Neil Postman turns on its head the notion that the absence of Newspeak and the renewed interest in opposition to censorship,which has reached historically unparalleled proportions, is a positive sign, or that we are to be congratulated for having avoided the doom laid out for us by Orwell. Orwell, he suggests, did not warn us of the real threat we are facing. Orwell could not have warned us, because Orwell could not have known. It probably didn’t even occur to Orwell that the world in 1984would not need to be scared into submission by heavy-handed policies, but would walk docilely into the slaughterhouses of the intellect with their iPhones in their hands and their headphones in their ears. Orwell didn’t tell us that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.
Postman’s main premise in his book is that the medium used to communicate a message affects what that message will be. Television, he explains, is not just a different medium of communication than typography – it expresses a completely different message. Being image-based, television has, in taking over communication in the Western world, put the lid on the long Age of Exposition which was made possible by the printing press, and ushered in a new Age of Show Business. Television has fragmented the mental powers of our culture, divorced information from action, and served, in general, to distract our national consciousness through consistent entertainment away from relevant issues. In short, television has made government suppression of ideas unnecessary because people are no longer capable of deep and complex thought.
While censorship is a subject that people on both sides of the political spectrum love to get riled up about, Postman explains why it isn’t really an issue:
I would venture the opinion that the traditional civil libertarian opposition to the banning of books…is now largely irrelevant. Such acts of censorship are annoying, of course, and must be opposed. But they are trivial. Even worse, they are distracting, in that they divert civil libertarians from confronting those questions that have to do with the claims of new technologies…The fight against censorship is a nineteenth-century issue which was largely won in the twentieth. What we are confronted with now is the problem posed by the economic and symbolic structure of television. Those who run television do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously. But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual.
We are a “public adjusted to incoherence and amused into indifference,” he ventures. And our danger is not that we are unable to read the controversial books that have acted upon our culture, but that we no longer care to do so.
So, are we “Gulag Bound?” Probably. Thinking people are watching the times and warning us of the fast-approaching totalitarian chasm splitting the road. But the immediate danger facing us is the fact that there are so few thinking people left, and that most of them are non-thinking by their own choice simply because Jay Leno and football are so much more fun. If we are heading for the gulag, we are heading for it in perfect freedom, with our eyes wide open.