Tag Archives: politics

Postman’s Prescience

Neil Postman, writing three decades ago, in Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin Books, 1986):

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, and then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.

You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha’is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is, of course, giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a desiccated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagara of similar opinions, and convert them into—what else?—another piece of news. Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing. (pp. 68-69)


Prior to the 1984 presidential elections, the two candidates confronted each other on television in what were called “debates.” These events were not in the least like the Lincoln-Douglas debates or anything else that goes by the name. Each candidate was given five minutes to address such questions as, What is (or would be) your policy in Central America? His opposite number was then given one minute for a rebuttal. In such circumstances, complexity, documentation and logic can play no role, and, indeed, on several occasions syntax itself was abandoned entirely. It is no matter. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with “giving off” impressions, which is what television does best. Post-debate commentary largely avoided any evaluation of the candidates’ ideas, since there were none to evaluate. Instead, the debates were conceived as boxing matches, the relevant question being, Who KO’d whom? The answer was determined by the “style” of the men—how they looked, fixed their gaze, smiled, and delivered one-liners. In the second debate, President Reagan got off a swell one-liner when asked a question about his age. The following day, several newspapers indicated that Ron had KO’d Fritz with his joke. Thus, the leader of the free world is chosen by the people in the Age of Television. (p. 97)

How far things have come since 1986!

A Non-Vote Is Not a Vote

One of the reasons put forward by some conservatives for voting for the controversial Republican nominee is that not voting for him would be “a vote for Hillary”. It’s important to understand why this is a really bad argument.

In the first place, the claim itself is inaccurate. If there are only two candidates, A and B, and Oscar doesn’t vote for A, that could mean one of two things:

(1) Oscar votes for B rather than A.

(2) Oscar votes for neither A nor B.

Clearly these aren’t equivalent, because (1) hinders A’s chances of winning more than (2) does.

But it’s worse than that: the reasoning here is incoherent, because if a non-vote for A is a vote for B, then by parity of reasoning a non-vote for B is a vote for A, from which it follows that not voting for either candidate is voting for both candidates. On the most charitable interpretation, that simply means not voting at all would be neutral with respect to the candidates: it wouldn’t favor either of them. On a less charitable interpretation, it’s just a nonsensical conclusion.

Perhaps there are some good reasons for conservatives to cast their vote for the Republican presidential ticket in 2016, but this isn’t one of them.

Addendum: I should add that the same incoherence afflicts another popular argument, namely, that not voting would “allow Hillary to win”. If a non-vote for A would allow B to win, then equally a non-vote for B would allow A to win, in which case not voting for either candidate would allow both candidates to win, which is absurd. (Actually, the conclusion in this case could be interpreted somewhat more charitably: not voting would allow either candidate to win. But again this just highlights the neutrality of a non-vote.)

Pride and Prejudice

There’s no doubt that the election of a biracial man to the US presidency is a historic event. Insofar as it symbolises the success of the civil rights movement against racial injustice, it should be celebrated (and I join with my American friends on that count).

Still, I have to confess that I’m left somewhat confused by the countless expressions of pride I’ve witnessed over the last two days. “Today, I’m proud of America!” “Americans can take pride in this historic election result!” And so on.

But what exactly is there to be proud about, I ask?

Should Americans be proud that a biracial man has been elected US president? Surely that’s no reason to be proud. A man’s ethnicity or skin colour ought to be strictly irrelevant to whether he’s the right man to serve as president. Wasn’t that the point all along? So to take pride in his election on that basis is just another form of racism.

Should Americans be proud that a biracial man could be elected US president? Well, we all knew that months ago. How did the events of Tuesday add anything to that?

In any case, how would that give grounds for pride? Race should never have been an issue in the first place — not now, not in the 60s, not at any time. At best, the election result illustrates that a past injustice is no longer present. Suggesting that the election (or electability) of a non-white president is praiseworthy or prideworthy is to confuse the obligatory with the supererogatory. There should never have been any barrier in the first place. There’s no basis for pride in finally doing (or allowing) one what always ought to have done (or allowed).

Imagine if for 40 years my church had forced women to sit on the floor during its worship services. Should I feel pride on the day that the first woman is allowed to sit in a pew? Gladness, yes. Relief, yes. But pride?

America is a truly great country and Americans have much to feel justly proud about. Yet in all honesty, I fail to see that the election of a biracial president should be one of them. Gladness, yes. Relief, yes. But pride?

Perhaps I’m still bitter about the historic event of July 4th, 1776. :)