Has the Free Market Amused Us to Death?

I’m reading a book right now called, “Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940.” I bought it at our local library for 25 cents. It is a gem. I write a lot about this era in American history, and so it is very interesting to read the nitty-gritty details about life. Needless to say the author (David Kyvig) is quite the leftist. But I can easily penetrate through this propaganda, and there’s an interesting story behind it. The early 1900’s were really a time of great technological change, even revolution, in America. From driving to church in a buggy to getting around in a Model T, the examples are numerous. This was the era that heralded our own modern lifestyle. It reminded me of this book, “The Wild Wheel” by Garet Garrett. The author tells a story of Henry Ford and his great effect on American culture. Garrett also covers Ford’s clashes with the government and unions. Although I haven’t read the book, a good friend said that after reading “The Wild Wheel” one is convinced that Henry Ford would have never survived the clutches of modern government and would have just been an obscure victim of the state if he had tried to start his business in the last 30 or 50 years. And then that reminded me of the movie, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” about a man who tries to be a “wild wheel” in a system that doesn’t like revolutionary competition or dangerous “new” ideas.

Okay, I know I’m rambling now, I’ll try to get back to my point. Actually, I didn’t have much of a point. I’m still reading the book, so I can’t tell you how much I like/hate it. Maybe I’m an incurable bibliophile for finding a book on what people ate in the 1920’s and what they thought about their food absolutely riveting. It reads like a novel to me. Oh, but the book also reminds me of another book I just finished, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” The chronicle of daily life in the 1920’s and 30’s corresponds quite well to the timeframe in which the author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (Neil Postman) claims that our manner of public discourse and thought began to shift. This was the beginning of the visually-oriented society that culminated in the TV and I suppose, in the computers and hand-held gadgets of my generation. Instead of advertisements being simply words on a page, rationally offering something, “Paul Revere on ____ St. can fix any teeth that may be broken, lost, etc…at a reasonable price,” suddenly the ads started appealing to our senses. “Look, that baby is so happy and healthy eating that special baby food…I need to get that brand for my baby!”

And then Postman argues that this obsession with amusement and lack of any real knowledge or discussion is a form of tyranny far more dangerous than anything Orwell could have imagined. Instead of the government restricting our access to knowledge, they have given us so much knowledge that we simply can’t sort out the relevant from the irrelevant. We’re so busy finding out what all our friends and anyone we might have ever known or want to know had for lunch that we forget there’s something called the TSA terrorizing Americans at the airports. Or if we do remember, we’re so busy watching footage and reading the hundreds of stories that we don’t do anything about it.

But then I’m not sure who to blame: the consumers? The entrepreneurs? The government? Has everything been this diabolical plot? [dark and whispered tones] “We’re going to invent this thing called Twitter where most Americans will spend all their spare time reading about their friends being stuck at red lights and being up all night with fussy babies and so much irrelevant information that they won’t realize we’re taking their liberties away.” Or was it the free market? The amazing, the incredible free market? So should we hand all our liberties to the government, [baby talk] “Nanny doesn’t want you to be amused to death…what a horrid way to die.” So we go from an Aldous Huxley nightmare to a George Orwell one? We’re are saved from capitalism only to find ourselves in the grasp of a totalitarian government?

I don’t know, I don’t really have an answer. It is a tricky question. I don’t think we’d want to accept the answer no matter what it was.

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