In 1985, Neil Postman published what for me would be one of the seminal books I ever read: Amusing Ourselves To Death.
I still think it's required reading for anyone who wants to understand the media.
Postman's thesis was fairly simple and astonishingly prescient: He said that as television exercised greater and greater influence in American society, every other institution would have to bend to its demands. And the demands for television are fairly simple: Things have to be entertaining to hold people's attention.
Postman postulated that even politics would have to become entertainment.
He was right, but Postman was writing before the era of Twitter and YouTube. They, even more than television, now seem to cast a long shadow over politics, and ultimately how we live our lives.
I was struck by this watching the 'Town Hall' debates (I should put that in quotes as well, I suppose) on Tuesday night.
These were not debates, and they were not Town Hall discussions -- places where the candidates could respond to 'average people's' concerns.
They were instead a pure and rather frightening manifestation of the Twitter election.
A lot of people talk about the impact of Twitter (and YouTube) on politics as a good thing. I don't think so.
Instead of actually debating issues in an intelligent and responsible manner, the 'debates' (there are the quotes) were merely opportunities for each of the candidates to get in their memorized 'zingers' and 'zippy one-liners' as best they could. The 'questions' from the audience were simply openings for the 'zinger fest' to begin. Like the limits on 140 characters, the zingers have to be witty and short -- with an emphasis on short. There is not time here (nor in the increasingly short attention span of viewers or the public in general) for long complicated explanations for what are, in fact, rather long and complex problems.
It's all about zippy one-liners.
Often repeated over and over.
And the take-away from Tuesday? Twitter says: "Binders."
Political debates were not always so. When Lincoln and Douglas debated for the Illinois Senate seat they engaged in seven debates. Each lasted for hours. Each candidate presented their position for 60 minutes, followed by a 90-minute rebuttal and a 30 minutes rejoinder. Plus cross-questioning.
Audiences sat in rapt attention throughout the entire seven-hour event.
Do you think that would work today?
Do you think the networks would sign up for a series of seven seven-hour presidential debates?
Do you think anyone would be watching past the first 30 seconds or so?
And what would the tweets look like? Would #boring be the number one hashtag?
That's who we are!
That's who we have become.
The Tea Party may love to make references back to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, but really the culture we have created (and continue to create) is vastly different from what the nation was like 150 years ago.
And it's only going to get worse.
At Tuesday's 'debate' (now you see why the quotation marks), moderator (there were no moderators at Lincoln-Douglas) tried to keep the thing on track. Thirty seconds ,Mr. President! Thirty seconds to explain what happened in Benghazi or how taxes impact on the economy. 140 characters only!
We get what we deserve.
And seemingly, we're going to get it.
And we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.
(Was that too long?)
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