Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Analysis of Chapters 8-10


Chapter 8 – Shuffle Off to Bethlehem

In "Shuffle Off to Bethlehem," Postman explores how the media-metaphor of television has morphed religion into entertainment.

He begins by detailing three popular televangelists of his day. The first is Reverend Terry, who leads her congregation by inspiring laughter and suggesting that godliness can lead to financial profit. Reverend Terry had recently declared bankruptcy, he ironically notes. He speaks of Pat Robertson, whose program "700 Club" is a more sophisticated television program, in terms of its use of "interviews, singers and taped segments" (115). At the end of each "700 Club" episode, someone says "All this and more…tomorrow on the 700 Club" (115). He then speaks of Jimmy Swaggart, who takes a more "fire-and-brimstone approach" which is belied by a more moderate tone designed not to offend any potential television audience (115).

Postman notes that at the time of his writing there are 35 stations operated by religious organizations, and that though he watched a large amount of its programming, he could have watched far less to realize that religion on television is solely entertainment, with "no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence" (117). Everything that has made religion significant to society over the ages is absent.

What Postman suggests is that the limitation is less in the quality of the preachers, and moreso in the medium of television itself. He suggests "not everything is televisible" (118). In the same way that prose translates fairly well into other languages but poetry does not, so do some things not translate their context appropriately between mediums. He believes that contemporary televangelists have not considered what is being lost in the translation from the church hall to the television, perhaps because they believe that the much larger audience afforded by broadcast assuages that loss.

What he wishes them to realize is that the context of traditional religion is crucial towards its encouragement of spiritual transcendence. There must be a specific space that is consecrated; no matter the building, it becomes a place of "ritual enactment" through symbols like crosses placed on walls; through certain observed behaviors like kneeling or solemn quiet; and through the community it inspires. However, television markedly refuses such a consecration. Audiences watching television in their homes are free to "eat, talk, go to the bathroom," and their space does not change its context at all through what is on the screen (119).

Further, Postman argues that our associations with the television make it inherently secular. Because the same television will have been the context for a multitude of "profane," banal, and totally disassociated shows or events, it is difficult for it to be a frame to deliver a profound religious experience (120). This limitation is doubly true because of two other facets of television: any experience will be interrupted by commercials, which are likely secular; also, the viewer is always aware that he or she can change the channel easily. "The television screen wants you to remember that its imagery is always available for your amusement and pleasure," and so it is inherently biased against delivering the context necessary for true religious experience (120).

Postman does acknowledge that the successful televangelists are aware of the pressures against which they compete. They program their shows at non-traditional times, willing to compete with secular programs because they believe their programs are equally entertaining. Their production costs are reflected in the production value of the programs, and rewarded with huge profits. They are not immune to the pull of celebrities, and some in fact recruit attractive celebrities to either feature on the show or sit in the audience for camera cut-aways. One aspect of Christianity that naturally gets neglected is its veneration of poverty. The television preachers take full advantage of marketing tools, and implicitly if not openly praise wealth rather than consider its pitfalls.

Postman contrasts this approach – which succeeds by "offering people something they want" – with that of the great religious figures like Buddha or Christ, who offered people not "what they want [but] only what they need" (121). The difficulty of offering the latter is not rewarded by television, which clearly favors affability and "good cheer" (121). The danger here is that "Christianity is a demanding and serious religion," but television Christianity is packaged as "easy and amusing" (121).

He then addresses potential counterarguments to his thesis that television has degraded religion. He recognizes that "spectacle is hardly a stranger to religion," that religion has always used "art, music, icons and awe-inspiring ritual" to make itself appealing (122). However, he argues that in religion, this spectacle involves "integral parts of the history and doctrines of the religion itself." The symbols are recognized as having specific, profound meanings and have evolved over the centuries to offer "enchantment, not entertainment" (122). Whereas enchantment works as a magic to bring us closer to God, entertainment is a means through which we distance ourselves from a particular content.

The next counterargument is that most television religion is "fundamentalist," meaning it aims not for ritual but for direct connection with God and the Bible. However, Postman argues, the nature of television means that audiences connect less with God than with the preacher. The film language of close-ups and editing inspires "idolatry" that arguably leads audiences away from the idea and more towards the actual person speaking it (122-123). He notes that television works best by bringing "personalities into our hearts, not abstractions into our heads" (123). It works by giving us a television personality, not an imprecise idea like God. As a result, the way television religion functions comes close to "blasphemy" (123).

