Chapter 9: Reach Out and Elect Someone
1. In this chapter, Postman says that “the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial” (126). He wants “to show how it has devastated political discourse." What does he use as his baseline for evaluating not just political discourse but also science and liberal democracy (127)? Or to ask the question from a different angle, what does he see as the source of good political discourse?
2. Why does the answer to #1 matter?
3. Aristotle identified three pisteis, or forms of persuasion, in any speech situation: the presentation of the trustworthy character of the speaker, the logical argument set out, and the emotional effect created by the speaker (On Rhetoric, 1.2). Since I assume Postman would accept Aristotle as an authority on these matters, does Postman adequately account for all three means of persuasion?
4. Postman makes the astute observation that “the television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products” (128). Later he says that great commercials “provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves” (135). Is it not true that political leaders have always functioned as visible embodiments of the polis (the city or community)? If so, what is bad about the way commercials structure political discourse?
5. Augustine said that a community is formed by common agreement on the objects of our love. What do our commercials, as well as our political discourse, tell us about the state of our community? What loves hold us together?
6. What would a good model of political discourse in America look like? Could commercials have any appropriate function in that kind of discourse?
7. Postman charges that television is “a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment” (141). Is entertainment necessarily simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical, and noncontextual? If something is simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical, and noncontextual, can it even be “information,” much less entertainment? Would it be better to say that television presents a series of dramas or stories? How does this help us in understanding how to critically evaluate television and its effect upon our political discourse?