Planet of the Dead, or, Is dehumanization so bad?
One of the most nightmarish things about a dark age is the degradation that it entails for life’s overall tone, not least in the dehumanization that occurs when a people’s intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual, political, social, and cultural life in general is reduced to a ghastly level of brutishness and ignorance. As is now plainly evident all around us in the industrialized world of present-day info-technocracy, this coarsening of life can occur even in circumstances of relative material prosperity. It doesn’t always have to be a dark age like the one that gripped Europe in the aftermath of Rome’s fall, when starvation and plague were rampant and most people barely scraped by at a miserable subsistence level. A dark age can unfold and exist right in the middle of outward conditions that may appear enlightened to those who don’t look too closely or deeply.
Sometimes it’s oddly comforting to dwell on the words of people who have seen today’s dark age of dehumanization unfolding. When it feels like the world is full of robots instead of people, or when it begins to feel like we really are living on the planet of the apes, it can be a powerfully affirming experience to be reminded that other people have observed the same thing.
With this in mind, here are three of my own favorite articulations of these things.
1. From Network (1976)
Howard Beale has gone from being a normal network news anchor to being “the mad prophet of the airwaves.” In this iconic scene from the movie, Beale delivers an impassioned rant to an eager television audience in which he — dig the deep, deep irony — implores them to wake up from their television-induced trance. Significantly, what he says reflects the real personal views of the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, who, after achieving legendary status by writing many of the high-quality live dramas that aired during television’s early years, became deeply and utterly appalled at what the medium of television had become. Beale’s words represent Chayefky’s heartfelt indictment of the world that television, by the 1970s, had built.
Edward George Ruddy died today! Edward George Ruddy was chairman of the board of the UBN Broadcasting Systems and he died this morning of a heart condition. And woe is us. We’re in a lot of trouble.
So a rich little man with white hair died. What has that got to do with the price of rice, right? And why is that woe to us? Because you people and million other Americans are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube.
Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people, and that’s why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because this company is now in the hands of CCA, the Communications Corporation of America. There’s a new chairman of the board, a man called Frank Hackett, sitting in Mr. Ruddy’s office on the twentieth floor. And when the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?
So you listen to me. Listen to me. Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!
So if you want the truth, go to God. Go to your gurus. Go to yourselves. Because that’s the only place you’re ever going to find any real truth. But, man, you’re never gonna get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell. We’ll tell you that Kojak always gets the killer, and that nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker’s house. However much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, look at your watch, at the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds. We’re all you know! You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here, you’re beginning to believe that the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing, we are the illusion!
So — turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I’m speaking to you now. Turn them off!
Later, in another televised rant, Beale changes his tack and essentially surrenders to his grim view of things. And again, the dialogue reflects screenwriter Chayefsky’s real-life views.
At the bottom of all our terrified souls, we know that democracy is a dying giant, a sick, sick, dying, decayed political concept writhing in its final pain. I don’t mean that the United States is finished as a world power. It is the richest, most powerful, most advanced country in the world. I don’t mean the communists are going to take over. They’re deader than we are.
What is finished is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It’s the individual that’s finished. It’s the single, solitary human being that’s finished. It’s every single one of you out there that’s finished.
Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It’s a nation of some two hundred-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods.
Well, the time has come to say: Is dehumanization such a bad word? Because whether it’s good or bad, that’s what is so. The whole world is becoming humanoid – creatures that look human but aren’t. The whole world. We’re the most advanced country so we’ll get there first. The whole world’s people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, numbered.
2. From My Dinner with Andre (1981)
The playwright and actor Wallace Shawn and the renowned experimental theater director Andre Gregory, playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, share a meal in an expensive French restaurant while discussing a multitude of topics about their own lives and the life of society and culture at large. At many points their conversation turns toward the palpable sense of wrongness that characterizes so much of modern life. This leads Andre, in what has become one of the film’s most remembered moments, to describe a starkly dystopian vision of a dehumanized future. He follows it with some brighter speculations — which appear in this video but not in my transcription below — but it’s the darker stuff that grabs me the most.
Andre: Things don’t affect people the way they used to. I mean, it may very well be that ten years from now people will pay ten thousand dollars in cash to be castrated, just in order to be affected by something!
Wally: [Quieter] Well, why…why do you think that is? I mean, why is that? I mean, is it just because people are lazy today? Or they’re bored? I mean, are we just like bored, spoiled children who’ve just been lying in the bathtub all day just playing with their plastic duck and now they’re just thinking, “Well, what can I do?”
