Home | About | Donate

Fake News is Not New and Huxley, Not Orwell, is the Messenger: Time to Reread Neil Postman

Fake News is Not New and Huxley, Not Orwell, is the Messenger: Time to Reread Neil Postman

Jerry Lembcke

The news business is in a sweat about fake news. The temperature has been rising since the November election of Donald Trump as President and it went febrile on February 2 when his press secretary Kellyanne Conway claimed the president’s restrictions on immigration announced on January 27 were justified by the massacre carried out by Iraqi refugees (some time ago) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. There had never been a massacre but she got away with saying it on the Chris Matthews MSNBC news show—and that has news critics apoplectic.


When over time the pleasures of Huxley’s dystopia will have become onerous and painful to endure, Orwell’s fearful dystopia will be what follows. Huxley’s bountiful oligarchy leads for the favored few but Orwell’s grim fascism of scarcity, fear and want is reserved for the many.

It is no coincidence that the two prophetic novels continue to hold preeminent places on the same bookshelf as they are the bookends for our fears and warnings for our future.


We work. We play. We get bored to death with elaborate news stories that take a half hour to explain. There is so much going on in our world that 24/7 study from all the BEST sources still leaves us uncertain about so much. I suppose it’s really no wonder that “impressions” from politicians on TV carry so much weight. I also remember that the likeable, comfortable looking JFK “won” the debate with the sweaty Nixon for those who watched on TV. However, for those who listened on the radio, Nixon won the debate.


In the end, people are governed by those to whom they submit, whether by election or attention. Too few choose to be truly free in a soulful sense. As a result, souls have become fungible commodities traded at blazing speeds much like public stocks. Only the (awakened) self can save the self.


Any idea how much of Huxley’s Brave New World was utilized by Goebbels in refining his Third Reich play book ?

1 Like

I think what is missing here is it takes a certain type of population for this stuff to work. I think it clear that whatever Reagan did the people who tended to be on the left of center politically were not affected and when it comes to Trump that was even more so. Then what kind of people are affected by this? It appears, particularly with regard to Trump that a lower level of educational level is critical. In the last election there was an unusual split between poorly educated people and better educated people. Also, it seems to take a belief in religion. People who are religious tended to accept Reagan and Trump, although Reagan was not religious and neither is Trump. So I think this in the end the divides people between those who are less educated and more religious from those who are more educated and well read and more secular. In effect we have filters. Many of us filtered out the messages of Reagan and Trump while many others did not.


A little proofreading would have helped support the very credible arguments presented here.

Excerpt from 1994 interview with Marshall McCluhan on the “media” - round about the midsection of interview

"(…) This problem is doubly acute today because man must, as a simple survival strategy, become aware of what is happening to him, despite the attendant pain of such comprehension. The fact that he has not done so in this age of electronics is what has made this also the age of anxiety, which in turn has been transformed into its Doppelgänger–the therapeutically reactive age of anomie and apathy. But despite our self-protective escape mechanisms, the total-field awareness engendered by electronic media is enabling us–indeed, compelling us–to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious, toward a realization that technology is an extension of our own bodies. We live in the first age when change occurs sufficiently rapidly to make such pattern recognition possible for society at large. Until the present era, this awareness has always been reflected first by the artist, who has had the power–and courage–of the seer to read the language of the outer world and relate it to the inner world.

PLAYBOY: Why should it be the artist rather than the scientist who perceives these relationships and foresees these trends?

MCLUHAN: Because inherent in the artist’s creative inspiration is the process of subliminally sniffing out environmental change. It’s always been the artist who perceives the alterations in man caused by a new medium, who recognizes that the future is the present, and uses his work to prepare the ground for it. But most people, from truck drivers to the literary Brahmins, are still blissfully ignorant of what the media do to them; unaware that because of their pervasive effects on man, it is the medium itself that is the message, not the content, and unaware that the medium is also the message–that, all puns aside, it literally works over and saturates and molds and transforms every sense ratio. The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb. But the ability to perceive media-induced extensions of man, once the province of the artist, is now being expanded as the new environment of electric information makes possible a new degree of perception and critical awareness by nonartists.