The final and most convincing counterargument is that television allows religion to reach millions of people at once. However, Postman believes that what is being communicated to these millions of people is not actual, profound religion but rather an entertainment disguised as it. What we should worry about, he argues, is not that religion has shown up on television, but rather that television has become the content of religion, meaning that the religion prized by the ages might eventually disappear.

Chapter 9 – Reach Out and Elect Someone

Postman uses two anecdotes to question whether politics is more like a "spectator sport" or, as Ronald Reagan put it, "like show business" (125).

Not surprisingly, Postman is more encouraged by the first simile, frightening as it may be, since in a sport, the "standard of excellence is well known to both the players and spectators" (125). We know how to watch, understand, and score a sport. There is little room for disagreement as to what a touchdown means, or as to who scored the most points in a game.

On the other hand, the "standard of excellence" in show business is judged merely as the ability to "please the crowd" through "artifice" (126). Thus, the paramount virtue is not to attain "excellence, charity or honesty," but instead to appear as if you have attained those virtues. In a word, politics as show business is just a branch of "advertising" (126). He believes that politics in America has become a series of competing commercials, rather than ideas or true personalities.

Postman digresses momentarily to discuss the prevalence of the television commercial as both an object and metaphor. Noting that the average 40 year-old American will have seen one million commercials in his lifetime, Postman suggests that commercials have both shaped our minds and "mounted…[a] serious assault on capitalist ideology" (126). He argues that capitalism as a system always presupposed that buyer and seller were both "sufficiently mature" enough to navigate a market built essentially on "self-interest" (127). The idea is that a seller can make a claim and argument for his product, and that the buyer can then rationally decide whether that argument warrants his purchase of the product. In fact, laws are often passed – like ones requiring truth in advertising – to maintain this basic form of rational claims.

However, as he has already discussed in an earlier chapter, commercials do not operate in a rational format. They do not make a claim that can be judged as "true" or "false," but instead uses images to attract consumers, to offer them a potential reality that cannot be exactly refuted because no exact claim is made. A commercial now speaks not of a product but of the consumer, by offering something that market researchers believe is absent from a person's life. The commercial works by offering a mythology, not a claim, and as a result, no rational process is involved in judging whether or not to buy a product.

Postman believes that television commercials have been the "chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas" (129). First, political arguments are now made in the mode of thirty-second segments. No matter the depth of any candidate's knowledge, research and experience, the primary mode of discourse believed to influence success is the image presented through short commercials. And like those commercials Postman describes above, they do not make claims so much as offer a mythology, a picture of a candidate as one who embodies certain virtues. Postman believes this point is self-evident to anyone who has watched campaign ads.

There is a second, more pernicious, effect of this bias towards brevity in commercials. Because commercials are meant to be short and yet poignant, they serve as "instant therapy" for a viewer, by promising him or her something that is missing from his or her life (130). What this format means is that no problem can be presented as insoluble without alienating potential consumers (or in this case, voters). Exposition and deliberation are antithetical to the form of a commercial, and so any use of "complex language" becomes suspect (132). Prior political discourse allowed for difficult problems to be addressed in mature ways – the ideology of commercials, which Postman says has totally infected our society, does not.

In the absence of this, politicians market themselves as celebrities, meaning they are not only well-known but also seen explicitly as figures of entertainment. Postman notes how over the past decades, this delineation between fame and celebrity has infected the political scene. Candidates do commercials, star on television shows, and present themselves as bastions of certain values regardless of the issues they claim to represent. Postman notes how the rise of President-as-celebrity has coincided with a slow decline of the importance of political parties. He recalls how, when he was a child, people voted for their party no matter the candidate because they had rationally decided that a particular party best represented their economic and social interests. However, he believes that such thinking is decreasing in import.

Though he does not necessarily tout this way of thinking as the best way to choose the "best man," he does claim, "television does not reveal who the best man is" (133). Much like the way a product is advertised, a candidate is presented not as an image of himself, but rather as an image of who the audience wants to be. He becomes a type of "instant therapy" himself, someone on whom we can place our own desires and fears, and thereby no rational claim is made about his qualifications one way or the other.

