The Infinite Dangers of a Couch Potato-in-Chief
One of my all-time favorite books is Neal Postman’s seminal 1985 anti-television manifesto Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman’s magnum opus made a huge impact on the way I write, the way I think and the way I view the world and my place in it. Reading Amusing Myself to Death and watching less television made me smarter, more analytical and a better writer.
Postman’s book argues that the unrelentingly commercial nature of television, particularly the news, degrades public discourse, particularly where politics are concerned, by reducing events of genuine importance and significance into empty, easily digested nuggets of mindless spectacle specifically calibrated to appeal to the largest, broadest audience imaginable.
In Postman’s telling, television news impedes the public’s ability to think critically and encourages passive consumption. Our need to be entertained transforms everything into entertainment, sensationalistic, stupid and salacious in a way that may make us stupider but also helps sell laundry detergent and sugary cereals.
Much has been written about Donald Trump as a television star who sees his political life through the prism of television, particularly the reality competition realm where he ruled as a titan before the American public had the unforgivably poor judgment to elect him President. Much less has been written about Donald Trump as a rapacious television consumer, as someone whose mind and view of the world has been shaped and molded, and consequently hopelessly distorted, by television.
Trump is Postman’s worst nightmare: a more or less illiterate man (Trump’s The Art of the Deal ghostwriter Tony Schwartz has argued that Trump has such a tiny attention span and so little curiosity that he may never have finished reading a single book in his life, although heaven knows he loves to dip into his book of Hitler’s speeches) who watches between four to eight hours of television a day, primarily the kind of sensationalistic, pandering, discourse-lowering news “entertainment” Postman railed about in a book published over three decades ago.
Trump’s non-existent critical and analytic thinking skills aren’t just tainted by television in an abstract way. No, Trump is forever reacting to the news (most notably FOX and Fox and Friends) in real time, using his pulpit as the most powerful man on earth to deliver a running commentary on the world as seen through the prism of a seventies-something Fox news viewer and conspiracy theorist who unfortunately happens to be President.
Postman warned that a half hour or hour long newscast was incapable of expressing the complexities of our political system, that the way the News made everything entertainment put everything on equal footing—the death of a controversial but beloved entertainer, a bombing in India, the cancellation of a popular television show, an athlete hitting a milestone—as just stories on the news.
I can only imagine how mortified Postman—who died in 2003 of an amusement overdose, appropriately enough—would be by a Couch-Potato-in-Chief whose preferred form of communication is 140 characters or less. Postman warned that television news, as it was constructed, was incapable of nuance. In 2017, Trump leans almost exclusively on “news” sources like Breitbart, Fox and InfoWars that are not incapable of nuance but actively contemptuous of it.
Trump doesn’t watch the news to learn about the world. He watches the news to get his ignorant, biased and paranoid worldview reaffirmed. For Trump, the news is the Wicked Witch’s mirror, continually telling him that he is the strongest, most powerful and smartest of them all. There’s an insane loop where the President spends his days staring at his face on a television screen—sometimes with the sound off, so that it conveys —and making decisions that affect the lives of millions, or even tens of millions, or billions, based on what he sees.
The nightmare dystopia Postman warned about is here. The most powerful man in the world is a man-child with the attention span of a fruit fly, the maturity and the judgment of a tantrum-prone three year old who is a television consumer above all else.
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