In the foreword to his excellent and now near classic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that it was Aldous Huxley and not George Orwell who recognized the greater danger to our modern society. “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 reason 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.” I would accuse Postman of prescience, given the overwhelming onslaught of irrelevance in this age of the internet, if it were not already true, as he well documents, in those tamer times of television and the three major networks. Now, thirty years hence, I fear the damage is wholly done. The flea is with us.
My wonder now is not how to avoid this catastrophe, but to survive it. And not for myself, truly, for I have already been mortally wounded by the scourge of Howdy Doody and a popular culture that is worse than no culture at all. My worry is for my children, and their children. It is a thought that must have been had a million times by parents of the Sixth Century and again in the Fourteenth. Plagues have the appearance of God’s wrath about them. The sense arises that there is no hope. But some do survive.
The plague in the time of Justinian crucially weakened Western society in advance of the Muslim conquests with the abandonment of cities and centers of culture, and the death of 50 million in urban centers alone—no accounting for those beyond. It is no accident that great plagues bookended those dark ages of the Medieval period. The Mongol invasion that released the second and perhaps greater wave of plague in 1350, and resulted in the deaths of as many as 200 million—about a third of the human population of the time—might have also altered and even prepared Western society for the Renaissance as much as it may have finally halted the Muslim advance. With the grip of government weakened, the individual common man discovered then that they were as wise as any lord and master.The Divine right of Kings had no rule over the flea.
Neither will the totalitarian state of today have final say over the technology that it now uses to manage us. As we amuse ourselves unto death with the ephemera of a culture that makes music of hip hop and abandons Beethoven, we will likely be overwhelmed yet again by those who hold their true beliefs in spite of human value and happiness—be they political or religious. That plague is always with us. As is the flea.
But some will survive.