To illustrate how the idea of "image politics works on television," Postman details a famous set of Bell Telephone commercials that offer short parables about how two long out-of-touch friends reconnect and find intimacy through the telephone. The commercials do not make any claims about the telephone, but rather express, through the slogan "Reach Out and Touch Someone," an image of ourselves, as people who are not as in touch as we'd like but certainly want to be. The commercials communicate that we want to be in touch, even if our behavior does not represent as much. Similarly, in a television context, we are no longer allowed to know which candidate is best to represent us, but only which best poses an image that will comfort us and soothe "the deep reaches of our discontent" (135).

Therefore, though Postman believes we continue to vote according to our "self-interest," he argues the definition of "self-interest" has changed (135). It used to indicate tangible benefits or preference, but it now means what makes us feel the best. He wonders whether African-Americans – who continue to vote Democratic despite not having an image of their race on screen (this pre-dates President Obama, of course) – might be "the only sane voters left in America" (135).

Taking these points as true, Postman argues "history can play no significant role in image politics" (136). Because history implies a continuity of patterns and decisions, and television "permits no access to the past." Through its "speed-of-light medium," it does not allow for arguments or representations that ask us to consider a candidate in a larger historical context (136). In other words, television operates by offering immediate images that speak to a consumer's momentary desires or passions, whereas history requires us to compare, contrast, or connect various ideas to find a greater truth. This requires deliberation, exposition, and silent contemplation – none of which are allowed by the inherent bias of television. Postman quotes several writers who say in various ways that our current age is forgetting how to remember the past. He attributes this deficit to the fact that remembering requires "a contextual basis – a theory, a vision, a metaphor – something within which facts can be organized and patterns discerned" (137). Again, television favors the momentary image, and thrives on disconnect, incoherence, and decontextualization.

Postman returns to his Orwell/Huxley dichotomy. He notes how Orwell feared history would be destroyed, but that its destruction would be carried out by the state through the banning of books in hopes of destroying a context through which the public could understand tyranny. Huxley, on the other hand, provides a model to understand that "television does not ban books, it simply displaces them" (141). The threat to our civil liberties is not that a vicious government will rob us of information, but rather that we will gladly embrace a discourse that presents us with disinformation, so that we do not realize we are being robbed of true context and information. Tyrants do not even need to provide us with entertainment to distract us, Postman notes; we are already programmed to ignore anything which does not amuse.

Chapter 10 – Teaching as an Amusing Activity

Postman begins by discussing "Sesame Street." When it first premiered in 1969, it quickly became a hit, largely because children saw in it the precepts of television commercials, while parents loved it because it had the potential to educate in a form that children embraced. Its "use of cute puppets, celebrities, catchy tunes, and rapid-fire editing" could entertain and educate children, and assuage the guilt of parents who worried their children were learning inappropriate things through their time with the television (142). Even educators approved of the program, which taught children not only particular lessons but also how to love learning.

However, the trouble for Postman is that "Sesame Street" "encourages children to love school only if school is like 'Sesame Street'" (143). He believes that the model of "Sesame Street" undermines everything that traditional education aims to do. A child cannot ask questions of what is presented on television; learns more about images than about language; and is held to no standards of social behavior or expectation. Though he notes that "fun" can be used as a tool in the classroom, he believes that "fun" is the end in itself on television (143).

He does not blame the creators of programs like "Sesame Street" or "The Electric Company," but instead suggests that they are doing what their medium requires: creating entertaining programs. These programs ultimately train children to love television, not learning, but that is what we should expect of them, because they are shows designed for that particular medium.

Further, he does not believe "Sesame Street" has great educational value, based on pedagogical theory. He offers evidence that what we learn is always less important than how we learn, that content is only half of a lesson. The other half is the component of engagement, which television is necessarily unable to provide.

Most disconcerting is that the distinction between television and book-learning is largely absent from the discussion of the education trouble in America at the time of the book's publication. Postman suggests that the Western world's third great education crisis is occurring at the moment, and he uses Marshall McLuhan's thoughts to suggest that television is changing the way people learn at a much more efficient rate than traditional classrooms are. Children are learning the "curriculum" of television, which is creating the sense for children that "teaching and entertainment are inseparable," an idea which is historically unprecedented (145). On the other hand, education has traditionally been about imbuing learners with a sense of context and connection to a greater past and world, rather than immersing them in the enjoyment of the moment.

