Those who know Steve Almond as an incredible short story writer might be surprised by the deep rigor and political analysis of this recent nonfiction book, Bad Stories. But those of us who read his Week in Greed column won’t, particularly those of us who read “To Behave like the Fallen World“ and were able to revel in his capacity to expose his own transgressions for the sake of a narrative that epitomizes the human condition. I consider Steve a mentor, and he’s had a great deal of influence on my work. We chatted over email about his latest book.
The Millions: Early on in Bad Stories, you say you believe that faith in stories has been integral to our survival, but you also believe this capacity poses the central risk to our species and that the 2016 election is an object lesson in just how much harm bad stories can inflict upon even the sturdiest democracy.
When I read that I was reminded of an interview Lauren Groff had with Brad Listi, wherein she likened Ayn Rand to someone who was given a pen to write with yet used it to stab us in the eye.
I agree so much with what you’ve both said here, and in this political era, I’m clamoring for narratives that promote collectivism, what you mention as the beautiful fiction known as the common good. But maybe there’s a different narrative approach that can be taken here.
I’ve had the good fortune of learning from you.
One of my favorite lectures of yours is one you call “Show Me the Gun,” about the amount of information we share with the reader. You urge your students not to hold back, to not be coy; perhaps all the characters don’t have the information, but our beloved reader knows it all.
Am I naive to think that collectivism is the narrative that will lead us toward change? Will it be satire? It seems there are a lot more dystopic narratives, stories about greed gone awry. We watch people on Westworld and Black Mirror and Handmaid’s Tale reaching for more than their fair share, and it acts as a portal into our present or our future, and maybe we’ll learn from it or maybe we’ll all suffer compassion fatigue. What do you think?
Steve Almond: I hadn’t made the connection, but my approach as a teacher of creative writing does have something to do with collectivism. What I often see from student writers is the withholding of vital contextual information from the reader. The writer does this for a number of reasons: She hasn’t figured out the context yet and/or she fears it will be boring and/or she believes withholding will build suspense and/or she’s been told “show don’t tell” too many times. Whatever the reasons, the most common result is that the reader gets confused. They really don’t know the character they’re reading about and what’s at stake for that person. And they usually stop reading that story—no matter how vivid the prose is. They can’t connect emotionally. Because we can’t feel what a character feels until we know what they know.
This is really at the heart of the essential human struggle between selfishness and collectivism. Are we, as individuals and as a culture, willing to recognize the humanity of other people? Are we willing to imagine our way into their struggle? That’s what our most powerful good stories help us do, stories such as the Sermon on the Mount, or the Gettysburg Address, or Their Eyes Were Watching God or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” or Song of Solomon. Great books—great art of any kind—complicate moral action by making us feel our responsibility for the suffering of others. In this sense, it’s the literary ally of collectivism.
Propaganda seeks just the opposite. It’s intended to help us disregard other people, to nurture our own selfish impulses, to anesthetize our mercy. This is what Lauren means when she talks about Ayn Rand. Her novels are properly understood as dogma, a kind of capitalist propaganda devoted to the childish fantasy that the rich are virtuous and the poor are morally defective. They hew to the basic moral logic of eugenics. And they portend a world straight out of Thomas Hobbes, in which life is understood as “a war of all against all.” It is this manner of thought that has animated the American right for the past half-century, and which our current president embodies—a mindset that is a precise repudiation of the Sermon on the Mount.
What you call “compassion fatigue” is the understandable exhaustion that people of conscience feel in having to fight such tireless greed and cruelty.
But it’s important to remember the stories in American history that have marked our moral progress: abolition, emancipation, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights. Long before we had a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror” we had a “war on poverty.” All of this required Americans of conscience to turn away from their screens and get off their couches and take action, to embrace the burdens and privileges of citizenship. As you know from your work, Melissa, it’s exhausting and often thankless work. But it’s the only way we can push the pendulum back in the direction of mercy. It’s not going to happen by us just sitting on the sidelines, hate-watching the demise of our democracy.
TM: You define bad stories as stories that are fraudulent either by design or by negligence. One of the first bad stories is our electoral system. You talk early on in the book about how our system of democracy has been rigged, structurally and logistically, by some combination of cynical partisan intent, class privilege, and abject negligence. You later go on to state how we are powerless to fix our broken institutions.
