Books for Our Times: “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” by Neil Postman

Carla Seaquist
9 min readJun 4, 2024


INTRODUCTION: How is it possible for a once-rational political party, the Republicans, to — as a body — deny the validity of the guilty verdict delivered by a jury of rational citizens in the recent hush-money trial of former president Donald Trump? Which guilty verdict is supported by a profession — journalism — that is dedicated to the pursuit of verifiable Truth?

To answer this question — How did America fall from the Age of Reason to Unreason? — the reader might examine the late scholar Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” an essay-review of which follows.

Eighth in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times

This is a book I have long wanted to read, mainly because its proposition, conveyed in its title — that we Americans are “amusing ourselves to death” — is one with which, though I work my sword-arm for a New Day in America, I am forced to agree.

But, until now, I had not read the book, whose full title is “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Why read it now? Because: I look out at America — politically, tearing itself apart to the point of sinking American Democracy; culturally, coming to our own rescue (or not) with little more than cynicism and snark, “action heroes” and dystopian tales — and I see: America is still amusing itself to death. Or rather, since little is amusing now, perhaps distracting ourselves to death is more apt.

Written almost 40 years ago (1985), such a cultural snapshot might not age well. But its author, the late Neil Postman, longtime New York University professor, knew a historical trend when he saw it: The shift from a book-based culture, which is inherently stable, to an image-driven culture, which is inherently unstable, has short-circuited our capacity not only to hold public discourse, but even to think. For Postman, television was the devil in the machine; now, we add as monumental distractors social media and artificial intelligence, which experts fear pose even more devilry.

As for pointing the way to a New Day, the reader should beware: Postman, clearly a broken-hearted humanist, had no cure — “[T]here probably isn’t any,” he wrote — other than schools must get better at schooling. Yet his book, which he called “an inquiry and a lamentation,” is instructive in this regard: It unpacks the devil-machine, television, in such a clear and original way that the reader will emerge savvier about how exactly our media culture is working on us, or, as the author might have it, working us over.

The book breaks out in two parts: the first unfurls the thesis, the second part illustrates it.

But first, in his Foreword, Postman introduces two polestars — both authors of dystopian novels: George Orwell of “1984” and Aldous Huxley of “Brave New World.” Postman opens with “We were keeping our eye on 1984,” the year Orwell predicted humanity’s takeover by Big Brother. When 1984 came and went without event, humanity sighed with relief. But Postman says, Hang on, consider Huxley:

“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…. Huxley remarked [that] 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 distraction.’ 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 what we love will ruin us.”

Writes Postman, “This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

In Part I, Postman posits his theory of America’s “descent into a vast triviality.” Why America? Because, declaring its independence, America explicitly dedicates its exercise of freedom to “the pursuit of happiness.” Thus encumbered, Americans are less alive to the epistemology of new inventions. If we blanch at “epistemology,” the professor explains: “In every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.” As example, with the invention of the clock, we lost Eternity.

Most valuable invention ever? The printing press, per Postman: “[T]he four-hundred-year imperial dominance of typography was of far greater benefit than deficit.” He writes: “It is no accident that the Age of Reason [the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries] was coexistent with the growth of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America.” The reason for print’s supremacy is epistemological: Its stability is inherent in its nature.

“One must begin, I think, by pointing to the obvious fact that the written word, and an oratory based upon it, has a content: a semantic, paraphrasable, propositional content. This may sound odd, but since I shall be arguing soon enough that much of our discourse today has only a marginal propositional content, I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication — especially language controlled by the rigors of print — an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought…. [R]eading is by its nature a serious business. It is also, of course, an essentially rational activity.”

Then Postman makes this claim for America’s early promise: that discourse in the 18th and 19th centuries, being “language-centered,” was both “content-laden and serious.” Discourse was “generally coherent, serious and rational” (while under television’s rule, it’s become “shriveled and absurd”). Being serious means “demanding to be understood.”

In two fascinating chapters, Postman maps out early America. Near-universal literacy was the norm: “Americans among whom [Benjamin] Franklin lived were as committed to the printed word as any group of people who ever lived.” Earlier, “from 1650 onward almost all New England towns passed laws requiring maintenance of a ‘reading and writing’ school.” Reading was never elitist in early America, but common. “The Bible was the central reading matter in all households”: Protestants “shared Luther’s belief that printing was ‘God’s highest and extremist act of Grace, whereby the business of the Gospel may be driven forward.’’ Also read: newspapers: “By 1730, there were seven newspapers published regularly in four colonies, and by 1800 there were more than 180.” Foreign visitors marveled at Americans’ literacy and the prevalence of lecture halls, an outgrowth of the Lyceum Movement promoting adult education.

