Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman: A Prophetic Wake Up Call, Echoing Back Decades

Amusing Ourselves to Death | Author: Neil Postman | Genre: Nonfiction

Paperback: 184 | My Edition’s Publisher: Penguin Group (2006) | Original Publisher: Viking Penguin Inc. (1985) | ISBN: 978-0-14-303653-1

Rating: 5/5

“Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business.”

Postman, page 80

If you need a wake-up call to the ways that entertainment has reshaped our culture, and continues to infiltrate every part of our society, this is for you.

If you need to confirm your weary suspicions that media is crazy and is making us crazy, this is also for you.

Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues how public thought and conversation has been misshapen in an era of show business, constant entertainment, information overload, reliance on technological media, and ultimately, led us to an addiction us to our own deadly disease. Speaking to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Postman describes how we are ruining ourselves and our society with our addiction to being entertained.

Yeah, it’s a lot.

It’s a heavy read, and it took me several weeks. But, I think this is important for us to consider. We cannot deny the fact that our entire society has been completely infiltrated by entertainment, technology, and media.

Have we made it through the year 2019 yet? Just barely. Have we survived next year’s presidential election? Lord, help us.

It Got Me Thinking…

Postman’s argument is not simply that TV is bad. Instead, he illustrates to us how vastly different communication has become in recent decades. Taking each chapter to discuss a different avenue – specifically politics, education, news, and religion – and how TV has changed these spheres, his overarching theme is that TV is deteriorating those spaces because it is not suitable to relay this information and to give room for conversation to follow.  

In short, modern day America has become so addicted to entertainment, that we won’t even receive the news and politics and education without it.

But what if those pairs can’t coexist?

When we choose to use the screen to relay all of our news and politics and education and religion, we are choosing to receive it in a way that entertains us, and only widening the gap between our ability to have a thoughtful discussion and our desire to always be entertained. This book makes us wonder how entertainment has changed the difficult conversations.

“Television, as I have implied earlier, serves us most usefully when presenting junk entertainment. It serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse – news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion – and turns them in to entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. ‘The A-Team’ and ‘Cheers’ are no threat to our public health. ’60 Minutes,’ ‘Eye-Witness News,’ and ‘Sesame Street’ are.”

postman, pages 159-160

He says that we are teaching ourselves to love TV – not the information. We are a society of people who are being taught that if it’s not entertaining or pleasurable to me, then I don’t want to hear it. So, the only way that we receive information is by getting it in little pieces crammed between advertisements. There is no cohesion, or connection to its context. There is not background or even time for a full argument, to discuss all of its implications.

Just like our addiction to scrolling and seeing dozens of photos and bits of information in a mere minute, so is our reception to news. Just tons of tiny bits, and no glue to hold it together. Not to mention, no time to make sense of it all.

One of the most alarming chapters to me was Chapter 8 “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem.” In this chapter, Postman discusses religion and TV. And it’s astounding.

On our screen, we have witnessed profane events and have sinful memories etched into our brains; it’s difficult to use our screen for a sacred event. I can easily turn my screen to a Preds game or Netflix. It’s no problem to click over to Instagram. What about that space is suitable for my worship? What have I truly consecrated and given up in the total adoration for the Lord that I claim to love, when I give him a bit of time between my scrolling and watching? When I rely on my screen for spiritual refreshment, I will always be let down, because there are always apps waiting on either side of my worship, rushing me back.

I should also note that Postman doesn’t claim Christianity, or any other religion in the book. But even as he writes from a secular mindset, he sees these problems – perhaps more clearly than my religious friends can. That’s also astounding.

“The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch. For I believe it may fairly be said that we have yet to learn what television is. And the reason is that there has been no worthwhile discussion, let alone widespread public understanding, of what information is and how it gives direction to a culture.”

postman, page 160

By the way, in case you didn’t catch it above, this book was written over 3 decades ago. And he is spot. On. In a prophetic tone echoing from its original creation in 1985, Postman has presented us with a detailed warning that we are on the way to our own disaster. His message has not lost meaning over these years. Instead, it’s clearer and more relevant now than ever.