It was one of those rare, stunning summer days at a summer writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon, when a writer said she just wasn’t sure about voting, that her vote mattered, or maybe I’m remembering wrong—maybe she wasn’t sure about a specific initiative like universal health care or a progressive tax or a candidate—and either I looked at you pleading for help or you me, but that brings me to what I often find to be the worst bad story: What is the antidote for apathy?
If I were to channel my inner Steve Almond, I might say the narrative antidote to apathy is to invoke empathy, and the best way a writer could do that is to write honestly, with an open, unguarded heart. Much less a what to do than a what not to do…to not protect oneself from excessive emotional involvement. That emotional entanglement is the point. As Cheryl Strayed has said, be brave enough to break our own hearts. Today I get to tell my students that contrary to what we’ve been taught, the page is the one place where we are not just safe but encouraged to break our own hearts.
SA: Yeah, look—it hurts to touch the inner life. Our best stories are not the ones that try to soothe that hurt, but ones that articulate that hurt and remind us that we’re not alone in that hurt. Apathy, like alienation, is a defensive response to thwarted desire. It’s people deciding—consciously or unconsciously—that they can no longer shoulder what Sarah Manguso calls “the burden of hope.” So maybe the question we should have asked that woman in Portland is: What do you desire? What are your hopes? Who are you worried about? Where are you hurting? That’s what our best stories do: they peel back our grievances and reveal our vulnerabilities.
TM: My most damaging unreliable narrator is the one I’ve manifested over time by way of capitalism. I’ll wake up and think of all the ways I’ll lose everything I have. All the things I have not yet acquired. I have to catch myself and say, no Melissa, that is not a true story; those are the little capitalist elves taking over your mind. You articulate this so well when you say Trumpism is predicated on the zero-sum model; in order for you to win, the other guy has to lose. What do you tell your children when they are entertaining that very American ideology of compare and despair?
SA: Gosh. Yeah. I mean, my kids are constantly doing this. It’s a natural human impulse, one that capitalism has amplified in ways we hardly ever discuss. Look at the manner in which we fetishize wealth and vilify poverty. You can’t blame that on “pop culture” because we’re the ones who create pop culture. What I’ve found with my kids is that it doesn’t work to scold them for bratty behavior, because these behaviors arise from shame—the shame of feeling that you have less because you are less. And here’s the thing: You can’t shame shame out of existence. You can only love it out of existence. What I try to do is recognize that a bratty kid is a kid in need, but one who can’t articulate his or her needs. My wife and I also try (emphasis on try) to model generosity.
One of the curiosities of the 2016 election was that the psychodynamics revolved around shame. Donald Trump presented a kind of unprecedented figure in American politics because he didn’t just appear immune to shame; he weaponized shamelessness. And this made him irresistible. Not just to his base, who saw in him a kind of wish fantasy of moral impunity, but also to his haters (like me) who reveled in repudiating him. We all fed the oxygen of attention into the Trump Express; we all let him set the agenda. It was a kind of shame-based Ponzi scheme in which Trump would say something despicable and people would express disgust and Trump would say, “See, the lying media looks down upon you!” and his supporters, feeling looked down upon, would convert their shame into greater devotion.
It’s the precise opposite of the lesson you try to impart to children, which is that shame should lead you to question and modify your own behavior.
TM: One thing I find to be most difficult about political writing is that heavy lifting of unpacking the backstory. The exposition. How can I write political history in dramatic scene? What does the reader already know? How much should I share? You do this genius thing where you give the reader a bunch of information, but you respect us—by prefacing your statement with “We know”…as in:
We know Fred Trump was arrested at a Klan rally as a younger man, that he didn’t like renting apartments to African-Americans, that he was sued by the federal government for discriminatory practices and forced to desegregate his properties. We know he used to take young Donald around with him to collect rents, and later employed him in the family business. We know that he urged his son to be a “killer” and shipped him off to a military boarding school at age twelve.
And I was like holy shit—I didn’t know all that, but I was glad for the extra props. Can you talk a little bit about the craft of writing a political essay?
SA: A lot of it resides in simply providing the relevant dramatic context for the reader, like we were discussing before. In this case, you have to understand that Trump was raised by a racist father who failed to love him. You can’t understand Trump—his instinctual racial animus, his inexhaustible masculine shame, his need to project his weakness onto others—unless you give the reader the full story. I wrote Bad Stories in part because nobody is giving Americans of conscience the full story. We get all these half-baked hot takes without any sense of the bad stories that led to particular bad outcomes. It’s all panic and no reflection, all present and no backstory, all symptom and no cure.
