“It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.”
Neil Postman has nailed us.
The author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” written 35 years ago, Postman has written the epitaph for our age.
We need only look at our politics to see that we have become insensible to contradiction. Be ye left or right, progressive or populist, the contradictions of our leaders should be impossible to ignore.
Yet politics, as Postman predicted, has become entertainment: “If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity, or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.”
Reporting on politics now resembles sports reporting. There is very little serious coverage given to policies and proposals, to honest assessments and substantive debate. Instead, journalism, particularly television journalism, is increasingly about keeping score: Whose numbers are up. Whose donations are down. Or shallow sideline reporting: Joe looks old. Pete has a husband. Would you want to have a beer with Elizabeth?
Journalists chase after every tweet, presidential and otherwise, while bemoaning that they are chasing after every tweet. The news is too negative, says practically everyone, yet a study by researchers at the University of Muenster shows that bad news spreads much more quickly than good news.
Other journalistic organizations are more likely to pick up and pass along bad news because the data shows it is what we the audience want.
We say the news is negative but we are drawn to the negativity, and this negativity has become one more form of entertainment. What is President Trump’s latest outrage? Who is The Squad badmouthing now?
“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility.”
Oh snap! Postman nails us again.
What is so striking about his observations is that he wrote all of this before the internet was a thing; before Snapchat and Tinder and Facebook and Twitter; before the endless ways we are distracting ourselves. Yet in the television age he saw it coming: “People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
I have more friends who are telling me about their children — teens, millennials, and older — who spend hours gaming. It’s not so bad, my friends say to comfort themselves. They make friends online and have a social life. This despite the fact that their grades are tanking, their flesh and blood relationships are suffering, and their plans for the future become increasingly vague or unreal.
As Postman once again diagnosed: “There is nothing wrong with entertainment. As some psychiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.”
It gets worse, however. For while the kids are playing, their siblings and their parents are streaming. And the streaming companies compete for our every waking hour, literally.
In an article on “The Great Race to Rule Streaming TV,” The New York Times quotes the head of Netflix: “We actually compete with sleep. And we’re winning.”
Grabbing eyeballs, consuming our waking hours, keeping us binging so we will either pay the monthly subscription fee or — in terms of social media — justify their ad rates: This is modern capitalism, entertainment style. As Aldous Huxley foretold in “Brave New World,” we are all mainlining our Soma and loving it.
So how does the Church respond to all this? For if it is not salvation we are seeking, but entertainment 24/7, the Church is at a grievous disadvantage. The Church becomes, to borrow Howard Eppis’ line in “The Big Fix,” the spoilsport at the orgy.
There are small signs of hope. Among the elites, there is a growing distrust of the Silicon Valley puppet masters. Among the young, some are intentionally downgrading their tech. Loneliness is epidemic, but there is a hunger not just for relationship, but for contemplative solitude.
The Church is not called to fix it all. Right now, it is having trouble fixing itself. What the Church can do is create oases of spiritual nourishment staffed by authentic witnesses whose lives testify to something more than the consumerist distractions of our age.
We don’t need celebrity heroes and internet influencers. We need everyday saints, the quiet laborers in the vineyard who show us another way. This is the message of Pope Francis for our age: Encounter. Accompaniment. Flesh and blood reality versus the narcotic distractions being offered.
The allure is authenticity. The ultimate antidote is Christ.
Greg Erlandson is the president and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.
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