Written history is the story of great civilizations rising and falling. Each one built upon huge inequities, oppression, cruelty and war. Then 500 years ago something changed. The printing press was invented, making literacy and learning available to everyone (instead of just the elites). It took a while for reading to spread, but as it did, it left in it's wake, the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, Science, Rationality and then finally Democracy. See also The Printing Press as an Agent of Change and The Historical Influences of the Printing Press
Then, 60 years ago the television was invented. Very quickly television spread to almost every home in America. The huge amounts of time that Americans now spend in front of the TV, has displaced children's play and adult hobbies, most forms of civic engagement, reading for pleasure and news.
Thousands of newspapers, magazines and books across the land used to provide the news from thousands of different viewpoints.
Now that most Americans get most of their news from TV news, the viewpoints have been reduced to a limited number of broadcast and cable news shows, all of whom reflect the interests of the huge corporations that own them.
Can Democracy Survive?
In AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH, Neil Postman provides a brilliant analysis of our TV-mutant society:
"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 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 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.
Amusing Ourselves to Death
Excellent Wikipedia description of "Amusing Ourselves to Death". Neil Postman argues that TV, by it's nature, debases political discourse. That TV, by it's very nature, turns news into amusement and politics into entertainment (infotainment).
He argues, by contrast, that the invention of the printing press had huge positive effects on society, allowing science, rationality, and democracy to flower. More reading leads to better cognitive skills and vocabulary (comic books have larger vocabularies than prime time TV).
Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline, According to National Endowment for the Arts Survey (2004)
Not reading and being illiterate are in many ways the same thing. So TV, by displacing reading as our primary source of information and entertainment has in effect returned our society to a pre-literate society (at least for the majority of citizens). This explains, I think, the level of irrationality and form over substance that has taken over politics in America.