It’s a Conspiracy!!

If one wants to make an argument to black people in Jamaica, and apparently America also, one must be very charismatic. And by charismatic, I mean something akin to Hitler at the Nuremburg rally giving away free swastika shaped candies made of cocaine.  You may invoke Godwin’s Law, but am I really being that harsh? How much different would that be from Tony Matterhorn using call and response to woo partygoers at a dancehall session? Or Portia Simpson at the annual PNP conferencing, courting the crowd with talk of victory, jobs and another 5 years for the PNP (but never policy)? Or the preacher at his megachurch,  seducing the congregation with tales of prosperity, the promise of rights without responsibilities, and a heaven on earth, all for the low, low price of $1999.99 every Sunday?

It is true that many of the most influential and effective leaders have used emotional appeals and evocative imagery, but consider this – do you know the actual ideology that was espoused by those leaders? What were the economic and social policies that Martin Luther King Jr. espoused? How about the political philosophy of Malcolm X? Or Albert Einstein’s views on socialism, quantum mechanics, the photoelectric effect or the mass-energy equivalence?  Chances are, even if you do know, the first thing that comes to mind is a famous image of the person in question, or an oft replayed soundbite from a very long speech.

The conspiracist plays on the fact that we live in an image based society. Like the lying politician, the sound system operator and the money-grubbing pastor, he plays upon emotion instead of reason. Unlike the social activist, the community leader, or the scientist, he does not have a positive program of knowledge or action, but only asserts a negative ideology that questions and criticizes existing structures.  Naturally, he joins the long list of charlatans to plague the black community in the U.S., and Jamaica as well. He applies the same image based rhetoric, ignoring rationality, and appealing to emotions. Much of what they say is self-contradictory, easily refuted and just plain silly. Their theories fail to accurately predict future events, fail to address present issues, and do not explain the past in a way that is not better explained by the usual institutional analysis. They play upon the fears of black and brown people, but they do nothing to alleviate these fears, or to ‘fight the power’ so to speak.

Stopping the Illuminati, one mouse click at atime


But that is not the true danger of believing the black conspiracy theorists. On a bad day, their theories are a mere nuisance to everyday people. On the other 29 days of the month, they create an alternate reality that has serious health implications for black communities, from vaccinations-as-Trojan-horse theories to avoiding anti-retroviral medications:

In 2004, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control staked out gay pride events in Baltimore, Detroit, Oakland, and San Francisco. They asked more than a thousand men their thoughts about AIDS and HIV. What did the men believe was the cause of AIDS? How dangerous did they think the disease was? What the researchers found is almost hard to stomach: Among minorities, conspiracy beliefs were ascendant. More than half of the African American men surveyed did not believe HIV causes AIDS. Forty-eight percent of the Hispanic men and more than a quarter of the white men also questioned the link. Another survey conducted that year by the RAND Corporation and researchers at Oregon State University found that black men who espoused such theories were far less likely than people who did subscribe to the HIV theory to regularly use condoms.

I can find several more cases like that which I have posted above. But, one is more than enough to prove that, unlike bitchism, the conspiracy theory can have actual real life implications in both our personal and social lives.

But what is the appeal of the conspiracy theory to black people? Yes, there is good reason to be skeptical about what you hear or see in the media, but the conspiracist takes this to a whole new level. So why does anyone take him seriously? And why so much more in black communities, compared to other communities?

The appeal of the conspiracy theory to black people is that it seems to give an all-encompassing explanation for all historical events and economic crises post-slavery. It allows the conspiracist and his followers to ignore complex forces and systems of control that require explanation and study, instead attributing all such forces to a single, omniscient, omnipotent nefarious group. So they created a secular devil in the form of an Omniscient Council of Vagueness –but who is their secular God? Unfortunately for them, they have none.  They would rather stand on their soapboxes and preach, because just like all the other charlatans and hucksters, they seek self-aggrandizement and deep down, self-pity. Thus, they pride themselves on devouring vast amounts of useless trivia with which to enlighten us poor ‘sheeple’, but what about actually liberating said sheeple?