PLAYBOY: Is the public, then, at last beginning to perceive the “invisible” contours of these new technological environments

MCLUHAN: People are beginning to understand the nature of their new technology, but not yet nearly enough of them–and not nearly well enough. Most people, as I indicated, still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world. By this I mean to say that because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world. Because we are benumbed by any new technology–which in turn creates a totally new environment–we tend to make the old environment more visible; we do so by turning it into an art form and by attaching ourselves to the objects and atmosphere that characterized it, just as we’ve done with jazz, and as we’re now doing with the garbage of the mechanical environment via pop art.

The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone but the artist, the man of integral awareness, is alive in an earlier day. In the midst of the electronic age of software, of instant information movement, we still believe we’re living in the mechanical age of hardware. At the height of the mechanical age, man turned back to earlier centuries in search of “pastoral” values. The Renaissance and the Middle Ages were completely oriented toward Rome; Rome was oriented toward Greece, and the Greeks were oriented toward the pre-Homeric primitives. We reverse the old educational dictum of learning by proceeding from the familiar to the unfamiliar by going from the unfamiliar to the familiar, which is nothing more or less than the numbing mechanism that takes place whenever new media drastically extend our senses.

PLAYBOY: If this “numbing” effect performs a beneficial role by protecting man from the psychic pain caused by the extensions of his nervous system that you attribute to the media, why are you attempting to dispel it and alert man to the changes in his environment?

MCLUHAN: In the past, the effects of media were experienced more gradually, allowing the individual and society to absorb and cushion their impact to some degree. Today, in the electronic age of instantaneous communication, I believe that our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.

Because of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us–and thus win back control of our own destinies. The new extensions of man and the environment they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process, and yet we still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what it does to us and with us. This is the zombie stance of the technological idiot. It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present. (… con’t )"


Which is why judges, juries have witnesses testify in person rather than over a phone. Demeanor matters in assessing credibility. It is not a negative that Kennedy was seen as more believable.

We used to the think the “type of population” needed for “this stuff to work” was German. Now some people think it’s the poor and uneducated. Trump isn’t filling his government with poor people. Congress is not filled with the poor. The poor are not part of anyone’s power base. They are still the pawns.


Trump has nothing to do with poor people. Most of the people who voted for him aren’t poor. I think they had a higher level of income than the people who voted for Clinton. It is mostly about nativism, white nationalism. The main goal is to get as close to a white Christian nation as is feasible. The main issue is immigration. The first priority is stopping all immigration of non-whites even if it means stopping all immigration. This may even include non-whites with visas. The second priority is deporting as many non-whites as possible with illegal immigrants being of course the easiest target. In a worst case scenario things could degenerate into gangs of white nationalists creating such fear that many non-whites leave the US to escape. And after that I would not even want to think about.

1 Like

I just watched “Europa, Europa” last night. I like to imagine that things could never again get anywhere near that bad.

Its not a poor/middle class/wealthy equation, its a partisan equation whereby parties owned by the same corporations that own the media (and as McLuhan reminds us, therefore own the message) manifest Huxley’s projections.

98% of US voters voting for the two corporate candidates in 21st century elections when more qualified third party candidates were on the ballot confirm that thinking "things could never again get anywhere near that bad " is part of what got us to the Trump presidency.

We got the New Deal in no small part because 10% of US voters voted for socialist and communist candidates during the first half of the 20th century, giving cover for FDR and Congress to toss a few crumbs to the 99% in the form of the New Deal allegedly to keep the US from going commie.


Now days leaders must be comfortable with TV close-ups. Some good people will thus be disqualified. Actors, such as Reagan, gain advantage.

I recall the media frequently commenting on Saint Ron’s “stage presence advantage” both during his California Governor campaigns AND his POTUS campaigns.


Not a uniform advantage by any means. Non actors (at least professionally) like Bill Clinton and Dubya did very well before the cameras. Bernie Sanders cut through the screen very effectively. Poor poor Hillary just never could. She’s the “Nixon” who would have done better on radio. Trump is strictly a camera guy.

