Neil Postman, who died October 5, was author of many well-known books on language and education, a contributor to this magazine and a valued member of its editorial board (though he did not always agree with our editorials on Israel). He was our house McLuhanite. At one meeting, speaking on technology, he delivered a lecture on automatic car windows. Why were they needed? He’d always thought rolling up the window by hand crank was perfectly satisfactory. You realized that if you thought about the need for automatic car windows a few days, you’d cover all the social, economic and moral issues of modern capitalist technology. He liked to say, “What is the question to which this is the answer?” As professor of culture and communication at New York University, Postman was a foe of language pollution. “If we are to resolve some of our more reachable, moral, social, and political problems,” he once wrote, “we will require, as precondition, a relatively clean semantic environment.” In a Nation essay on TV news he observed, “If knowledge is power, if the function of information is to modify or provide direction to action, then it is almost precisely true that TV news shows give nearly no information and even less knowledge. Except of course through their commercials. One can be told about Bounty, Braniff and Burger King, and then do something in relation to them…. Everything on a TV news show is arranged so that it is unnecessary, undesirable and, in any event, very difficult to attend to the sense of what is depicted.” Neil Postman fought for meaning against obfuscation. He insisted that clarity of thought requires clarity of language. He made us think about the cultural consequences of technological change.
THE BOSS ON BUSH
Our rock writer reports: During his October 1 concert at Shea Stadium in New York, Bruce Springsteen threw some jabs at the President. He led off the evening by playing a tape loop of Bush, repeating over and over “weapons of mass destruction, war and peace.” Then Springsteen pointedly sang “Souls of the Departed.” Later, exhorting the crowd to up the volume during a singalong, he shouted: “A little louder if you want to impeach the President!”
STREET OF SLEAZE
TV review by national affairs correspondent William Greider: K Street, the new HBO docudrama about a lobbying firm, is a vivid (and disgusting) expression of our decayed democracy. I don’t know whether Americans distant from Washington find this entertaining. I find it borderline obscene. The amorality of money-driven Washington is accurately depicted, though in a shallow manner designed not to piss off any truly important players. But what induces elected reps like Barbara Boxer to participate in fictionalizing their own public lives? A hunger for flattering attention, probably. The sad inner truth of modern Washington is that even senators, their actions and ideas, are generally ignored. They have become bit players in the drama concocted by lobbyists and narcissistic political consultants.
The spinning of a recent Gallup poll of Iraqi attitudes toward the US occupation reveals once again that in Washington, this is the Gang That Can’t Talk Straight. Nearly two-thirds of the Iraqis questioned told Gallup that their sufferings have been worth it because Saddam Hussein was ousted, and 67 percent believe life will be better in five years. These findings were cited by US proconsul Paul Bremer, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and New York Times columnist William Safire, among others. None of these gentlemen cited the poll’s other findings, namely, that only 33 percent of Iraqis said they were better off after the invasion, while 47 percent said they were worse off. Only 29 percent of Baghdad residents had a favorable view of the United States, compared with 55 percent with a favorable view of France.
RUSH, WE HARDLY KNEW YE
Matt Bivens’s Outrage of the Week: Rush Limbaugh, the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key radio personality–who just lost his ESPN football-commentator gig over his musings on how easy it is for black quarterbacks–is under investigation for illegally buying and using prescription drugs. (Could he have gotten addicted to painkillers battling the anal cyst that let him out of the Vietnam-era draft?) All is not lost for Rush, of course. I see him collaborating on a new Book of Virtues with Bill Bennett. Governor Schwarzenegger can write the foreword [read Bivens on www.thenation.com]. Addendum. On his show Rush uses substance abuse to tar his enemies: “All [Maureen Dowd] has now is bourbon for mouthwash, and it’s showing on her columns.” (October 21, 2002) “To Ted Kennedy, whose liver is said to be shaped like a Chivas Regal bottle, what Bush said and what’s best for America and the Iraqis doesn’t matter.” (September 23, 2003)