Postman marvels especially at the Lincoln-Douglas debates: not only their intellectual content, but the enormous audiences for them, “people who so cheerfully accommodated themselves to seven hours of oratory.” Moreover, both Lincoln and Douglas endeavored to appeal “to understanding and not to passion” — ideal, given their volatile subject: the extension of slavery in the states. Indeed, at the time of the debates (1858), “America was in the middle years of its most glorious literary outpouring” — Dickinson, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Twain. Colleges were founded by the score. All a natural development of a nation founded by intellectuals, to whom, says Postman, “mature citizenship was not conceivable without sophisticated literacy” [italics mine].

But then came the inventions that, Postman believes, began to separate people from comprehension: electricity, photography and image-making, the telegraph and the spread of information, etc. For one, the telegraph “did something that [Samuel F. B.] Morse did not foresee when he prophesied telegraphy would make ‘one neighborhood of the whole country.’” Among the few who understood the “considerable” cost was Henry David Thoreau, who remarked in On Walden Pond:

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

Which touches on the discontinuity and vapidity to come, per Postman. Part II, which sets out numerous illustrations of his thesis, opens with “The Age of Show Business” and charts our descent from there. Again, Postman’s principal devil-machine is television, where “you cannot do philosophy” and “thinking does not play well.” Postman explains:

“I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anti-communication, 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 theatre, it is known as vaudeville.”

Postman does due diligence with epistemological examination of all notable inventions, especially T.V. and its “Now….this” incoherence-making, which incoherence-making has had calamitous impact on politics (Ronald Reagan happily called politics “just like show business”) and on religion (in Postman’s opinion, what the televangelists have wrought is “blasphemy”). With the former, we lost the rational; with the latter, the sacred.

Lest readers think Postman was nothing but an anti-modern, machine-hating Luddite, his argument again is that machines are fine — if we understand their implications and costs. (Can this message pierce those glued to their ironically-named “smart” phones?) That requisite understanding was in train, Postman holds, in the late Enlightenment:

“It is in the eighteenth century that science — the preeminent example of the analytic management of knowledge — begins its refashioning of the world. It is in the eighteenth century that capitalism is demonstrated to be a rational and liberal system of economic life, that religious superstition comes under furious attack, that the divine right of kings is shown to be a mere prejudice, that the idea of continuous progress takes hold, and that the necessity of universal literacy through education becomes apparent.”

I might add here: The word “truth” appears everywhere in Postman’s book, it is on nearly every page (I circled it; my copy is studded with circled truths). But then, truth was elemental to Postman’s whole argument. As with the Enlightenment’s Age of Reason, Postman naturally assumed truth was the objective of all inquiry, research, philosophy. Not anymore, Mr. Postman, not anymore.

Postman would be aghast at the lower levels America has fallen since his death in 2003 — the detachment from truth, the ascension of the blatantly untruthful, that is to say, blatantly lying and amoral Donald Trump to the White House, with the real possibility of his re-election. Moreover, Trump’s demonstrated autocratic tendencies — I can’t imagine what Postman would make of the Trump-incited January 6 insurrection — calls back into play George Orwell, whom Postman relegated to History’s dustbin, concluding “Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody” and declaring Aldous Huxley preeminent. Sad to say, both ends of Postman’s binary now pertain: Orwell’s fears of state-imposed oppression are revived with autocrats rising around the world to wage war on democracy, while our political and cultural tools to fight back remain….Howdy Doody.

Postman asked, not rhetorically: “Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?” I keep hoping that, with the many crises America has endured — the last being the deadly coronavirus pandemic, on top of Trump — we will be done, finally, with inanity and get sober, get mature; but no. About our capacity to sober up and mature, Postman remained harsh to the last pages, castigating Americans’ “customary mindless inattention.” Yet, faithful and constant, Postman did “take arms against a sea of amusements,” publishing over 20 books and founding NYU’s renowned Media Ecology program.

This book, gloomy as it is, makes crystal-clear the nature of our media-saturated inanity. Presumably there is merit in comprehension. The question becomes: To Hamlet’s “O what a falling-off was there,” can we reverse course and get to higher ground…?



Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost.