Neil Postman, RIP


Media theorist Neil Postman is dead at age 72, from lung cancer. Postman, probably best-known for the horrible Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, exemplified a perspective about cultural production and consumption that's is virtually the opposite of the one taken in Reason.

He consistently fretted about the media's vast power over audiences and, in books such as Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, railed against any number of technological innovations that have made people's lives much better off and, more important, freer. His point of view, widely shared by many conservatives and liberals, especially when it comes to fears of a "debased" popular culture, will live on for a very long time.

Read his NY Times obit here.

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  1. Kevin Carson remarks:

    Norman Rockwell’s America was destroyed, not by the free market, but by the corporate state.

    Indeed. Two philosophers once remarked on the destructive power of the market on social relations:

    Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

  2. “Untrue — Norman Rockwell’s America never existed. And blaming either the Government or Culture for each other is incorrect.”

    You must not have had parents and grandparents from the midwest. I’m only 31, and when I was a kid things were very very different. When I think back, the facts about the things people used to do, and how they used to act (separate from my impressions of them then) are strikingly different from nowadays. It was very much more Rockwellesque.

    Maybe I’m just overly biased by my own experience, and things are still that way in some places.

  3. JDM, I once thought things were terribly different when I was a kid but once I got to a certain age my elders became willing to tell me all the things that were kept from my younger ears. My memories were illusions. In all too many cases some horrible situations went on for years, often until all immediately concerned were dead, because certain things were just not to be spoken aloud. Discretion is a fine thing but when misery is maintained for the sake of propriety it’s harmful.

    Some things have been lost but so has much been gained.

  4. I don’t think it is logically inconsistent to argue that people have the right to choose the low and the base, and to argue that the low and the base may not be without merit. No one believes that “Porky’s” rates as film art on par with Lawrence of Arabia (to chose the above example), but you’d certainly get more laughs out of one than the other.

    I understand the reader’s confusion (and also why it may confuse non-libertarians as well and how that may play into the marginalizaton of libertarian thought) but these tactics are both necessary to some extent for a convincing justification of Libertarianism. Consider the following example:

    Libertarians believe that in principle you should be able to take any chemical you want, even if it is 100% certain to be harmful. Thus you can argue that even if drug X turns everyone who uses it into a mindless, drug-seeking criminal, it’s their right to choose and they have implicitly accepted the consequences of any criminal prosecution for crimes they commit under the influence. Pragmatists would argue that it’s insane to allow such a drug to be legal due to it’s disaterous results for the liberty of others, and whether or not they have principle on their side, this argument would appeal to a lot of people. On the other hand, if the true facts of the case are that 80% of the people who use Drug X do in fact experience no deleterious effects from it, and the 20% that do are still capable of self control in the face of addiction, it certainly becomes harder to justify draconian laws against Drug X. That doesn’t mean that there are no risks from taking Drug X or that it’s a good thing.

    Often opponents of freedom will exaggerate the moral harms imposed to society by the aggregate of individual choices. It is relevant to the argument to assess the true magnitude of any claimed ‘moral harm’. That this apparently subtle distinction is often confused with libertinism is unfortunate.

  5. Eric,

    I agree. I’m not saying things were better in all ways. I think the world in general is still improving. I just think that saying that Norman Rockwell’s America never existed needs to be qualified. Some of the good things about it – kids wandering a small town on their own (on bicycles with no helmets!!), my mother baking a pie for the new neighbors, etc. would seem out of place to me now. Which is why I say that the *facts* I can remember lead me to that conclusion – not just the impression I had of the world when I was young. I’m also not saying that my childhood was a storybook. It was great, but in a real life way.

    There is a tendency to bring up that blacks and women were second class citizens, etc. and discredit the notion that there could have been anything good about the cuture (not that you’re doing that here). That’s ridiculous. There was, and as you say, much of it has been lost.

    Having said all that, I would rather be alive today than at any other time. And I think you have to say that, by objective measures, quality of life have improved and continues to do so.

  6. Postman turned up in a very funny bit on The Daily Show a couple months back. Like Tim, I disagree with his Big Idea but I’ll miss him.

  7. JDM,

    The social relations, sense of community, and unobtrusive safety fostered by more neighborly neighborhoods are indeed something to be missed.

    If you have the good fortune to spend time in one of these increasingly rare places, you’ll likely discover that they continue to function the same way.

    Although this type of neighborhood is often equated with small town living, it is also quite common in the residential neighborhoods of older cities, which have much more in common with small towns than either have with contemporary suburbia.

    But of course, there is no desire to live that way anymore.

  8. I grew up in a suburb. It still had some farms, but it had a lot of large lot houses, and stores were set back from the road with parking lots out front. If we wanted to go shopping or out to eat etc., we had to drive.

    So if suburbs, small rural towns, and city neighborhoods can share the same characteristics, that seems to say that the population denstity doesn’t have much to do with the Rockwellness of the community.

    Personally, I think that the decline has more to do with the fact that so many people were dislocated in a short period of time than with the physical layout of the places they were dislocated to.

  9. Next week, I will choose one topic entirely at random, and see if I can turn it into a debate about development.

  10. ^understand that joe works as an urban planner i.e. he is wasting time posting her on the taxpayers expense.

  11. Jim,

    In all fairness, I have to admit that some of the “low and base” is pretty damn funny. Most of the humor in “Animal House” was just as sophomoric as “Porky’s,” but it was funny on so many more levels I still find something new to laugh at every time I see it.

  12. Jim-

    I’m not sure what you’re arguing here, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the perspective often argued by Gillespie. I agree that libertarianism and libertinism are philosophically separate, and it is wholly logically consistent to argue the former without the latter. What I argued is that it seems that the stance taken here does not make that separation, and that instead it adopts a powerful moral relativism in order to make the libertarian argument.

    That is, here is how I would tend to argue for libertarianism: that people cannot truly choose the good things in life if they do not have the option to choose the bad things, so that in order to allow for a truly virtuous citzenry we must allow the maximum amounts of choice. The argument that I often hear here instead is that citizens should be able to choose from the maximum amount of options because there is no good or bad.

    The problem I see with the latter tactic is that is does not necessarily lead to libertarianism. Rather, if I am in a position of power and come to the conclusion that all choices are equally good (or bad), then I would most likely abuse my power for my own gain, not willingly decrease the scope of it for the sake of others’ liberty. And to the Porky’s/Lawrence example, my choice would in fact have some merit- namely, helping me by exploiting you. But the existence of some merit does not make it equivalent to a more libertarian society, just as I can recognize the merit in “Porky’s” and still unequivocally claim that “Lawrence of Arabia” is far superior.

  13. Gillespie’s use of the adjective “horrible” to describe Amusing Ourselves to Death borders on the absurd. I’ve been a teacher for almost 30 years, and yes, I have seen the devastating effects television has had on the attention span and complexity of thought exhibited by too many people. Postman was absolutely correct–there was at one time in this country a Typographic Culture in which the written word dominated human discourse, to our general benefit. Postman stood up and spoke the truth–that reading is the true road to education, not watching, and he backed it up with both compelling evidence and cogent reasoning. He was especially insightful in his analysis of television’s impact on our awful electoral process,and the laughably bad job television news does of educating and informing people. His comparison of current cultural trends to the terrible world envisioned by Aldous Huxley was both apt and chilling. Postman was a brilliant man who exercised his right to call garbage what it was. He pointed out what should be obvious to any libertarian–that in the marketplace of ideas, the voice of the literate and informed critic is more crucial than ever.

  14. “Hit and Run” has a somewhat more sinister
    connotation when half the entries end in “RIP”.


  15. Unless I’m mistaken, Postman’s central thesis was always, as Gillespie says, fretting about “the media’s vast power over audiences” and complaining about the “debased popular culture.” Not that the government should somehow prevent this from happening.

    Liberals and conservatives often agree with Postman because they also think reading, say, a libertarian magazine, is in the moral plane better and more enriching than looking at pornography or watching a TV show about fart jokes. Actually, most people would probably agree with that, and there’s nothing inherent in that viewpoint that means the government should regulate or disallow liking fart jokes or pornography.

    What this magazine’s position seems to be is that not only should the government not regulate culture, but that there is no difference between reading “The Road to Serfdom” and “Barely Legal.” This is what most people find untenable, and it certainly fuels the public’s inability to distinguish between libertarianism and libertinism- it argues that not only should the government be neutral on these matters, but everyone should be, too.

