The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book with WND Books, “Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of America’s Founders.” This is from the Introduction, where I describe what I see as the seminal issue in our culture, and why we have forgotten so much of who we are and where we come from:
We live in a culture addicted to sound bites, to 24/7 news, to 140-character tweets and to constant headlines from every corner of the globe, which by nature are almost always the implacable foes of deep thought, discourse and expression. With this, we have seen a marked degradation in our ability to think and express not just profound thoughts but coherent ones. Our attention spans are simply no longer up to the task of such things.
Our public discourse has, as a result, too often been reduced to a meme, a graphic, a tweet, a Facebook post, and the result is that we are simply talking (more often yelling) past each other and not with each other. The art of conversation, honest and forthright, earnest and true, has largely been lost. We have gone from the days when whole towns of Americans would come out for multiple hours to view debates on the great issues of the day, as they did with Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, to having “debates” on television segments that are often no longer than a few minutes because their audiences cannot bear any more. As a result, we squeeze our side’s talking points, our side’s clichés, our side’s stereotypes, into those few minutes we have allotted ourselves for “discussion” in order that we may gain one more convert.
Additionally, few of us are well-read enough (a problem our education system seems blithely unconcerned with) to discuss the lessons of the human experience (often simply called “history”), the vices and virtues of the great heroes of the past, and so instead of applying the accumulated wisdom available to us, we become bound up in a short-sighted and exaggerated prejudice in favor of the present, the contemporary, the now, and are satisfied with clichés about the old-fashioned past we have consigned to the dustbin of irrelevance. The “tyranny of the urgent,” as I have heard it called, has overcome our willingness to sit still, to meditate, to immerse ourselves in the fruits of solitude, to pause and consider deeply. To do so is antithetical to the 21st century culture, which allows no time for pauses, no time for metaphorical Sabbaths and no time for those deeper things we have become accustomed to discussing, and indeed now enjoy discussing in only superficial ways, if we discuss them at all. In such an environment, our history, heritage, heroes and the wisdom of those who came before us have become irrelevant, for learning their lessons requires those things the 21st century is least willing to encumber itself with: a book, and an attention span longer than a few minutes. Our own past has thereby become a “secret” to ourselves.
This scourge of superficiality has overcome our culture in successively more perilous forms of corrosion, infecting every area of our lives, even up to the august offices we have appointed to manage and direct our most pressing national concerns. Never before has the communication of political messages been more reliant on manipulation of the senses and the emotions as opposed to the convincing of the mind. We have gone from the days of the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate, where the courtesy, substance, breadth and depth of knowledge we used to require of our leaders was on full display. Now, we evaluate the “debates” of those vying for the most powerful office on earth by the effectiveness of their poll-tested one-liners. Civility and substance be damned.
This has become the way to applause in the 21st century; this has become the path to obtaining a “following.” If it’s short and pithy enough; if it zings and stings; if it bites and has a comeback; if, in short, it is entertaining and amusing enough, we of the present are satisfied and count ourselves as having done our duty as citizens. We measure profundity in “likes” and substance with “retweets.” If the ratings have gone up, we assume the merits of our views have done the same. Today, the issue is not so much that none of us has time to study the deeper things – the far more difficult reality we must confront is that few of us even want to do so.
In his seminal work “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a book I consider perhaps the most important (after the Bible) for understanding the issues facing our century, Neil Postman brilliantly summarized the perils such a society is placed in as a result of its obsession with entertainment:
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 that 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. … 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 “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 that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
It is thus a great twist of irony that perhaps never before has mankind been so inundated with information and at the same time so bereft of wisdom. If this republic is to continue, we must recognize this reality for what it is: an absurdity, and a farce unworthy of a people who mean to govern themselves.
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