postman on orwell vs. huxley.

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“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. ”  – Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

history is bunk.

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In lieu of its upcoming movie release, I started reading “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen. I’m about halfway through it and I came across an interesting passage. The narrator is a 90- or 93-year-old man (he isn’t sure which) who is describing visits from his family.

“My platitudes don’t hold their interest and I can hardly blame them for that. My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerilla wars, and Sputnik – that’s all ancient history now.”

What struck a chord for me was the fact that these and other events that happened mere decades ago do, in fact, seem like ancient history. Maybe it’s me, but I find it difficult to imagine the times of World War II or a time before the advent of the car. This translates to media technology as well – I also have difficulty picturing a world before television, phones and even the internet, though it emerged in my childhood.

As a society, we are intently focused on gathering as much information as possible about the present while constantly seeking the “future” – newer, faster and better methods and materials. In “Brave New World”, Huxley’s characters know little about history because it is banned by the government, but it also simply ceases to matter in their daily pursuit of happiness. I’m not saying that we choose to forget history, but is history becoming, as Huxley wrote, “bunk”? Are we only interested in learning the facts needed to pass history class and then moving on with our lives? I know I’ve forgotten much of the information I learned in school. Do historical events matter less and less to each subsequent generation? Is it all ancient history now?

happiness.

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“It was the sort of idea that might… make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge.” – Brave New World

I read “Brave New World” last fall in preparation for Postman and was pleasantly surprised by how much I like the book, though I was discouraged by some of the eye-opening statements I read. This quote is one of many that I highlighted in my book. It’s slightly terrifying how spot-on Huxley’s predictions were about 40 years ago. The world he envisioned is obsessed with happiness and serves this god to the fullest. When citizens are not happy, they simply pop a soma pill to forget their worries and slip into a drug-induced euphoria. Upon waking, they’ve forgotten all their troubles (or simply realized they were ineffectual when it came to the pursuit of bliss).

I don’t think we have to look very far to see parallels to our current social environment. Certain cultures, particularly in the United States, are compelled to reach happiness through various means: money, beauty, success, sex, material things… the list goes on. (I’m sure other countries, and certainly groups within other countries, also adhere to these standards of happiness, I am just most familiar with American society.) We are  overtly and subconsciously driven to obtain and achieve these things to reach an, in my opinion, unattainable level of pleasure. The irony is once you become the best or have the most, the happiness doesn’t seem to last for long. You become aware of some other thing that you need and the cycle start again.

I also think that we need to embrace the trying times; those times when happiness is a distant memory. Instead of avoiding conflict and discord, could we choose to learn from it and grow? The characters in Brave New World had been so conditioned by their societal “progress” that the majority of them could even comprehend this concept.

I want to make the point that I fully support finding joy in things – there are so many things in life that make me smile and feel warmth in my heart. I’m merely saying that I don’t see that happiness as an end point, but simply one aspect of life.