Amusing Ourselves to Death
Have we become a society so hooked on entertainment and consumption that we give no real thought as to how our lives are led?
Sensationalism has a fundamental human appeal. A sensationalist society values entertainment no matter how outrageous.
In 1835, P.T. Barnum of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circusbegan his career as a showman with his purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed African-American slave woman, claiming she was the nurse of George Washington, and over a hundred and sixty years old. She was later proven to be not more than 80 years old.
Even in times of strife, the thrill of entertainment was still sought after. The Great Depression, an economic decline that started in 1929 and lasted through most of the 1930s, had devastating effects around the world, particularly in industrialized countries and producers of raw materials. Countries like the U.S., Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, France, South Africa, Chile, Peru and Bolivia, some still trying to recover from the effects of the First World War, suffered a crippled economy of stifled trade, unemployment and homelessness. As focused as citizens should have been on rebuilding their countries, the need for balance, if not escape, often prevailed. Times were tough but there was still much to come out of the era. The board game Monopoly was created in the 30s. While most people didn't have much money, they enjoyed playing Monopoly because of the thrill of holding the play money and buying and selling houses.
The Federal Theatre Project was one aspect of the depression-era Works Progress Administration, designed to put unemployed people to work and revive theatre entertainment. The era also boasted the birth of the Canadian Dionne quintuplets in 1934, who were reported upon for years afterward for being such a rare birth, for jingles and for starring in several Hollywood films. In 1938, Orson Welles’ realistic broadcast of a Martian invasion frightened millions of radio listeners who believed it actually was happening. Josephine Baker was crossing cultural lines in Paris and stars like Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor, Cary Grant, Dolores Del Rio, and Jean Harlow, the “Blonde Bombshell,” were screen favorites. Film classics emerged like Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, and Stagecoach, one of the most memorable westerns ever made with John Wayne. Radio shows such as Amos 'n' Andy and The Lone Ranger were popular, and big band music with Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw were at their height.
In the fifties, a family with the luxury of one television set would watch the news and, after dinner, an episode of I Love Lucy. With the exception of the veiled pioneering efforts of Lucille Ball as an innovative woman in show business, what you got and enjoyed was simple, compartmentalized television with your news separate from your entertainment. And though shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best made some declarative statements about assumed family structure and values, these shows didn’t muddy themselves with heavy social commentary. In the sixties and seventies, we began to move in a different direction when the entertainment of the time was not only a reflection, but also a reaction to the social stage with the emergence of the Civil Rights and Women’s movements. James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” all echoed the changes felt, heard and seen in such TV shows as Julia, starring Diahanne Carroll as the first African-American actress to star in her own television series where she did not play a domestic worker.
We’ve seen a flood of media since these simpler times. Our public discourse has changed because we are saturated with media outlets and choices. The fighting of wars is encapsulated on channels we don’t have to watch and the farthest ends of our imagination as well as our insecurities are available to us in flat-screen high definition plasma. There are absolutely no holds barred and there is an expectation now for ‘performance’ in all media. The line has been blurred as news must be entertaining, entertainment has become political, and politics increasingly becomes mocked and trivialized. Shows like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Reporthave become important social commentary with their stinging, often on-point political satire. The Greatest Story Every Sold by New York Times writer, Frank Rich, scolds the Bush Administration (more than an indifferent society for not knowing better) for using public relations to spin a variety of parallel ills in culture and politics and goes on to say that we live in “an infotainment culture that happily accommodates the Bush administration's erasure of the line between reality and fiction.”
As we are inundated with modern entertainment, we can allow ourselves to be guided, not only by popular culture, but by the evolution and synergistic power of it. The people of today’s media represent as well as define our personal and political agendas, and often can be found on the same show. We’ve come to depend on the complexity of film-makers like Steven Spielberg, who move between making movies about fun and fantasy: from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. to more socially relevant films dealing with prejudice and redemption: Schindler's List, looming technology: A.I, history: Saving Private Ryan, and personal awakenings: The Color Purple, as well as the concept of being a grown-up with a childlike heart in Hook, man’s desire to be a God in Jurassic Park, and the adventures of good versus evil in the Raiders of the Lost Ark series. His library is one-stop shopping for the seeker (or accidental consumer) of history, politics, and guilty pleasure entertainment.