Postman proposes that the curriculum of television has "three commandments." The first is "Thou shalt have no prerequisites." Television does not allow for segments to be contingent on other segments, and in fact denies the existence of a hierarchy of learning. Each segment must be complete in itself, rather than suggesting that learning inspires other learning, and that some learning cannot be done until prerequisites are met. The second commandment is "Thou shalt induce no perplexity." Television must be simple, digestible, and deliver to the reader a clear commodity. Thirdly, "Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt." Nothing may be taught or delivered on television that requires exposition or considered discussion. Instead, all information must be presented in a "theatrical context" designed to entertain (147-148).

As a restatement of the book's thesis, Postman notes that education has become entertainment on television. But what matters most is that the classroom itself is currently being realigned into a place where "teaching and learning are intended to be vastly amusing activities" (148). Television is forcing its mode of discourse onto life. He mentions some previously cited examples of this phenomenon, and then tells of a new project called "The Voyage of the Mimi," a grant-funded collection of television program, computer game, and lavishly-illustrated book meant to teach about aquatic life. The companies financing it are so certain it will succeed as a model not only by reaching children but also through marketing.

Postman takes issue with the assumptions of this project. While it functions under the belief that students will learn best when the information is presented dramatically, he quotes a study that reveals that students were best able to correctly answer questions about a subject when they read about it rather than watched it presented.

However, even if he cedes that the opposing side could quote studies to defend its assertions, he notes that this trend in education will ultimately favor subjects that are televisible over those that are not. He believes "Voyage of the Mimi" was chosen because its subject translated well to a dramatic television context, even though issues like "navigational skills" are not the most relevant information for most students to learn about (153). It isn't that television is being used to teach, but rather that television is dictating the content of what arrives in the classroom. So much money was put into this project, Postman argues, without any sense of the "epistemological or political agenda" that television has (154). What students will take away from a project like that is less information about a mariner's life (he believes they will retain only a portion of that, anyway) and more the invisible and yet pervasive ideology that "anything worth learning can take the form of entertainment" (154).

As a result, these children will grow to expect everything in their life to follow that same cardinal rule, whether it be their religion, politics, news, or commerce.


In these three chapters, Postman applies his theory that the media-metaphor of television has defined our discourse throughout society to three separate arenas: religion, politics, and education. In all three, the primary goal is to illustrate that our important issues have all be reduced to mere entertainment, because television's ubiquity and preeminence have necessitated such a change. In all three, he stays true to his historical structure by illustrating a certain tradition of discourse, and then revealing how that discourse has essentially changed in the contemporary era. It is important to note that he does not mean to suggest an evolution of a discourse, but rather that television is a markedly distinct mode of discourse from that of print and oratory. It is not an "amplification," but a replacement (84).

While these three chapters are ostensibly about different subjects, what links them is an implied thesis about the nature and value of commercial advertising. Where the chapter on news, "Now…this," worked around a thesis of disconnected information, these three can all be understood in light of the discussion of advertising presented in the chapter "Reach Out and Elect Someone". Therefore, it is useful to make certain that those ideas are well understood before trying to analyze the chapters.

What Postman posits is a critique of contemporary advertising as an essentially psychological industry that commoditizes ideas and mythologies. As discussed in a previous Analysis, many thinkers argue that the nature of the spectacle leads us to package abstractions and ideas so that we can define ourselves by what the products we buy represent. We pay lots of money for a nice suit, the argument goes, not because we value the silks used to make it, but because it symbolizes prestige and seriousness. We pay for haircuts that imitate those of celebrities not because of the aesthetic appeal, but because it links us to that celebrity and moreover to what he or she represents. However, the argument Postman makes goes one step further – he suggests that advertising does not offer us something, but rather exacerbates our insecurity over not having something. A person with poor family relations might be attracted to the Bell Telephone commercial described in Chapter 9, because the image of the commercial reminds him of the intimacy he lacks in life, but then makes him optimistic that he can purchase that intimacy through a Bell account. There are no longer any claims made about products in commercials; instead, there are merely assumptions made about consumers, based on extensive market research, which are filtered into basic parables or lessons in the belief that the emotionally affected consumer will then filter that emotion into the purchase of a particular product.