Let’s take a case study. One trope among conspiracists is the use of ‘microchips’ to track and enslave people in developed country, usually in accordance with the Mark of the Beast prophecy in Revelation 13. Now, I’ve been hearing this sort of stuff since my Father was debating these loons at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church over at Maxfield Avenue, so would several questions regarding this, such as:

  • How are their transponders constructed
  • As devices that use inductive coupling  what are their limitations, in terms of power requirements and range
  • What are the frequency ranges for RFIDs in the United States, Europe and Japan
  • What are the security vulnerabilities of RFID (Wi-Fi, man in the middle, spoofing, insert, replay, )
  • What type of cryptography is used by the various types of RFIDs
  • What kind of shielding can the RFID signal penetrate (high frequency and low frequency)
I wonder why they didn’t include the fried chicken and watermelon

If any of you are able to get an answer from any conspiracist regarding these questions, then you are lying. The conspiracist, by definition, is uninterested in the technical details of the technologies and techniques that he claims will enslave us. His view is fatalist, so he ignores the masses by escaping the ‘Coming Apocalypse’, by going off to the hills to watch the world burn. Unfortunately, there is no one to strike the match. So they stay on the ground with the rest of us, enthralled by simple devices such as RFIDs, like the savages worshipping Coca-Cola bottles as if it were God.

And what is exactly the track record of conspiracy theorists. What have they anticipated? Nothing, actually. They did not anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dot-com boom, the 9/11 false flag operation terrorist attacks, the response to Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, the collapse of the Jamaican mid-90s financial sector collapse, various PNP scandals, and so forth. And they will never, because the point of conspiracism is not to explain reality so that we may make a better life for ourselves and our children, but to replace it with fantasies and an easy to follow Manichean worldview.

There is a way out of this. We can develop our own secular theories to explain our experiences on our behalf, rather than the half-baked nonsense spewed by the conspiracists. Much of the groundwork has been laid for us already, through the work of cultural observers, social scientists, and philosophers that offer explanations for us that do not lock us into useless distinctions of left and right. People such as, Oliver C. Cox, Christopher Lasch, David Noble, Neil Postman, Jane Jacobs, Michael Eric Dyson, Frederick Cooper, Peter Abrahams, Barry Chevannes, Errol Miller, and so on.  Of course, our black conspiracist will say that because some of our theorists are white, we should be thought of as Uncle Toms and ‘brainwashed sheeple.’ Of course, this does not apply to them when they are watching Loose Change, Zeitgeist, listening to William Cooper, or reading Henry Makow.  Unlike them, we are not hypocrites. I’d rather be a ‘Good’ Black Man, or a ‘Good’ Black Woman, any day of the week, than be a conspiracist.

So here we are, in the year 2012 A.D. , with what seems like an Eternal Recession, an ongoing failure of leadership, and a generation that Is for the most part locked in a cycle of ennui  and anomie, if not outright despair. So as young black people, we can make a choice – the dead ideologies of the last century that have failed us time and time again, or a new master narrative that uses the best elements of the past to help us in the present, and prepare us for the future.

Summary and Analysis of Amusing Ourselves to Death – Foreword

In our culture, there are certain numbers that can evoke strong emotions with their presence. 666 is one such number. In the Eastern world, 108 has the same effect. 911 implies law enforcement, and all the issues that it are associated with it. 9/11, however, implies something completely different. Another date that conjures up strong feelings is 1984, a number that is associated with a totalitarian dystopia, bent on stamping out individuality through persistent surveillance, mass psychological manipulation and physical brutality.

Indeed, the book 1984 is quite popular in the English-speaking world, that is, for a book that hardly anyone reads, if this Guardian Poll is anything to go by :

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Ring any bells? How about: “The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.” Many will not have read the novel from which these are among the opening lines – but nearly half of us are happy to lie and say we have, a survey reveals today.

George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four comes top in a poll of the UK’s guilty reading secrets. Asked if they had ever claimed to read a book when they had not, 65% of respondents said yes and 42% said they had falsely claimed to have read Orwell’s classic in order to impress.

