At a hard, sharp crossroads in the dog days

August 13, 2023 6:45 pm

George Orwell’s novel “1984” is displayed at The Last Bookstore on Jan. 25, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For history to repeat itself, we must first recognize that its being made.

The dog days find us awash in the momentous and, as usual, the mundane. While the former will surely fill pages of future history books, differentiating it from the latter is crucial to the writing of a true American narrative.

That said, distinguishing the historic from the ho-hum has become difficult. Cable news networks fill every hour of every day. Internet alerts ply us with breathless breaking news and updates. Our smartphones and wizard watches ring and buzz and beep endlessly because something evidently happens every minute of every day. The electronic news cycle beast has to be fed.

The most significant — and dubious — milestone in our nations long story is the third indictment of a former president, the consequence of an earlier, equally dubious and horrific event that tore at the fabric of our democracy. Thats not hyperbole; the very way we conduct our civic lives was at stake on January 6, 2021.

As has been argued in this space before, all other news pales next to the angry mob that stormed the Capitol building in an attempt to undo a free and fair election — and the legal aftermath of the rampage.

This summer saw several other historic junctures, including a planet seemingly on fire with temperatures to match, an ongoing war in Ukraine in which much of the free world has a stake and, after being the law of the land for nearly 60 years, affirmative action revoked.

Still, despite the din of the daily grind of news and information, unless we delineate and appreciate the seriousness of this juncture in American history, when a former president stands accused of trying to undo an election and move us away from a democratic republic to something frighteningly akin to a monarchy, we are doomed to repeat it.

Or worse: Find it irrelevant.

While that sounds odd given the notoriety of this case, diminishing history is part of the argument media theorist Neil Postman makes in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He maintains that television and other electronic media distill serious political, religious and cultural discourse into entertainment, the result of which is an incessant jumble of superficial images difficult to weigh and balance, resulting in a kind of middling relevance or value, no matter the historic importance. Indictments of a former president vie with Husker football depth charts, or news from the front of a brutal war competes with the latest from the Kardashians for our attention.

Whether or not you subscribe to Postmans argument, he has a point about the difficulty in gleaning and sifting a steady, sometimes loud, occasionally profane stream of information. Exacerbating the problem is that it comes to us often in the guise of entertainment, so hard edges are softened and sharp corners dulled.

As history unfolds before us this summer, however, we find ourselves at an intersection with hard edges and sharp corners.

For information consumers, the key is not so much differentiating between events of serious historical significance and a Tik-Tok influencer recommending a restaurant. My guess is most of us can do that. Whats crucial is understanding the context and consequence of each.

Postman uses two famous novels to make his case: He differentiates George Orwells 1984” from Aldus Huxleys Brave New World,” arguing the former held people captive, because totalitarianism reigned, books were banned and information was muted. In contrast, Huxleys Brave New World” drowned the truth in a sea of irrelevance.” No one wanted to read a book or to know much because we had too much information.

He said 1984” was about inflicting pain and Brave New World” about inflicting pleasure, the second much worse because Orwells story paled against the self-inflicted, internal oppression of a people who would come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

Meanwhile, the chattering class (including yours truly) will observe and surmise. Politicians will elbow and angle for a better (read safe) spot. And public interest will ebb and flow. None of that changes the facts: Were at a critical, historic crossroads.

However sketchy or strange the new neighborhood in which we find ourselves this summer, heres to at least recognizing that much.

Surely electronic media hasnt diminished our ability to reason. Surely we are not entertaining” ourselves at the cost of our way of life. Surely we are heeding Postmans warnings.

Surely weve made progress since Amusing Ourselves to Death” was published … in 1985 … nearly 40 years ago.


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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.