As I read, I thought of my own screens. No, for me it’s not cable television anymore. But it is Twitter and Instagram, Netflix and Crowd City. It’s mindless scrolling, wasting time numbing my brain and believing every headline I read. And after the last couple years our nation has seen, as we mock a president’s ridiculous comments on social media and receive risqué headlines that barely give us the story, who can argue that we don’t have an entertainment problem.

Actually, if I’m honest with myself, I have a hard time stomaching the news because it does feel like a joke. I can’t take the most serious news I will receive seriously, because of its packaging. And of course, the way its packaged and delivered alters the message altogether. It leaves me to wonder – what can I trust?

From a Christian, to a Christian:

Coming from a Christian worldview, brothers and sisters, we have to consider this topic. As Christ-followers, we should desire to be the most present, intentional people in all our conversations – no matter how big or small. But how often does our media get in the way of our presence? How many time have we worshipped our media and entertainment? How often do we let it rob our memory of the dignity of a person?

If the world cares about education, politics, religion, how much more should I? I know our Maker, and I know what he says about the value of people. He has dignified our position, and I call him a liar when I’m not engaging in these conversations.

Most of all, my pride is reigning when I choose entertainment first. I am saying that how I feel is more important than the person or conversation at hand. This is a woe of 2019, but that doesn’t excuse us from the damaging affects of our phones.

The verdict:

We would all do well to seriously consider our relationship with media, and to question our addiction to entertainment. And for that reason alone (and because I love ya and don’t want to see you waste your brain power), I believe this provocative, bold book is well worth the read.

Don’t fall asleep on this one. Put on your brave face. Brace yourself for impact. Grab a cup of coffee, and settle in. This is good. Difficult, but good.

Charlotte’s Web: A Life-Giving Classic That Will Make the World Feel Like a Miracle

Charlotte’s Web | Author: E.B. White | Genre: Children’s Fiction

Paperback: 184 | Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers (April 10, 2012) | ISBN: 0739477072

Rating: 5/5

In case you don’t know, I coordinate an after school program for elementary refugee students. I literally get paid to play games in order to help kids practice English. Amazing, right? So several weeks ago, when I was in the trenches of planning for the school year, I found myself following a rabbit trail of looking at children’s books. When I finally found my way back, I had a new Good Reads list with 40 titles on it. I call it “Kiddos.”

One of these titles? Charlotte’s Web. I realized I had never read this classic before, and knew that had to change. So when I was at the library just a couple days later with an adult ESL student, I modeled the check-out process with none other than Charlotte’s Web.

I had no idea when I picked this book off the shelf how endearing Charlotte would become to me, or how Wilbur would soften my heart. I didn’t expect for Templeton to frustrate me, and to giggle at Wilbur and Charlotte’s interactions in their friendship. The book was incredible, weaving together truths of friendship and mysterious kindness, and to all my adult friends – I have to recommend it to you. It will take you only a few hours to read, and you’ll be richer for it.

“Wilbur ate heartily. He planned to leave half a noodle and a few drops of milk for Templeton. Then he remembered that the rat had been useful in saving Charlotte’s life, and that Charlotte was trying to save his life. So he left a whole noodle, instead of a half.”

I have to recommend it because it will make you giggle. The quirks of the farm animals and their interactions, the human characters’ responses to Charlotte’s web, the comments of Wilbur – it’s all just as enjoyable for children as adults. It’s an innocent kind of humor that offers a childlike humor and wonder, filling you with an easy comfort that honestly, you’ve probably missed and not even realized it.

And in all the humor, I didn’t expect to see life as a miraculous wonder. There’s a particular scene where Mrs. Arable goes to the doctor to inquire whether or not she should be concerned about her daughter, Fern’s, hanging around the barn with all the animals. It’s comical, a bit awkard, but also inspiring. The doctor’s response is ingenius. He simply makes the point that life is miracle, and that the spiders know how to make a web without being taught is incredible. And I think that Dr. Dorian’s entire point in the scene is this: life is a miracle.

Don’t get so caught up in yourself that you forget to look up and around. There is an entire world buzzing around you – but you’re missing it when you live in fear and retort criticism of it all. The world is vastly more intricate than you or I can see; we are not the only way of living. Humanity is not the only way of life. There are creatures and critters crawling about, a sky hanging above, a solid ground below. It’s wonderful, really, and to all my adult friends: it’s okay to live in wonder of it all, paying attention and looking for the miracles all around.