TM: You tell a story of your time as a young journalist, a pretty incredible one actually. You discuss how you wrote about an assignment to cover the city of Meriden, Connecticut, how you were not from the city. You were honest about how you simply sat in coffee shops and in your Mercury rather than getting to know the city, scheduling ride-alongs, talking to some people who work graveyard shifts, going to the hospital, things like that. You turned in the story, and here is the best detail: Your boss hands you an envelope with $350 and instructs you to buy something nice for your girlfriend, to go get her some cocaine.
First of all that, is such a great fucking line to a story I don’t know how you’ve gone this long without using it (unless you have, and I suck for not remembering). This story is all about what is wrong with journalism. And I agree, wholeheartedly, but I have to disagree that journalism could not awaken the conscience of the powerful, nor rescue those most in need. I have to believe in something.
I am part of a nonprofit called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. It was founded by Barbara Ehrenreich with the aim to enable writers who experience poverty to write about it. So rather than parachute some cocky 20-year-old out to Meriden, Connecticut, a local warehouse worker in Meriden could tell her own narrative. I often report on lived experience, and one of the greater challenges I’ve found is that news outlets don’t want to entrust someone with lived experience to tell their story; they fear we may have a bias. For example, the child welfare system has been my beat, but as a former foster youth, people may think that could cloud my judgement in some way or another. But that brings me to the point you were making here: What exactly does that say about who we do entrust with the story? Who does get to shape our narratives?
SA: Yes! That’s it! The problem is one of privilege and cynicism and sloth—and I was a party to all three back in Meriden, though I had no idea at the time. Who gets to shape the narrative? We should all be asking that, every minute of the day. Who gets to shape the narrative? Look at all those rich old white men in front of microphones. Are they telling the story of every American? Can they possibly know the story of a child of color who grew up in foster care? Why are we allowing people who can’t see or understand such lives to make policy that profoundly effects (and usually harms) such lives? You can draw a straight line between Ronald Reagan talking about “Welfare Queens” and Trump calling immigrants “rapists” and “animals.” This is why I tell so many stories in the book about the limits of my own experience, the way in which I would sit on my porch in El Paso sipping coffee while below me I could watch young women crossing the Rio Grande from Juarez to come clean American toilets for 12 hours a day. They’d stand there, shivering in the dawn, having to strip off their wet clothes and change into dry ones, hoping an INS van wouldn’t chase them through the low desert scrub. That’s just a stone-cold picture of American privilege. I can’t witness that. I can try to imagine what those women are thinking and feeling, but I have no fucking clue. Only they do.
One of the foundational bad stories of journalism is the bad story of “objective journalism,” which Hunter S. Thompson called “a pompous contradiction in terms.” It’s just a little ethical fairytale that reporters tell themselves so they can sleep at night. It makes much more sense to let people tell their own stories, because even the most sensitive journalistic account is really just an approximation from without.
TM: This brings me also to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. You describe this book as an elegant polemic against television; Postman outlines that as a result of television, serious things are handled (and received) with the same essential lack of seriousness.
What do you think Postman would make of social media?
SA: I suspect he would see it as the final step in the disintegration of epistemology, the moment in which the very idea of “the truth” became so decentralized and subjective as to be irrelevant. And that’s really most of what you see when you look at social media: Everyone is crafting a public fiction that conforms to their inner life. The tech greedheads have this whole utopian rap about how the whole point of social media is to connect people. But that’s marketing, which is to say bullshit. The point is to aggregate attention on behalf of the sponsors. That’s why Facebook was happy to become a sewer of Russian misinformation during the election. That’s why your Google search feeds you results that confirm your biases and nourish your bigotries. It’s why so many Russian bots haunted the digital halls of Twitter.
Any sensible government would regulate these huge companies, to prevent them from spreading bad stories. That’s what the Fairness Doctrine was about: putting a spoiler plate on for-profit propaganda. The whole point of the Fairness Doctrine was to make sure the public airwaves were used to serve the public good. When Reagan’s FCC repealed it, right-wing radio went wild. For-profit propaganda became the media’s central growth industry. The modern media echo chamber was born.