    MTV’s “Nick and Jessica: Newlyweds” had double the ratings share of the best-rated news program that was covering the CA recall returns at the same time (via Drudge). It seems that libertarianism should argue that people should be allowed to do that. But it seems like it should also argue that people are allowed to call the MTV watchers stupid if they want to.

  16. Sheesh,

    I’m with you. Believing that mass pop culture is debased is not equivalent to a call for government intervention.

    There’s a facile assumption, all too common among libertarians, that any critique of McCulture or the corporate economy is “anti-market”: the implicit assumption, of course, being that these things are in fact products of the market.

    Personally, I think the role of the government in promoting centralized communications networks on a scale beyond what a free market could support, knocking together a national media market, and creating a centralized corporate economy to advertise in that market, is the main force behind our cultural ills.

    Norman Rockwell’s America was destroyed, not by the free market, but by the corporate state.

  17. The only book of Postman’s that I read was “Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century.” He celebrated the enlightment philosophers and related their views to current issues. Since those were the folks who gave us constitutional democracy and libertarian thinking, I kinda think they deserve to be celebrated.

    I wrote a review essay, “Building a Bridge to Neil Postman,” here:

  18. Untrue — Norman Rockwell’s America never existed. And blaming either the Government or Culture for each other is incorrect.

    Both culture and government are a continuous feedback mechanisms, they influcence and reflect one another.

  19. Kevin Carson, read the interview with Tyler Cowen that is now on Reason’s front page. Money quote: “Does a system that allows a bad singer to earn more than a good singer get you more singing of many different kinds? The answer is yes.” It’s a variation of the old Los Angeles-San Francisco argument: My fellow San Franciscans love to loathe LA as a shallow and cultureless wasteland, while ignoring the fact that LA has far more museums, libraries, symphony orchestras, independent theater groups, bookstores, independent filmmakers, etc. etc. than the Bay Area. It’s a bigger city, obviously, but it also owes a lot to the fact that LA is the nation’s low culture capital.

    I knew Postman a little through friends, and although I disagree completely with his notion that culture should be in the hands of wise men, he was a funny guy who made his points very entertainingly. Three anecdotes: 1. He criticized some commercial for a hair care product where a woman complains about her lack of a social life to a friend, who recommends the product (with excellent results). Said Postman, “Instead of recommending a new shampoo, the friend should say, ‘Your problem is that you’re boring. You need to read books. You need to read a newspaper. You should go to concerts and take classes and learn something about the world, so you can have an interesting conversation with people.’ Then the woman would turn to the camera and say, ‘But that could take years.'” 2. Recounting how he hosted some cultural affairs show on PBS, he said he never got a single letter from an audience member, “except for one woman who wrote in to say, ‘Do you know that you look just like Gene Rayburn?'” 3. When a guy I know wanted Postman to talk up his son, who was trying to get into NYU, he replied, “So you mean you want me to lean on somebody?”

    I think his big idea was wrong, but I’ll miss him.

  20. For all I might’ve disagreed with his general stance, I have to say that Amusing Ourselves to Death and (to a lesser extent) Technopoly are absolutely worth reading.

  21. It undermines this websites ability to credibly argue that people should be free to do things that are base, low, and harmful (to themselves) when you continuously argue, against forehead-smackingly obvious facts, that nothing is actually base, low, or harmful. It makes you look like a fool to argue that crystal meth is good for you and Porky’s is as valuable as Lawrence of Arabia. But more important, it makes you appear to be backpedaling from the position of “the individual should bear the consequences” when you insist that there are none.

  22. JDM,

    Was your “suburb” a rural town that grew larger as commuters moved in, or an instant bedroom community built on farmland?

    And given the time frame you describe, it is likely that the neighborly people who owned the houses in your hometown grew up, and thus internalized the social attitudes of, a city or small town, and imported them to a suburb. From your comments, it sounds like this Rockwell-ness is pretty much missing from the suburb you live in now. One generation, and the neighborliness is gone.

    Very insightful about the dislocation.

    It’s a lot more fun to discuss things with you when you’re civil like this.

  23. EMAIL:
    DATE: 05/21/2004 05:44:15
    The Tao’s principle is spontaneity.

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