“Wilbur blushed. ‘But I’m not terrific, Charlotte. I’m just about average for a pig.’ ‘You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned,’ replied Charlotte, sweetly, ‘and that’s what counts. You’re my best friend, and I think you’re sensational. Now stop arguing and go get some sleep!’”

I didn’t expect to learn about friendship. True friendship uplifts, encourages, and even renames. We all need someone to see us for who we are, even we don’t feel it. Unconditional love and friendship looks us at us, in all our dirt and fear, and say, “Even so, I think you are fantastic.”

Love like this doesn’t expect us to come perfect, but is eager to welcome us despite our shortcomings. It assures us that we are valuable simply for existing – no prerequisites needed. We’re here and that’s miraculous. We can rest in that. We can also call that out in others.

“Ever since the spider had befriended him, he had done his best to live up to his reputation. When’s Charlotte’s web said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte’s web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow.”

Most of all, I’m not sure I expected to be shown the power of words. The language we use when talking to people will affect them; the words we use to describe them will change them. The other barn critters saw Wilbur as a lame, smelly pig heading for the smoker. And he believed it. He was going to accept that fate. But then Charlotte saw something special in him, and she spoke what she saw over him. When she did, it changed the way he even carried himself. She and her 8 little legs changed what Wilbur believed of himself. He lived up to what his friend said of him.

That’s incredible.

It makes me wonder: what do I speak over people? Is it life-giving, or condemning? Is it helpful and true, or unkind and belittling? I better answer honestly, because my words will make a difference – whether for good or bad – in someone’s life today. And I hope it’s a good one.

You might feel above reading a children’s book, but none of us are exempt from learning these lessons of kind words, friendship, and shifting the way we view life. In fact, some of us need a kid’s book to show us that simply; I’m one of them. Thank you, Charlotte’s Web, for bringing me back to the wonder of childhood and learning to live in the world again.

And to Charlotte – thank you for setting an example of how to be a true friend and a good writer. I want to be both.

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus: A Quick Read That’s Actually Believable

One of Us Is Lying | Author: Karen M. McManus | Genre: YA Mystery, Fiction

Hardcover: 416 pages | Publisher: Delacorte Press (May 30, 2017) | ISBN: 1524714682

Rating: 4/5

“I know what it’s like to tell yourself a lie so often that it becomes the truth.” 

A gossip app. An unlikely bunch of people in the same room. A death. Surprising friendships, breakups, and hook ups. And people searching to clear their name, even when it means admitting to the secrets they thought would stay buried. Karen M. Manus, in her YA Mystery One of Us is Lying, weaves high school stereotypes into a surprising story of belonging, changing, and fessing up by way of a framed murder.

When a group of students are put into detention, they think their biggest problem is proving to the teacher why they aren’t supposed to be in there and how there’s been a mistake. They have no idea that in minutes, when the creator of a rank student body gossip app, Simon, falls over dead, they will become murder suspects attempting to prove to the law and the watching world that they didn’t do it.

The only problem is that the law is determined to prove one of these kids guilty. And the media eats the case, following the kids around and updating the world on the latest happenings in the case without regard for what might actually be true.

Also. As if warding off the media and fighting the justice system isn’t challenging enough, high schoolers are mean and these murder suspects have their peers to deal with too, so there’s that.

You think that throughout the story you are reading about kids solving a murder. And you are. But what you are truly uncovering in this tale is people owning up to the truth, falling in love, and dealing with the firsthand sting of the media and how crazy the public is for a juicy story.

As with any YA thriller, I often find myself thinking while reading, “Okay, but would this really happen? Also, how old are these kids anyways? Because this is not what my life looked like at 18.”

I usually expect that in this genre. For the sake of keeping the pages turning, I can look past that. I can put my creative hat on, and play along with the author’s story; I was happy to do that for One of Us is Lying. The story felt more believable than others I’ve read.

Although I didn’t particularly feel connected to some of the characters and some moments that were supposed to be monumental felt unsurprising, I found this book to be a low stakes, easy read. There’s nothing too heavy – well, other than solving a murder – being dealt with, and you know, life is hard enough. Sometimes I just need a page turning story to follow without much thought.