The shift in our society has enabled us to be less in touch with the lives we actually lead. Long gone are the days of hand-written letters, neighborhood watches, and block associations or even block parties, things that actually connected you to the people you lived with. And with the emerging necessity of dual-income households, organizations like the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) no longer holds the status it used to or the prominence in the lives of working parents. Parents simply depend on the report card, home memo, and required teacher conference to be informed of what is happening in their school system. Things that have been designed to provide conveniences in our lives have further alienated us from the reality of our lives. We lose a sense of the changes in commerce, how long things actually take to do for oneself, and how much things actually cost because we can just run a tab and be billed. You can live one of the most insulated of lives with pick-up and delivery service of almost every kind: take-out, laundry, dry cleaning, dog walking, groceries, video rental, and with on-line internet shopping, the possibilities are endless. We complain about the increasing prices of gasoline probably because it is one of the few things that we actually have to make a face-to-face purchase to receive and cannot have mail ordered and delivered. These high prices in gas exist in the same society as higher-priced milk and genetically engineered fruit (delivered) and failing school systems (ignored) but if we have allowed ourselves to be consumed or even insulated from actually ‘living in our lives,’ we are not jarred by anything unless it smacks us in the face.
After working, running around and settling down from the things that keep us too busy to regularly write letters, read a paper, and call our mothers, we reach for the comfort of the remote control. Now available in one universal device unifying all electronic devices, the remote control does just that: remotely controls our attentions and carries us into the vortex of all things escapist. With the click of one button, we allow other people’s ‘reality’ to entertain us and replace our own reality. Idols and bachelors, and models, oh my! Apprentices, pageants and swans all participating in elimination scenarios to be crowned the “The One.” And why just one? Hasn’t history proven that runners up still do all right? Think Clay Aiken, The Bachelor’s Trista Rehn, or Flavor of Love’s contentious Miss New York. Do we hype up the choosing of ‘one’ with the secret hope of dismantling them later? We are all aware of the digital re-imaging of magazine covers and the struggles of paper-thin celebrities, and we watch the credits roll citing ‘writers’ on ‘unscripted’ reality shows. But the reality medium proves too salacious to criticize or boycott. Candid Camera has made its way to ‘Watch-Me TV’ and talk shows that actually lead to death. One such incident occurred on American talk show The Jenny Jones Show in March of 1995 when Scott Amedure, a gay man, confessed to his best friend Jonathan Schmitz, that he had a crush on him. The response from Schmitz was mostly humorous as he laughed about that revelation in front of the audience, but three days after the show's taping, Schmitz, upset over the incident, killed Amedure. Producers decided not to air the actual show after the murder made headlines but, as a result, the show’s ratings spiked.
In Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he argues that television is the primary means of communication for our culture: that television has the property of converting conversations into entertainment and so that public discourse on important issues has disappeared, since the treatment of serious issues as entertainment inherently prevents them from being treated as serious issues and indeed since serious issues have been treated as entertainment for so many decades now, the public is no longer aware of these issues in their original sense, but only as entertainment.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s sexual acts and impeachment proceedings warranted more controversy, attention and public opinion than most of his administration’s politics. Despite an August 1996 signing of the first minimum wage increase in five years or instituting historic welfare reform, the shock and entertainment value of his cigar-laced escapades won the attention of people who may not have even considered voting in the election. Often referred to as the “Prince of Humbugs,” P.T. Barnum saw nothing wrong in entertainers or vendors using hype (or ‘humbug,’ as he termed it) in their promotional material, just as long as the public was getting good value for its money. He was, however, contemptuous of those who made money through fraudulent deceptions. Have we become a society hooked on entertainment and consumption? And if so, are we getting good value for the time we spend consuming? Or do we need to fine-tune our ‘humbug detector’ and get back to the basics of simpler living and more intimately defining our own personal and political positions?