The fact is, that most people nowadays engage with literature through visual images, not the original literary ones.  This is why I have chosen 1984 as a specific moment that represents the switch from a literary culture to a graphic one. Neil Postman has chosen a much earlier date for the changeover , but I will stick with Apple’s Superbowl ad for reasons that will become clearer both throughout this series and this blog.

Postman’s Foreword for ‘ Amusing Ourselves to Death ‘ can be easily considered his most concise piece of writing  – and his finest . In very persuasive prose, he shows that the dystopian worlds of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’  are not only different, but mutually exclusive. This can be seen in the diagram below.

I have made my own slight alterations to the Huxleyan dystopia, updating it somewhat for modern times. The changes that I make are specifically to show how the Internet, the soft sciences (behavioral analysis) and data analysis could apply to a Huxleyan regime. After all, why use a RFID chip when the cookie in your browser cache will suffice?  But the point remains the same. The Totalitarian and Statist regimes that existed in the latter half of the 20th century had controlled their populations by inflicting pain, our modern Consumer Capitalist states (and the large corporations that spring from them) control us with pleasure. But is that really so bad? The citizens of Brave New World were perfectly happy, as are we! Just replace Soma and the centrifugal bumblepuppy  with reality TV and Xbox and we are almost their already!

You probably already anticipated that I am going to say that ‘yes, that is bad,’ so I’ll explain why. The world of Brave New World did not have the  worries of rapidly decreasing finite resources in world of infinite wants. They did not have to worry about the conflicts that a world with multiple intersections of class and race brings. They did not have to worry about supranational corporations and other powerful organizations encroaching in our lives. We do.  And  our leaders are not doleful Grand Inquisitors like Mustapha Mond, but amoral at best and incompetent at worst. Not our parents. Us.

The Millennial Generation can be said to have started around 1984, or around the same time Margaret Thatcher (England), Ronald Reagan (United States of America) and Edward Seaga (Jamaica) were re-elected for a second term in government. What is significant about their re-elections is that they were not based upon rational appeals to the  electorate, or to public grievances (such those that brought Michael Manley into power) but to imagery and raw emotion, as espoused in media like television commercials. The ‘war’ with Grenada resulted in a nationalist fervour which returned Reagan to office (and which Seaga manipulated for his own benefit), and the same could be said of the Falklands War and Madame Thatcher’s electoral victory. That this occurred around the same time of Apple’s 1984 commercial is no coincidence. The television commercial had become the West’s primary art form by then, being used for everything from health education to political philosophy. True, a 60 second advertisement must, by definition, trivialize those subjects, but it doesn’t matter, because when that is all you grow up knowing, then that is what you consider normal.

But what those elections were to political discourse, Ridley Scott’s ‘1984’ ad was to George Orwell’s masterpiece. While it may be argued that a 60 second advertisement should not be compared to Orwell’s 300 page masterwork, unfortunately, it must. The same with ‘Days of Future Past‘, Equilibrium, and almost every other pop dystopian fiction. What separates them from the classics of the genre, is their complete ignorance of politics and economics as it would apply to the characters and settings. Oh, they get some of the gloomy atmosphere right, and the stamping out of individuality is usually there, if not outright genocide, but that’s about it. This is the problem with shifting a message from one medium to another without considering the changes that the message will undergo as a result of said shift. comes warped, if not completely changed. And in order to make the necessary refit, the class struggles that are central to both Brave New World and 1984 are omitted. No Alphas, Betas or Gammas are depicted, neither is there any mention of anything likeThe Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism’ in the derivative works. Instead it is conformist against non-conformist, hip versus square ,rebel versus everyman.. In the case of the Apple advertisement, non-conformism means buying  a Macintosh.

The one thing that both the Huxleyan and the Orwellian scenarios have in common is that they established and maintained their dystopias through the use of advanced technologies and media manipulation. What those dystopias have in common with our world is that both the characters and ourselves have not undertaken to understand the philosophy of those technologies that are used to control a population. Neil Postman seeks to change that, focusing on television, both as a technology and a philosophy.