Though he only mentions this idea explicitly in terms of "image politics," it is a good way to understand the thrust of each of these chapters. For instance, what concerns Postman about television religion is that it offers the spectacle and commodity of spiritual transcendence without any of the struggle through which one traditionally used to earn that transcendence. What is offered through large production values, attractive, well-spoken celebrity preachers, and market-tested blurbs is commoditized community and salvation. By tuning in (and usually donating money), someone is able to claim he or she has bought religious warmth. Perhaps by donning a t-shirt with Jimmy Swaggart's face on it, we can then broadcast this purchased part of our personality to others. Postman is notably respectful of religion's power as a way to confront our failures and strengths and to engage with a long tradition of doubt and faith, all in hopes of comforting ourselves. Therefore, he is deeply affected by a society that packages those hard-earned virtues as easy-to-purchase commodities. For all the reasons he details, television is unable to contain such a deep experience, and yet it exists to be purchased as commodity.

His consideration of politics as a spectacle of virtues-as-commodity is more explicitly discussed in the chapter. What is fascinating in this chapter, however, is how much more pronounced the problems Postman details have become in the new millennium. The issue of selling an identity in short bursts has only become more grievous in the past two elections, as campaign spending limits have been obliterated by law, and moment-to-moment punditry has become the main source and output of political argument. In 2008, President Obama's campaign successfully marketed him as holding the commodity of hope, for instance. Whether he truly believed in the ideals he represented is irrelevant – what is relevant is that the commodity of hope was sold through over a billion dollars of short, succinct advertisements offering parables of the hope that the campaign believed most people felt was missing from their lives.

Perhaps more than any other chapter, however, the chapter on politics can be critiqued on grounds of historical inaccuracy. Political simplification began growing progressively worse in America long before the television was invented. A study of Andrew Jackson's rise to the White House would serve as a good example. Perhaps Postman would argue that this trend resulted from the invention of the telegraph and photograph, which would link to his thesis. One could also find ways to critique his thoughts about the decline of political parties, though perhaps this is more anachronism than mistake. Regardless, his argument about the way these shifts can harm our civil liberties feels extremely prescient and profound.

In Chapter 10, Postman argues that the television has turned learning and education itself into a form of entertainment, but it is not a stretch to interpret this as saying that knowledge has become a commodity. Learning for its own sake, or for the sake of self-betterment, is no longer the goal. Instead, parents in his depiction embrace Sesame Street because they can now feel like good parents for turning their child's television habit into education time. Companies like those that developed "The Voyage of the Mimi" ultimately aim to sell education as an enjoyable experience, with the stated hope that marketing and advertising will ultimately recoup losses. Perhaps because Postman covered the decline of contemporary education in another book, Teaching as a Conserving Activity, this chapter does feel less developed than the other two in this section, though the argument remains quite strong.

Ultimately, Postman emerges from these chapters as something of a humanist. His main goal is to preserve the spirit of individuality that he sees in history, and to imagine a society where man can reach his greatest potential. As a media theorist, he has made clear that any civilization is biased by the media-metaphor it employs, but he also transmits an ideal version of humanity. In this ideal version, technology is an extension of our gifts and desires, one that helps us to realize our best selves. His view of print based culture depicts the media of writing as one that allowed man's rational capacity to express itself, and had the potential for politics to be about our choosing the best person to represent us. In a strange way, this humanism seems contrary to his profession as a media theorist, though it ultimately adds the layers of complexity that make the book so lasting.

Finally, the way he speaks of the sacredness of a shared space is intriguing. Postman seems to believe that humans are capable of using symbols and metaphors to transcend their limitations and to turn one object into another. The way he speaks of how a basic hall can become a sacred space for religious purposes is one example. Though he does not explicitly phrase it this way, he also suggests that the classroom has a powerful potential because of the community formed therein.

This book is sometimes criticized for not offering a solution to the many problems it details. However, these chapters do offer an implicit solution through his humanism. The first step towards counteracting the harmful effects of television are to recognize the way that it has an inherent bias towards a certain kind of discourse; to acknowledge that no technology is neutral; and that while our society is certainly defined by our media-metaphor, that we still have the option to allow or confront those limitations. Change cannot come until awareness does, and it is this that Postman wishes to impart.