The folks who spew this propaganda sound serious as poison. But they are completely unmoored from reason, science, verifiable truth. Which is to say: They are entertainers who are paid to appear serious. And because there is no Fairness Doctrine to keep them honest, actual scientists and professors and journalists and workers are never allowed to call them out on their bullshit. They enjoy the ultimate epistemological safe space, where they can craft enthralling fictions about how white people are the true victims of everything and are constantly under siege by dark others.
In fact, they get to inject this poisonous rhetoric directly into the American political bloodstream, which is how you get Trump as president.
But here’s the thing: We’re not just witnesses to this process. We’re the needle. The attention we give to the bad stories spewed by these hatemongers distracts us from the stories we should be focused on—the story of climate change, of income inequality, of systemic racism, the stories of our most vulnerable citizens.
This is why, in darker moments, I see America as engaged in a kind of disorganized descent into fascism, because rather than housing the Joseph Goebbels of our age in a dungeon or relegating them to the fringes of our public discourse, we’re amplifying their paranoid and fraudulent hate speech.
TM: Can we do a throwback Thursday and I ask Steve “Sugar” a question that kind of relates to all these bad stories?
So I was teaching a writing workshop to young women at a camp in the Pacific Northwest. I talked about being a teenage girl in foster care and developing an ache: the don’t-get-too-attached-you-can’t-spend-eat-fuck-your-way-out-of-it ache, as it were. My talk was the one thing between the young campers and their lunch. So I gave my talk, and we all scattered our own way, but later in the food line over trays, a young woman approached me and sheepishly asked, “Did you ever get rid of the ache?”
I felt like I was at a fork in the road; one direction could lead to a bad story. What should I have told her?
SA: I would have told her that she was brave and beautiful for asking that question and that the only honest answer to give her is that we’re living in the ache. The ache is the astonishing sorrow of the examined life. The ache is how we know we’re alive. And when we’re telling good stories, the ache is how you know you’re not alone in this life.
Back in June, an article titled “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win” (penned by Michael Moore) showed up on my news feed and, because I was tracking the election rather closely, I read it. I then read it again. After the third time, I shared the article around and asked for people’s’ opinions. While this article and his subsequent rounds on talk shows have made Moore one of the many prominent figures that will be forever tied to Donald Trump’s unlikely run to the White House, there is one person who has him beat by roughly 30 years. When Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business back in 1986, he set his sights on what he saw was a change in the way society was being swayed by the spectacle of the visual message in media. Unfortunately, even he could not foresee how his look into the harmful influence of television and media overexposure was completely foreshadowing the rise of Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, and our first “Reality Show President.”
It is necessary, before we juxtapose the Trump candidacy to Postman’s work, that we fully understand a few of the theories posed in Amusing Ourselves to Death. To rationalize his theory, Postman quotes the philosopher Lewis Mumford who, in his book Technic and Civilization, deconstructs our society’s propensity to become addicts of information. For this, Mumford uses the invention of the clock as an example. He believed that when we created this tool to measure increments of time, we effectively became “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.” In other words, we created a tool to measure time, and in doing so, produced a new form of currency that would come to shape our society — we crafted the golden calf and then worshipped at its feet.
Looking at our current relationship with media and what constitutes news in this day and age reveals that we have learned nothing from creating false idols. News and information are now produced in cycles, with hundreds if not thousands of people working to create content for every second of battery life on your cellphone. Postman, writing long before the smart phone, would trace our poisoned, ever-flowing information stream to our fascination with celebrity. He begins Amusing Ourselves to Death by claiming that our society’s unhealthy attraction to polarizing characters in media is reminiscent of the brilliance and spectacle of a city like Las Vegas:
Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into into congenial adjunct of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.
While it stands as a perfect representation of the times, and likewise a great visual, the analogy of Vegas seems almost pedestrian now. Postman was writing in the age before the reality star; a time when MTV was just a channel dedicated to music, and outlandish public spectacle did not equate ratings. Popular TV shows at the time included The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Family Ties — shows that served as reflections of what we told ourselves were American values. Conflict was only just beginning to seep into our TV sets, mostly through trashy talk shows hosted by the likes of Geraldo Rivera and Richard Bey.
