From Expostion to Show Business

The fall of American Reason as chronicled:

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

The solution to these problems, [the vast distances and spaces separating American communities from one another in the time of the frontier] as every school child used to know, was electricity. To no one's surprise, it was an American who found a practical way to put electricity in the service of communication and, in doing so, eliminated the problem of space once and for all.  I refer, of course, to Samuel Finley Breese Morse, America's first true "spaceman." His telegraph erased state lines, collapsed regions, and, by wrapping the continent in an information grid, created the possibility of a unified American discourse.

But at a considerable cost. For telegraphy did something that Morse did not foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make "one neighborhood of the whole country." It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse. Among the few who understood this consequence was Henry David Thoreau who remarked in Walden that "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."

Thoreau, as it turned out, was precisely correct. He grasped that the telegraph would create its own definition of discourse; that it would not only permit but insist upon a conversation between Maine and Texas; and that it would require the content of the conversation to be different from what Typographic Man was accustomed to.

It's an odd view of Morse and his invention, and yet one that makes dramatic sense.  Morse started us on the way to a sound bite.  Given all those dots and dashes, how long would one sit and listen and take down page after page of reasoned discourse?  Who would be likely to engage in that form of conversation when the information is so tedious to convey?  Indeed, wouldn't it be more likely that instead of  "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary. . . "  we would condense to "Congress declares freedom for all?"  Who has the patience for the transmission of anything more?

In the previous chapter, we are regaled by the tale of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The first of the seven famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place on August 21, 1858, in Ottowa, Illinois. Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln's reply. This debate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men were accustomed. In fact, they had tangled several times before, and all of their encounters had been much lengthier and more exhausting. For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln's turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. he proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined.

What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory?  It should be noted, by the way, that Lincoln and Douglas were not presidential candidates; at the time of their encounter in Peoria they were not even candidates for the United States Senate.

How many of us would sit around for seven hours of talk, even for so serious a matter as slavery and the fate of the nation.  Most of us can't endure a half-hour at a time of sustained talking.  (But then, that may be because most people talking today take thirty seconds of an idea and expand it with inflated rhetoric and oratorical tricks (but not flourishes) to three hours of wind.)

We have changed.  I think about my grandparents--very simple people.  My grandfather never went to college, he became a foreman in a Goodyear plant. And yet he read--he read and understood a Bible most people shy away from as too difficult, too high-flown.  He read commentary on the Bible by people who used language that was not far removed from the stately prose of the KJV.  My other grandfather likewise never went to college.  In fact, he never went to high school.  With an eighth grade education, he ran a successful construction business and he too read both that "unreadably difficult" KJV and such commentaries on it as were appropriate to his purposes.  And the comprehension and discourse of these men was far more sophisticated than what comes out of the mouths of most people supposedly educated with "higher degrees."  This is not so much a tribute to these men, but to the expectations of the times.  What they did was not extraordinary, it was ordinary, it was expected, it was how you fended for yourself and became important and useful to your community.

We've seen examples of eighth grade tests from the late 1800s, the question of which  many of us could not answer--questions that assumed a deep understanding not only of incident but of cause.  This was the state of discourse at the beginning of the last century.  If you ask a young person of today what it meant to "Remember the Maine"  or for that matter "The Alamo," how many could even begin to guess about what you were talking?

Sure. we're light years ahead in our understanding of science and medicine.  But then we have Sam Harris stating baldly that science can be the source of ethical and moral decisions.  As much as I dislike his opinions and his actions, is there a person with Abraham Lincoln's understanding of the politics of his day?  Or is it indeed better for the establishment that we do not look too closely into questions that are beyond us?  Is it not better indeed to attend to our bread and circuses--the wonders of the iPad and Janet Jackson's catastrophic wardrobe failures, and the sexuality or lack thereof of Justin Timberlake, or whoever the dernier cri is today.

Postman is powerful in his exposition.  His suggestions spawn thoughts.  It is to be hoped that these thoughts can give rise to positive action to restore in some small part of the population an awareness--an ability to be awake that is so dangerous to the present status quo.


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