Monday, December 25, 2006


Okay, so Generik has tagged me for this "book meme" thing, the rules of which are as follows: Fortuitously, the nearest book which isn't a dictionary, thesaurus, or handbook of some sort (and which has at least 123 pages, which Strunk and White's The Elements of Style does not) is Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin, 1985) by the late, great Neil Postman. Here are the relevant three sentences from page 123:
One would think wrong. CBS knows that Walter Cronkite plays better on television than the Milky Way. And Jimmy Swaggart plays better than God.
Hmm. Those don't make a lot of sense all by themselves, so let's give them some context. First, if I had to summarize Postman's thesis in a few sentences, here's how I'd do it:
All types of media have built-in biases—which means that they are better at communicating some ideas and worse at communicating others. Television comes with built-in biases toward the shallow, the trivial, and the entertaining. Therefore, television is not a good medium for doing the kinds of things that are necessary for conducting the public business of democracy: serious, patient, methodical, thorough, rational presentation of information, weighing of evidence, and evaluation of arguments. Unfortunately, television has become the dominant epistemology (way of knowing) of our culture and the primary forum in which our public business is conducted. To the extent that our culture depends on television as its main source of information and its primary forum for important public business, we are civilizationally fucked.
Second, to put the three sentences above in context, they come from the chapter where Postman discusses the effect of television on religion. This seems strangely apropos for a Christmas holiday marked by manufactured wars and orgies of shopping, so forgive me for quoting a bit at length:
There are, of course, counterarguments to the claim that television degrades religion. Among them is that spectacle is hardly a stranger to religion. If one puts aside the Quakers and a few other austere sects, every religion tries to make itself appealing through art, music, icons and awe-inspiring ritual. The aesthetic dimension to religion is the source of its attraction to many people. This is especially true of Roman Catholicism and Judaism, which supply their congregants with haunting chants; magnificent robes and shawls; magical hats; wafers and wine; stained-glass windows; and the mysterious cadences of ancient languages. The difference between these accoutrements of religion and the floral displays, fountains and elaborate sets we see on television is that the former are not, in fact, accoutrements but integral parts of the history and doctrines of the religion itself; they require congregants to respond to them with suitable reverence. A Jew does not cover his head at prayer because a skull cap looks good on television. A Catholic does not light a votive candle to improve the look of the altar. Rabbis, priests and Presbyterian ministers do not, in the midst of a service, take testimony from movie stars to find out why they are religious people. The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment. The distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.

The reply to this is that most of the religion available to us on television is "fundamentalist," which explicitly disdains ritual and theology in favor of direct communication with the Bible itself, that is, with God. Without ensnaring myself in a theological argument for which I am unprepared, I think it both fair and obvious to say that on television, God is a vague and subordinate character. Though His name is invoked repeatedly, the concreteness and persistence of the image of the preacher carries the clear message that it is he, not He, who must be worshipped. I do not mean to imply that the preacher wishes it to be so; only that the power of a close-up televised face, in color, makes idolatry a continual hazard. Television is, after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring than a golden calf. I suspect (though I have no external evidence of it) that Catholic objections to Bishop Fulton Sheen's theatrical performances on television (a few years back) sprang from the impression that viewers were misdirecting their devotions, away from God and toward Bishop Sheen, whose piercing eyes, awesome cape and stately tones were as close a resemblance to a deity as charisma allows.

Television's strongest point is that it brings personalities into our hearts, not abstractions into our heads. That is why CBS' programs about the universe were called "Walter Cronkite's Universe." One would think that the grandeur of the universe needs no assistance from Walter Cronkite. One would think wrong. CBS knows that Walter Cronkite plays better on television than the Milky Way. And Jimmy Swaggart plays better than God. For God exists only in our minds, whereas Swaggart is there, to be seen, admired, adored. Which is why he is that star of the show. And why Billy Graham is a celebrity, and why Oral Roberts has his own university, and why Robert Schuller has a crystal cathedral all to himself. If I am not mistaken, the word for this is blasphemy.

I wonder what Postman would have made of the whole "Left Behind" phenomenon—a made-for-TV apocalypse if ever there was one. Or of a "Christian" video game wherein you can slaughter scores of people and then just pray your way back to easy grace. He probably wouldn't be all that surprised to find such things coming out of a movement that takes a rich, enormous, complex book and fixates on its most garish bits.

Anyway. I'm not going to tag anybody, as there aren't many bloggers I know well enough to feel comfortable doing so. The madness ends here.

I'll be back either later today or early tomorrow with some holiday Random Flickr Blogging. Until then, Happy Everything!

NPR did a report on the idiotic "Left Behind" game and they played the trailer for it. The music came up, and oh Jeebus, it turns out the bastards are using Dvořák's "New World Symphony" as the soundtrack! They'll go to hell for that...
If that post didn't make most of your readers want to further explore the book, nothing will. Nice job.
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