Certainly, if you wanted to heavily discuss socio-economic status and the justice of the law, there are plenty of conversations that you could start using this book. However, I took this opportunity to read a story and to make a few quick points about life in the 21st century.

“She’s a princess and you’re a jock,” he says. He thrusts his chin toward Bronwyn, then at Nate. “And you’re a brain. And you’re a criminal. You’re all walking teen-movie stereotypes.” 

Each character enters the story with a predictable caricature. It’s the same ole’ status quos we’ve been simplifying the high school experience into for decades. But as we dig a little closer, we see that there’s more to everyone than their positions and titles. And even further, we find that everyone has lied in some way to get and maintain their placement.

It’s interesting how willing we are to live in the darkness of a lie we’re not even happy about, when walking  in the light of the truth produces within us a richness we would have wanted sooner.

But I have to say: each of these kids, from the princess down to the criminal, own up to their story. They do. When their hiding is exposed, they take it. Honestly, I think that was the most surprising part of the story because I only recall a handful of people in my own life with that kind of integrity.

When they fessed up, they changed. They weren’t bound to their lies anymore, but were placed fully in the open where they were free and had nothing left to lose. Not even their reputation, and to hell with it anyway. Once they had the guts to leave the relationship or admit how they really got the passing Chemistry grade, they were formed into a bolder, more honest, more intriguing version of themselves.

No one is perfect, and things begin to change once we believe that. Not only of others, but of ourselves too. (Also, side note, the criminal was the most honest guy in the whole story. Take that for what you will.) 

“I stand and hold out my hand. She gives me a skeptical look, but takes it and lets me pull her to her feet. I put my other hand in the air. ‘Bronwyn Rojas, I solemnly swear not to murder you today or at any point in the future. Deal?’
‘You’re ridiculous,’ she mutters, going even redder.
‘It concerns me you’re avoiding a promise not to murder me.” 

Okay, the love story. The classic rich girl falls for the poor boy tale. The one where she stays up late on the phone when she should have been studying, and he stops selling drugs. I’m really doing it an injustice because it’s way more adorable on the pages.

It’s an innocent love story between two murder suspects, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Manus keeps it clean, and uses the two to help each other grow out of who they thought they had to be. I appreciated that.

“Like we’re some kind of hip high school murder club without a care in the world.” 

It’s, like, really freaky how much we lean on the media to give us the truth today. We esteem it and follow it, as if it can do no wrong. But as Manus shows us, it can do so much wrong. For starters, it followed these kids around. Reporters waited after school and surrounded their homes. And for what? To get the latest report on a story? A story that people attached to, and treated like a reality show? Not cool.

And the fan base. Oh, my word. The public following the media reports were taking sides and picking teams of who they thought the murderer was. Suddenly these kids had fan pages on Facebook, and had to stay away from Twitter to avoid people’s comments.

It was like everyone watched a 5 minute report, and were suddenly experts on the nuances of the whole case. Suddenly there was no regard for the humanity of the people involved, and the embarrassment, confusion, chaos they were feeling. There wasn’t substantial support or encouragement offered to the suspects. The case, as a group of kids fought for the truth to be found and to save any hopes for their future, became trivialized; the watching public waited to see who would fall next like it was some kind of TV show.

It’s a mirror to our society’s response to news today. We hear the news and genuinely believe that the media just wants to help us and help everyone. We do. We follow it. We worship it to the point that the implications of what we’re hearing is totally detached from what really happened, on the altar of being in the know and hearing a good story. We don’t even consider that what we believe might be wrong.

It’s not that we just form opinions about stories in the media, but we state those opinions like fact. And really, assuming that we could possibly grasp the whole story – with all its sides, humans, and moving parts involved – in a matter of minutes is the most prideful thing we could do.

I can barely remember to put on deodorant in the mornings, much less solves a crime case. One of is Lying reminded me to humble myself, and not assume I know everything when it comes to people and stories. What you see is not the full truth; everyone carries baggage that we might not ever get to see or understand.

Everyone is motivated by something, and this book shows us that some motivations are better than others. With all that said, don’t believe everything ya hear, kids.

And while you’re at it, go check on your people. You might think they’re okay, but they might be battling demons and need helping finding the light again. Be the light.