This is a little old, but I haven’t seen it until now. It is a short cartoon series called “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, which postulates that Aldous Huxley in Brave New World was right, and George Orwell in 1984 was wrong. That is, you are more likely to lose your freedom by being distracted through entertainment than by being lorded over by a totalitarian government. The series can be found here. Please go there and read the whole thing. (It is based on the book by Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business).
While we are not generally Aldous Huxley fans, the cartoon series makes several trenchant points. Since we have so many alternatives for amusement in modern society, the truth is so often drowned out by all of the media noise that surrounds us. Our desire to be entertained and the many avenues for fulfilling that desire have made us all egoists: It is always about us, what amuses us, what makes us happy, what satisfies our needs. Our feelings, how we feel about others, and how others make us feel becomes the center of our existence. Thus, the trivial becomes elevated to the same importance as the essential, the meaningless to the same importance as the meaningful, and many people have lost the ability to distinguish between what is insignificant and what is vital.
America has become, like it or not, the Oprah society. The TV news is rarely watched anymore, and when it is there is only about five minutes of hard news followed by hours upon hours of human interest stories. Our political discourse has been reduced to soundbites. Our last presidential election was taken about as seriously by many people as a vote on American Idol. However, instead of having Sanjaya as president, we ended up with Obama. Sanjaya could sing some, but did not at all belong on the big stage–people voted for him because they liked him and it made them feel good about themselves. In the same way, Obama was not by any measure qualified to be president, not by experience nor by temperament, but he gave people the warm fuzzies inside and caused tingles to run up their legs. Obama could have been Charles Manson as far as many people were concerned, but they voted for him anyway, because it made them feel good.
Contrary to what the cartoon “Amusing Ourselves to Death” proposes, it is not an either/or choice between 1984 and Brave New World. The model for 1984 was Stalinism, yet there are few Stalinist countries left in the world today. Modern totalitarian states often both entertain and control. On the one hand, in modern totalitarian states there is an absence of laws and rules concerning most human activities, and on the surface the people appear to enjoy a freedom that many westerners envy. Pirated DVDs are everywhere. There are no zoning regulations to speak of, and laws concerning business are either non-existent or not enforced. In short, people are fully entertained, somewhat fed, and can find all of their fantasies fulfilled. On the other hand, all of this “freedom” comes with two important caveats:
- The people are not allowed to discuss or even think about anything of substantial importance, even if–especially if–it relates directly to their own personal lives.
- The people are not allowed to stand in the way of or question their gangster government as it rapes and pillages their country.
In many ways, such totalitarian states are like ancient Rome. People could not participate in the government, and there was no such thing as a civil society. However, whorehouses were everywhere, there were the gladiatorial games, and people could work to make money. So as long as people were sufficiently amused, distracted, and well-fed, there was no problem and everything could continue. However, when the food ran out, there would be protests and riots. These were met with extreme force. Afterwards, the Caesar would give high bonuses to his imperial guard, distribute bread to the citizenry, and announce an increase in the number of gladiatorial games, and in their extravagance and bloodshed. Suitably whipped into submission and then mollified, the populace would go back to its amusements until the next bread famine arose.
This is how modern totalitarian regimes behave. Yet, there is a distinct danger that it is the future America faces. Dictatorships rarely come in announced. Instead, they slowly strip away the freedoms the people enjoy while these same people are distracted elsewhere. We have a gangster government running the US at present. It rewards friends and punishes foes, regardless of the law. It insists that it is not to be questioned and continually tries to shut off debate, though many people are rebelling at that. Meanwhile, allies of this government, included a former president or two, are calling to regulate speech both on and off the Internet and to set up some sort of “Ministry of Truth”.
The one great hope that many conservatives have is that the bread will run out and people will take to the streets and demand change. This should not be so: A democracy depends upon having an informed, engaged electorate, and not a mob looking for food. After all, the government can always whip the mob into submission and then buy it off with bread and entertainment, but in a true democracy the government and the people are one and the same: It is government of the people, by the people, for the people.
There desperately needs to be a rejuvenation of American political and civil life. People need to become engaged in the political process, and make themselves informed. And they need to be reminded of what made America great, and of what values Americans have which should be cherished and protected. This is the only real hope we have.