While Postman looked to television as the source of our media addiction, the Internet age has amplified this by orders of magnitude. Retweet, Repost, Tag, and Repeat have become embedded into our everyday mantras along with brush your teeth and wash your hands. According to studies like one carried out by ZenithOptMedia, Americans consume almost eight hours of media per day, with that number steadily rising. Postman’s world became reliant on the effectiveness and speed of the televised message; we have grown into a society that gets bombarded by thousands of different messages each day. This has become so ingrained into our society, and we have become so numb to rolling this boulder up the steep precipice, that we have now slipped into a practice of relying on information that is served in small, bite-sized portions in order to consume more. I myself found Amusing Ourselves to Death only after reading the small blurb posted by a friend and clicking a link. Information served to us in this buffet format forces us to be selective. We can’t process everything, so instead we fall for “clickbait” articles, hashtags, and buzzwords. We have become a society hooked on riskier avenues of information, with riskier personalities at the helm.
I always take whatever Moore produces with a grain of salt, but I took notice of his open letter to America in which he detailed why Trump was destined to win in November. Moore likened the American public to a person who, looking at the spectacle of Niagara Falls, “wonders for a moment what it would feel like to go over that thing.” Trump was too much of a magnet, too much of a spectacle, for us to ignore. His supporters, people so dissatisfied with the effectiveness of their government, boldly chose to brave the roaring falls of a Trump presidency. To his opponents, Trump still served as a form of amusement. Both camps were fueled by entertainment we were fed by the sometimes ludicrous missteps of the media.
It’s saying a lot about us when we come to fully accept the deceptive candidate propaganda and attack ads that are built into our political climate. It’s saying even more when any candidate who attempts to take the “high road” and stick to the issues does so at the risk of coming off as human (just ask John Kasich). While some of us groaned and complained about “dirty politics” and the lack of civilized discourse, we also tuned into the presidential debates in droves to see what horrible thing Trump would say next. It became less about policies and more about quotable insults to post and share. As a result, the movement to get Donald Trump elected was fought on two fronts: one of image and one of misinformation. While Trump the candidate scowled into the camera and provided the entertainment value without any actual credible evidence for his claims, others worked to circulate false information online. While this is par for the course in politics, for this election, it proved to be highly effective in reinforcing the Trump base. According to a Florida PPP poll held in October, while 84 percent of Trump supporters believed that Hillary Clinton should have been imprisoned, another 40 percent legitimately claimed to believe that she was an actual living demon. Even to this day, months after Trump’s Inauguration Day speech, there are many fanatics who believe the toxic message spread throughout the campaigns.
Postman writes, “American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display.” During Trump’s run, the media produced several pieces of damning evidence to discredit him. Like the showman that he is, Trump turned the blame back onto the media, describing them as corrupt and “crooked.” In short, when Trump undermined the validity of the mainstream media, he effectively gave agency to fringe news outlets. Maybe during Postman’s time these outliers spreading fanatical misinformation would be nothing more than people handing pamphlets out in subways or having their hateful propaganda relegated to hard-to-find shows on the radio dial. But during our election, the Internet allowed for the sharing and re-sharing of this misinformation. And by the time anyone was ready to strike these claims down, it was 1,000 to 2,000 shares too late — the germ had spread.
Trump rolled through the entire process speaking (and tweeting) whatever he wanted to, knowing full well that, as Postman describes, “It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.”
Trump dominated his own message throughout his run — seemingly alienating women, immigrants, and the Black and Latino vote. But just like a train-wreck of a reality show, he was only rewarded for behaving badly. According to The New York Times, although he ranked the lowest in actual spending on advertising during his run, Trump received close to $2 billion in free publicity by news outlets and social media — yes, the same media he was condemning. As described in this article, the significance of “earned media” (as it’s called) “typically dwarfs paid media in a campaign. The big difference between Mr. Trump and other candidates is that he is far better than any other candidate — maybe than any candidate ever — at earning media.” This, coupled with Trump’s continued mastery of 140 characters to manipulate both his supporters and detractors into keeping his messages in circulation, led to a fundamental change in how we have attached truth to “celebrity” in this country.
By the time Election Day came, the Democratic Party (and eventually the media) had wasted all of their efforts trying to prove that he was unfit for presidency when in actuality, to his supporters, he became legitimized the more popular culture rejected him. The Left, after finally deciding to take him seriously, tried to attack the man’s character without acknowledging that he was a character. That he was a product of a society that has been groomed, through the popularity of reality television, to reward people whose sole motivation is to rock the boat, even at the detriment of those who can’t swim.
