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POSTMAN AS PROPHET

By JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN
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October 12, 2003 -- THE first time I met Neil Postman, he said, "You seem like you're in a hurry. Sit down. We'll talk."

I sat down, and we talked. Mostly, though, I listened.

Postman, who died last Sunday, was a fabulous story-teller in the grand New York tradition. Whether the subject was bagels and lox or Neil's beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, he had something fascinating and funny to say.

But the way he said it - slowly, carefully, deliberately - was the main point. Like the stories he told, Neil Postman's life was devoted to making all of us pause. Don't hurry, he told us. Sit down. We'll talk.

Talk was vital to Neil, because he believed that modern society - and, especially, modern media - had cheapened it. In 20 books and countless articles, Neil warned that television and other new technologies were eroding our common discourse. A culture based upon sound bites and fleeting images simply cannot sustain a meaningful conversation about itself, Neil insisted. Only the printed word can do that.

You don't have to share Neil's profound bias toward print - and against TV - to see that he had a point. If you were watching me give this column as a speech on TV, you probably wouldn't give it the same degree of thought. Other media in the room - a stereo, a phone, a doorbell - would distract you more easily.

You couldn't pause in the middle of my talk, to reflect upon what I said before I went on. And when I finished the speech, you wouldn't go back to an earlier part of it to judge whether my final conclusions matched my opening premises.

Actually, you'd probably change the channel before I was done. Put my speech head-to-head with "ER" or "Fear Factor" - with anything on TV, really - and you know who is going to win. Most Americans don't watch television to become informed or educated; instead, they want to be entertained.

A passionate fan of spectator sports and old World War II movies, Neil Postman was hardly an enemy of entertainment. The trouble with television was that it turned everything into entertainment, including our politics. To get elected in America, Neil worried, you needed a message that fit the format of TV: flashy, cheerful and largely devoid of substance.

In his most popular book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," Neil described the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858: They were typically all-day affairs, with each candidate speaking for three hours, with more time devoted to back-and-forth exchanges with the audience. Listeners traveled enormous distances by foot and carriage to hear the candidates, whose sharpest disagreements revolved around the era's central political question: American slavery.

Fast-forward to California's gubernatorial recall election, where the winner debated his opponents exactly once - for about an hour - after receiving all of the questions beforehand. Like the debate itself, Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign was scripted entirely by and for television. Using powerful visual images to deflect any issue of consequence, Schwarzenegger sold himself like an action hero - which, of course, is exactly what he is.

A kind and courteous man, Neil Postman would never have said, "I told you so." But he did tell us so, over and over again, until lung cancer silenced him last week.

I can still hear him, asking with an incredulous laugh, "Schwarzenegger? That Schwarzenegger?" Yes, Neil, that Schwarzenegger. Sit down, my friend. We'll talk.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools."



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