Andre: [After a pause] Okay. Yes. We’re bored. We’re all bored now. But has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brain-washing created by a world totalitarian government based on money? And that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks? And it’s not just a question ofindividual survival, Wally, but that somebody who’s bored is asleep, and somebody who’s asleep will not say “no”?
See, I keep meeting these people, I mean, just a few days ago I met this man whom I greatly admire. He’s a Swedish physicist, Gustav Björnstrand. And he told me that he no longer watches television, he doesn’t read newspapers, and he doesn’t read magazines. He’s completely cut them out of his life, because he really does feel that we’re living in some kind of Orwellian nightmare now, and that everything that you hear now contributes to turning you into a robot.
And when I was at Findhorn, I met this extraordinary English tree expert who had devoted his life to saving trees. He just got back from Washington, lobbying to save the redwoods. He’s eighty-four years old and he always travels with a backpack because he never knows where he’s going to be tomorrow. And when I met him at Findhorn he said to me, “Where are you from?” And I said, “New York.” He said, “Ah, New York! Yes, that’s a very interesting place. Do you know a lot of New Yorkers who keep talking about the fact that they want to leave but never do?” And I said, “Oh, yes!” And he said, “Why do you think they don’t leave?” I gave him different banal theories. He said, “Oh, I don’t think it’s that way at all. I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride in this thing they’ve built. They’ve built their own prison. And so they exist in a state of schizophrenia, where they are both guards and prisoners. And as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made, or to even see it as a prison.” And then he went into his pocket and he took out a seed for a tree, and he said, “This is a pine tree.” He put it in my hand and he said, “Escape, before it’s too late.”
You see, actually, for two or three years now [my wife] Chiquita and I have had this very unpleasant feeling that we really should get out, that we really should feel like Jews in Germany in the late thirties. Get out of here! Of course, the problem is where to go, because it seems quite obvious that the whole world is going in the same direction. You see, I think it’s quite possible that the nineteen-sixties represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished. And that this is the beginning of the rest of the future now, and that from now on there’ll simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing. And there’ll be nobody left almost to remind them that there once was a species called a human being, with feelings and thoughts. And that history and memory are right now being erased, and soon nobody will really remember that life existed on the planet.
3. From The Twilight of American Culture (2000) by Morris Berman
If the redistribution of wealth . . . reflects a “seismic shift” in American society, a similar kind of shift can be seen in the tenor of American attitudes and intellectual abilities (nor are the two trends unrelated). Thus, for example, in an interview with Peter Coyote on National Public Radio (circa 1995), the actor matter-of-factly alluded to the great “hostility toward intelligence” that was now a part of American culture. Or consider the repeated, and accurate, use of the phrase “dumbing down” in everyday discussions and in the press. The celebration of ignorance that characterizes America today can be seen in the enormous success of a film like Forrest Gump, in which a good-natured idiot is made into a hero; or in the immensely popular TV sitcom Cheers, in which intellectual interest of any sort is portrayed as phony and pretentious, whereas outright stupidity is equated with what is warm-hearted and authentic. If my colleague at Midwest U now has a student who never read a novel, how long before he has a student who asks him, “What’s a novel?” (In fact, millions of Americans already don’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction.) If the students don’t recognize Browning now, how long before they have never heard of Shakespeare? How long before the New York Times and the Washington Post fold for lack of subscribers, or until the English language becomes as inaccessible to the majority of Americans as Chaucer’s Middle English is to them now? How long before intellectual excitement is regarded as a historical phenomenon, or a bizarre frame of mind, or just — not regarded?
In his introduction to the book Dumbing Us Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, John Simon notes that a whole world of learning is disappearing before our eyes, in merely one generation. We cannot expect, he says, to make a mythological allusion anymore, or use a foreign phrase, or refer to a famous historical event or literary character, and still be understood by more than a tiny handful of people. (Try this in virtually any group setting, and note the reaction. This is an excellent wake-up call as to what this culture is about, and how totally alien to it you are.) Indeed, using Lewis Lapham’s criteria for genuine literacy — having some familiarity with a minimum number of standard texts (Marx, Darwin, Dickens . . .), and being able to spot irony — it may even be the case that the number of genuinely literate adults in the United States amounts to fewer than 5 million people — that is, less than 3 percent of the total population.
In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as “the family”) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data cited above suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of “book people” who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year.