The world of 1984 was too quixotic, too complex and too bureaucratic to be directly implemented on the Western side of the Iron Curtain. Yet I have no doubt that Orwell understood this, and intended that his book be a self-defeating prophecy that would give its readers the language and ideas to recognize and combat such a regime, should ever threaten to arise. A shame we have no such guide for a Huxleyan dystopia. So Neil Postman’s work will have to do for now. At least , until I get around to reviewing some more authors.

The Orwellian scenario could not come about by itself in the Western world. But it has long since been banished from Western consciousness, replaced instead with watered versions of dystopias, promote consumption as a form of liberation and non-conformity as individuality. For that, you need to level all culture to the same the same importance  Then 1984 goes from being a self -defeating prophecy to that can be fulfilled, given the right set of situations. For that you need a Huxleyan culture, where no one sees a reason to read a book, where relevant information is drowned in a see of triviality and truth rendered irrelevant among a sea of answers. That culture would not be able to understand what 1984 warned us about, even if they did read 1984.  What then , would stop the politicians, the managers, the financiers and their associated Numerati from dropping the Huxleyan pretense and going straight into Orwellian style feudalism? Not much I’m afraid.  A Brave New World for us Millennials indeed.

Are Jamaican DeeJays really cunning linguists?

Most Jamaicans have a very odd sense of history. We do not see our history as continuous, but instead as a set of discrete points on an an every decreasing timeline. There is Nanny’s guerilla war, Sam Sharpe’s rebellion, Emancipation, The Morant Bay Rebellion, then Independence, Bob Marley and then finally whatever was in the newspaper yesterday. And not a thing in between.

So when I read Carolyn Cooper’s latest post “Jamaican Men Love Oral Sex” I believed that I would be getting some sort of Lacanian-psycho-fucko-analytic-Foucaultian-polictical power-structure-rude-boy-garrison-politics-hypermasculinity critical theory analysis. Hey, some people collect stamps, I like to decipher post-structuralists. Everyone has their thing.

Sadly, none of that was present (guess I’ll have go get my Frederic Jameson…).  See, the long and short of it is that some Jamaican men (claim they) don’t suck pussy. Not only do they not suck pussy, they will publicly ostracize, if not outright beat, anyone who has been confirmed to be eating under the sheet (Note’: People are starting to tell these person to fuck off.). I refer to these “gentlemen” in plural is because they will not make a move on you unless they have four or of their tight pants wearing, skin bleaching, eyebrow arching buddies to back them up.

An example of the above specimen

Unfortunately, these “gentlemen” are, for all intents and purposes, the cultural trendsetters. This fact, combined with our myopic view of history, makes us unable to see any alternatives to our present situation by using lessons from the past.

I remember listening to Mutabaruka, a few years ago (back when I thought Jamaica could become a better place). That particular night, he had a mento artist who had a big hit back in 1955. The name of the song? Night Food.

Here are some sample lyrics:

The room is dark

She said, ‘Come and eat

This night food is very warm and sweet’

I said, ‘Lady, there’s no knife and fork

And how can I eat food in the dark?’

She said, ‘This food needs no knife and fork

How can a human be so dark?

The food is right here in the bed

Come here, man, make me scratch your head

I think its safe to say that you don’t need to be Jacques Derrida to deconstruct them lyrics.

Of course, when Alerth Bedasse was pressed by Mutabaruka as to the meaning of the song, he came up with some mealy-mouthed excuse as to it being about cold food being left in the fridge for too long. I supposed he had to use a similar excuse back i 1959, when Willis O. Isaacs, the Minister of Trad and Industry, finally got around to creating a nontroversy about his song.

Well, at least back then the national government might have had been taken somewhat seriously. Today, instead of government, the church, or another legitimate institution to uphold social mores, we have a some ridiculous looking bleached face monkeys to keep us nigras in line. I guess this what we deserve for ignoring our history. One must see the irony of a country responsible for creating two of the most powerful black cultural movements having its ideas of masculinity and culture dictated to it by androgynous, deracinated, apolitical skin bleachers. The more things change.

Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death

The other day, a friend of mine and I were watching the pre-Batman Christian Bale movie “Equilibrium”

Here is the summary from the Wikipedia:

The film follows John Preston (Christian Bale), a warrior-priest and enforcement officer in a future dystopia where both feelings and artistic expression are outlawed and citizens take daily injections of drugs to suppress their emotions. After accidentally missing a dose, Preston begins to experience emotions which make him question his own morality and moderate his actions, while attempting to remain undetected by the suspicious society in which he lives. Ultimately he aids a resistance movement using advanced martial arts, which he was taught serving the very regime he is to help overthrow.

As is typical of the type of people who enjoy these times of movies my  “friend” begun to expound on how our society was going in this very direction. We were, he claimed, headed towards a prison planet where we would be drugged up, brainwashed, and then kept in permanent serfdom in a neo-fascist state.

Being the contrarian that I am, I had to ask him some issues regarding this scenario – Why would you need to force people to take drugs? Why not make the drugs addictive? How can a fascist nation be economically viable?

But there was also something about that movie. Anyone who has watched the trailer, read the above summary, or watched the whole movie will notice just how utterly derivative it is. Its one of those new “mashups” that all the cool kids are talking about. It combines the Soma drug from Brave New World, the fascist state from 1984, the book-burning from Fahrenheit 451, the fascist uniforms from the Matrix, the sterile cinematography of Gattaca, and  the Guardian characters from Judge Dredd, with all the self-importance and pretentiousness that we have come to expect from sci-fi action movies. And as with any  mashup, it is inevitably lesser than the sum of its ripped-off parts.

I had asked my friend if he had read any off the books that the movie had been “influenced” by. He said no, though he had watched the 1984 movie with John Hurt.

Now my “friend”  is one of those “people” who believes that the world will end come the 21st of December 2012, that 9/11 was a U.S. government operation and that there is a second star in our solar system called Nibiru that also influences our planet. Obviously we should not take him seriously, but that is not the point.

When most people think of a totalitarian state, they think of a 1984 type situation, as seen in Equilibrium. What Neil Postman is here to tell us is that we are heading in a totally different direction. See below.

Neil Postman’s 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death:Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business “, posits that, rather than being controlled through the application of pain, we will be manipulated through the inflicting of pleasure. He believes that we have switched from a contextual, analytical, print based culture to a context-free, graphical one. As a result, the rational, liberal democracy that was created during the 18th and 19th century is becoming unsustainable as our visual culture is leading us … somewhere else.

We were not amused (in the old days)

The book is divided into two parts. The first part contains its legendary foreword, an explanation of its main theme and sub-themes, as well as a short history of American typographic culture, pre-telegraph. The main theme, from which all else flows, is not that television is making us stupid, neither it is that a print based culture is superior but that the form in which an idea is expressed affects what those ideas will be. From this value neutral theme, Postman develops an idea in Part 1 known as the Age of Exposition.

To quote Postman

The name I give to that period of time during which the American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printing press is the Age of Exposition. Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, for reasons I am most anxious to explain, the Age of Exposition began to pass, and the early signs of its replacement could be discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business.

Note that he did not say that the print media creates “a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response“, but that it amplifies it. Postman is no fool. He is quite aware of all the junk romance novels, gossip and all the other nonsense that anyone with access to a printing press can put out. Those simple ideas are nothing for a complex form to reproduce. But it takes a complex form to produce complex ideas. Not complicated – complex. A web browser, with its Javascript JIT compiler, tabbed windows and JQuery/Flash animations is quite complicated. A book, is complex, but not complicated.

Postman uses the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates to further his point about Man in the Age of Exposition. At one debate at Peoria, Illinois on the 16th of October 1854, Stephen Douglas went first for three hours. By the time Douglas had finished, it was 5 in the evening. Lincoln then suggested everyone go home to have dinner, then come back in the evening. They did, and when they returned they were treated to another four hours of oratory, starting with Lincoln’s rebuttal of Douglas.

They certainly were not bored into a catatonic stupor by sentences such as

It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which  I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground.

In fact, these debates would take place at fairs and circuses. The music would not be played during these debates of course, but the crowd would quite often shout encouragements (”’You tell ’em Abe ‘) or scorn (“Answer that one, if you can”).