Huxley - Lawrence 112AF! Hope we can beleive in!

Last year scientists in U.k. were given the go ahead to modify human embryo’s.

Who will decide who becomes A’s or b’s?

He copied much of his juanty head tilt and smile from FDR.

1 Like

During graduate study in early 1960s Montana, an outstanding
young visiting professor from Canada taught a course that included
both Orwell and Huxley (and Swift and Samuel Butler). Later, when
I first began teaching, I introduced students to 1984 and Brave New World.

In recent years the 24/7 popularity of fear/anger-mongering millionaire
ranters demonstrates how quite easily propaganda’s appeal to
emotion can sway millions and convince them that lies are truth.
My conversations with those who have been influenced (“brainwashed”
seems appropriate) shows how importance willful ignorance is in
propaganda’s success.

Your excellent Common Dreams piece deserves wide distribution,
but the dominance of the Ignorance Factor means it is not likely to be
read and seriously considered by those who most need the message.
For the propagandists, I’d guess that the media, the clever use of
whatever medium, is still the message. “Listen to Me, for the Truth
is simple” followed by words that provoke fear, anger, bigotry,
racism and the implied but unspoken lie that knowledge beyond
the teller’s line is not necessary, is a dangerous waster of one’s time.

Consumer Reports was developed to enlighten buyers when
after World War Two the economy allowed the proliferation of so many
different products that concerned consumers wanted and needed a
“buyer beware” source sufficiently trustworthy to help people
spend more wisely in the face of an advertising onslaught aimed at
selling both gems and junk. Today, Amazon combines the selling game
with near-unlimited variety but coupled with “reviews” from consumers
(and maybe some fake consumers). For those concerned with pocketbook
issues, where they spend their cash or credit is important enough for them
to gain some information, however limited, regarding the products they’ll buy.
In today’s politics, however, there’s a sucker born every second.

Those of us who have chosen in whatever ways to legitimately educate
students and the public are now challenged by the enemies of knowledge
and truth: intellectual “elites” are promoted as dangerous enemies of
the Common Man. Anti-intellectualism so prevalent during the vicious
days of McCarthy (I remember them well) has made a big comeback.
Often I hear opinions denouncing public school education for “not teaching
what should be taught.” (This from people who don’t know what’s happening
in the nation’s classrooms, but they heard it from trusted sources.)

The propagandists have made scapegoating popular (and Trump has
used that strategy for his entire career). Hyperbolic notions are standard fare.
“Obama is the most divisive president in history.” “All liberals want to bring
back Communism.” (Actual quotations I’ve heard.) When bombarded with
jingoistic, emotionally-hyped-up comments from men and women who
(by virtue of their being on the air, on the Internet, in print) are given
legitimacy in the eyes and ears of so many eager beholders, the Soma fix
is in. A mental-emotional circuitry is completed, and suckers are easy marks,
especially where the process of divining fact from fiction is time-consuming,
cumbersome and at odds with satisfying propaganda. (An intelligent friend
recently said he gets his information from Breitbart News because it
– be said – skewers both left and right. One can’t convince those who
are firmly convinced.)

American education has failed, not in our contemporary classrooms
but in the world beyond the blackboards, the new nation of “sheep”
easily led on the downward path of Deliberate Ignorance.

When I’m told the media is corrupt and can’t be trusted, and I ask where
the speaker then gets information – usually I don’t get an answer.
Of course, the Internet becomes complicit when one can google some
outrageous claim and find it listed on perhaps hundreds of websites –
proving its legitimacy to the person searching for confirmation of its validity.

In my view, we’ve reached a point where BOTH Orwell and Huxley are relevant.
But I’m pretty sure the recent surge in readership is almost entirely among those
who are members of the choir.

We must keep teaching even though the tide of deliberate ignorance may seem
at times to lift (or sink) most boats.


In a nutshell: Corporations and the politicians they own who are best at pushing voters’ fear and greed buttons win out.

1 Like