In validating our reality show president, we may have just incited the absolute worst product of any reality show — the spinoffs. In electing Trump based on nothing but his celebrity status alone, this has allowed for the emergence of toxic figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Stephen Miller, and Steve Bannon to be featured on our TV screens.
But Postman didn’t just warn us against the popularization of polarizing figures. In its most telling chapter, entitled “And Now … This,” Postman explains the start of the Reagan era, citing details eerily similar to those we have seen in our 45th President, more than years later. He writes, “President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general.” Substitute their names in this quote and maybe Trump’s insistence to evoke similarities between himself and Reagan are worth some merit.
What may provide the most revealing mirror of our current culture is what Postman writes about the quality of information circulating at the time. While Reagan was providing dubious claims on specific events throughout the world, the media was faltering in its attempt at properly providing a filter for its audience. He states:
What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.
In just this small section, Postman sums up what our news outlets and mainstream media sources have been up against in Trump’s first 30 days in office. In that time, I have yet to find a better definition for what we are now calling “fake news” and “alternative facts” than the one Postman outlines in this chapter.
Postman warns that during the Reagan presidency, this all led to an oversaturation and overexertion by the press and the people who avidly follow politics. Reagan’s “disinformation” eventually became so common that the news outlets and citizen’s seemed to care less about its validity. In other words, they had reached a threshold for the amount of “disinformation” the public could absorb before the abnormal became the norm, regardless of how many articles reporters produced. In other words, while the press continued its stand on fact-checking the president, the audience (the American public) became complacent in the face of the constant bombardment.
This leads to a section of Postman’s which should be outlined and sent to anyone who is already beginning to feel “Trump fatigue.” Our president and his mouthpieces are attempting to use the same tactics Reagan and his administration used to handle things such as White House leaks and unflattering press. As a result, the usual way to engage in critiquing our current presidency is doomed to fail. Simply pointing out inconsistencies and outright fabrications will not be enough to win out in the end. To understand this better, Postman does a fantastic job at describing the two schools of discourse at play here. Explaining his own upbringing, he calls his approach “typographic discourse” which is a linear way of disseminating fact from fiction. To Postman, an essay written by one of his students cannot contain a paragraph with one view posed as “true” and then be directly followed an opposing viewpoint that is then also posed as a truth. Postman writes, “The difference between us is that I assume…one paragraph and the next to be connected, to be continuous, to be part of the same coherent world of thought. That is the way of typographic discourse, and typography is the universe I’m ‘coming from.’” He then explains that the new form of discourse — one that we are facing right now during this presidency — is fragmented discourse, which he describes as “The fundamental assumption that the world is not coherence but discontinuity. And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.” Trump’s uncanny ability to brush aside full-blown media pieces about his numerous inconsistencies and contradictions proves that this is a coordinated effort to use fractured discourse to demoralize opposing voices.
There are differences between the world we live in and the one Postman is outlining in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman wrote that while the Reagan administration was tactfully adjusting the the quality of information coursing through the country to best suit its needs, it wasn’t actively trying to bend the mainstream media to its whim. He explains, “The President does not have the press under his thumb. The New York Times and The Washington Post are not Pravda; the Associated Press is not Tass. And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies.” Aside from the Russian propaganda parallels (which today pick up a whole new meaning), many people wonder whether Trump is in fact trying to do that very thing. His war against the media — going as far to name The New York Times, WaPo, and the AP by name as detriments to society (“enemy of the American People!”) is, for many, a move to control or outright silence media who print dissent. And, many could say, the “lies defined as truth and truth defined as lies” has been part of the Trump mainstay since he announced his candidacy.
For those who did not vote for Trump, it may be assuring to know that Neil Postman survived two terms of the Reagan Presidency. Does Postman offer any advice on avoiding electing another reality show president? While he admits that he lacks the competence to find a “cure” for America’s addiction to spectacle, he does offer a few ideas. Most notably, Postman believes we should curb the amount of time spent within the media loop to avoid oversaturation. A second, more humorous, piece of advice would be to “require all political commercials to be preceded by a short statement to the effect that common sense has determined that watching political commercials is hazardous to the intellectual health of the community.”
For now, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman is a must-read in the Trump era, both for the public and those covering this presidency — a resource for those of us who aren’t here for the spectacle.
Image Credit: Pixabay.