The above excerpt by Lincoln is not something that one finds in an oral culture, which is dependent upon poetry, proverbs and limericks are used as mnemonic devices. Nor would it be normally found in a graphic culture, with its focus on charts, graphs, Youtube clips, soundbites, LOLcats, smiley faces, and jump cuts. Both the pictorial medium, and its counterpart, the medium created by electronic communication . The whole point of a photograph and the bit is to preserve information like a a mosquito trapped in amber. But determining whether or not the mosquito is relevant in that time or place is not a within by those media, as they are primarily suited to preserving an eternal present and transporting information, not its exposition or its interpretation.

We are always amused (nowadays)

Of the audience at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Postman asks “What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory?” He, of course, means this as a rhetorical question. The Americans of the time from the Late 17th to the early 19th century were analytic and rational, as a result of living in a print based culture. Thus, they were able to readily deal with the all the new ideas and techniques that were part and parcel of the Enlightenment, whether it be the Protestantism of Jonathan Edwards, the economics of Adam Smith, the literature of Charles Dickens, the politics of Thomas Paine and the oratory of Abraham Lincoln.

So what does he think of the 1985-era citizen? Here is his take on a viewing of a 1984 Presidential Debate (emphases are mine ):

Prior to the  1984 presidential elections, the two candidates confronted each other on television in what  were called “debates.” These events were not in the  least like the  Lincoln-Douglas debates or anything else that goes by the name. Each candidate was given five minutes to address such questions as, What is (or would be) your policy in Central America? His opposite number was then given one minute for a rebuttal. In such circumstances, complexity, documentation and logic can play no role, and, indeed, on  several  occasions syntax itself was abandoned entirely. It is no matter The men were less concerned with  giving  arguments  than  with  “giving  off”  impressions, which is what television does best. Post-debate commentary largely avoided any evaluation of the  candidates’ ideas, since there were none to evaluate. Instead, the debates were conceived as boxing matches, the relevant question being, Who KO’d whom?

Let us look at the skills that were fostered by the Age of Exposition

  1. A sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially
  2. A high valuation of reason and order
  3. An abhorrence of contradiction
  4. A large capacity for detachment and and objectivity
  5. A tolerance for delayed response

Anyone who watches a debate on TV nowadays knows that it is nothing more than a more sophisticated version of an exchange of “Yo Mama!” jokes. Yo mama jokes are subjective and emotional attachment (opposite of 4.), They require an immediate response, as no one expects . At the debate itself, the emphasis is not on reason or order, but on emotional appeal and non-fiction versions of manatee jokes. Contradictions are par the course in politics.

To put it simply, people vote for pretty faces and nice slogans, both in Jamaica, and in the United States. They vote for politicians based on the narrative that has been created for them, not on the content of their policies.

Postman explains that the progenitor of the television, the photograph and telegraph, were the technological systems (and epistemologies) that caused the shift from print to visual culture. The telegraph made introduced into the culture irrelevant information, the information would be about things so far away that no one in the receiving location would be able to do anything about it. This is a direct result of the form of the the medium – it is intended to bring information from far away – not to aid in its exposition. One does not construct a telegraph link within a small city or town. It is not feasible and besides, why would you need a telegraph when you could just go outside? The photograph, can only show concrete examples of things, it cannot deal with abstract categories. It can show a man, but not Mankind, lovers, but not Love, pornography, but not sensuality. Both media only need to be recognized, but words need to be understood.

In order to demonstrate how the de-contextualized media of the Age of Show Business (post-telegraph age) creates information that leads to “irrelevance,impotence, and  incoherence.”  Postman develops a concept called the information-action ratio. It is the measure of how much action you take based on how much information you have. For example, let us say that you are a white guy that has heard about the plight of some poor darkies Ugandans via a YouTube video.

I think you can tell where I’m going with this….

