I’ve been thinking a lot about Neil Postman over the past 24 hours or so, since I read this by Glenn Greenwald, who is a new hero of mine. I beg you, please read the article of his I just linked to above. It’s well worth your time, and might change your life, or hopefully at least your outlook. It’s that important. Seriously. What I write below will make much more sense against the backdrop of Greenwald’s article. In summary, though, Greenwald contends that the “war powers” the government has usurped in order to carry out the “war on terror” in order to “Keep Us Safe” are, like the “war” itself, now permanent. He writes, “Those powers of secrecy, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, and due-process-free assassination are not going anywhere. They are now permanent fixtures not only in the US political system but, worse, in American political culture.” Greenwald concludes his worthy article by quoting, reluctantly, from George Orwell‘s classic, 1984, as a means of “explaining how states secure tyrannical power and pacify its citizenry.” As quoted by Greenwald, Orwell wrote:
The social atmosphere is that of a besieged city. . . . And at the same time the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival. . . .
It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist….
War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair. . . . The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.
Greenwald then cannot help but rightly ask, “Does anyone dispute that these passages are an exact description of the posture of the US government and its permanent war on terror?”
So that’s what brought Postman to mind. I’ve read 1984, Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, and Postman’s seminal work, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman’s foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death reads:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984,Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
I’ve always found this to be incredibly insightful on Postman’s part, even prescient. I still agree with him, but I can’t help but wonder now if he was only partly right. My fear, I suppose, is that Huxley was indeed right, but that somehow Orwell was too. We have not only our “bread and circuses,” but also the type of oppressive government measures that Orwell feared- from the AP scandal (The New Yorker even includes a reference to Big Brother in the title of its article about it here) to the 1.6 billion rounds of ammo purchased for Homeland Security to the “secrecy, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, and due-process-free assassination” that Greenwald alludes to. All of it is designed, I fear, to keep us entertained while we become our own worst enemy, and if we won’t be entertained, there is the ever growing threat of much, much worse. This, for the record, is just a part of why I have long been pleased to count myself as a citizen, hopefully, of God’s kingdom first and foremost and only secondarily as one of the U.S. I have long known, of course, that “freedom isn’t free,” but that doesn’t mean, I suspect, what a lot of people think it means. In fact, I fear the price of our “freedom” (to consume, to be “SAFE,” to exploit the earth, to have cheap goods and oil, etc.) is simply far too great, perhaps for our servicemen and women, but most especially for the rest of the world. Its time for us to wake up, to shuck off our entertainment and, in whatever way we can, work for change. God help us; God help us, indeed.