Being the well-meaning person you are, you want to do your very best to help them. Now, having watched that half-hour video on YouTube, you should be very well informed about the situation, right? Do you know the name of the President of Uganda? The name of the capital? What about the name of the last President? What is an Acholi? I am willing to bet that the answer would be “no” to all those questions. Those are very important questions that are quite relevant to the action you would need to take. But because a television based epistemology (in this case, a YouTube video) depends on slogans and appeals to emotion, instead of explanation and exposition, you would information that was not important, merely sensational. And even if you did get important information, you would be impotent to do anything with that information.

Well, that is one action you could take.

I have used the example of YouTube because even though the book was written in 1985 (Postman talks about “microcomputers”), it is still relevant. This is because Postman does not see television as a technology, but a philosophy of knowledge. He shows how the television philosophy renders everything it touches into entertainment. Religion loses its theology, dogma and ritual, and becomes a personality cult. Education loses its ability for  exposition, perplexity and need for prerequisites, and becomes mere entertainment.

This is the logical conclusion of Postman’s argument. Television’s inherent structure reduces everything to entertainment.The medium of television is a Procrustean bed that cuts the profound, erudite foundations of the serious aspects of our culture, reducing it to mere trivia. At the same time, it stretches the commonplace, irrelevant, piddling, trite features of consumer capitalism to fit those foundational principles that it has so efficiently eviscerated. Postman has no problem with entertainment -indeed he agrees that the television is best used for entertainment. The problem is when it is used for serious affairs such as religion, politics, news and education, then it becomes a problem. These institutions still retain the features that he had when they where created in the late 17th to the mid 19th century, and  still require the analytic-rational skills that are fostered by a print based culture. Attempting to engage them using a 20th century image centered philosophy, is folly, as Postman hints at, but Chris Hedges says openly

We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities.

Will you be amused?

It might seem strange that a book that mentions shows like “Cheers”, “Dynasty” and “Dallas” as if they are still being broadcasted can still be relevant, but 27 years after it was first published Amusing Ourselves to Death is actually more relevant than ever. With this book (and others such as “Technopoly”, “The End of Education” and “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century”) Postman cemented himself as one of the premier cultural critics of our time. While he may lack the profundity of a Lewis Mumford, or the conciseness of a Ivan Illich, and he often fuses ideas from previous greats, his writing style is what catapults him to the top, his writing is funny, yet never curmudgeonly, and always penetrating. Some examples

On  December 5, 1989,  Daniel Goleman, covering the social-science beat for The New York Times, gave considerable space to some “recent research findings” that doubtless unsettled readers who hadn’t been keeping informed about the work of our scientists of the mind: Goleman reported that psychological researchers have discovered that people fear death. This insight led them to formulate “a sweeping theory,”  to quote Goleman, “that gives the fear of death a central and often unsuspected role in psychological life.”

As I write, the trend in call-in shows is for the “host” to  insult callers whose language does not, in itself, go much  beyond humanoid grunting. Such  programs  have  little content,  as this word  used to be defined, and are merely of archeological interest in that they give us a sense of what a dialogue among Neanderthals might have been like. More to the point,  the language of radio newscasts has become, under the influence of television, increasingly decontextualized and discontinuous, so that the possibility of anyone’s knowing about the world, as against merely knowing of it, is effectively blocked. In New York City, radio station WINS entreats its listeners to “Give us twenty-two  minutes and we’ll give you the world.” This is said without irony, and its audience, we may assume, does not regard the slogan as the conception of a disordered mind.

I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of  anticommunication,  featuring a type of discourse that abandons  logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known  as vaudeville.

The first quote is from the his book “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology”, another of his books that I will soon be reviewing. And as Amusing Ourselves to Death is one the books of The Satanforce Canon, a chapter by chapter summation, with specific reference to Jamaica will be done at a later date

I had previously stated that Jamaica had a tradition of producing fine ministers and theologians, who were steeped in the intellectual and philosophical tradition of Christianity. Well, it seems that in the Age of Show Business, the possibility of this tradition continuing is in jeopardy. Could we have gotten a Malcolm X when there is a TV room right beside the library? A Sam Sharpe when the slavemaster realizes that Carnival is greater allure the church sermons? I don;t know, not yet anyway, but on the meantime, here’s som Gun Kata!