A good case can be made that popular culture and our postmodern times are creating a generation of zombies. Now zombies are, in a very simple definition, the walking dead. They seem to be automatised and lobotomised. They are not exactly thinking, reflecting, conscious and alert citizens.
And all totalitarian states quite prefer having a nation of zombies. They are much easier to control and rule with an iron fist if they are mindless, undiscerning, non-critical robots. And many commentators have noted how our contemporary culture is helping to produce such an army of zombies.
Our entertainment-mad culture, coupled with the postmodern emphasis on image over content, is resulting in less and less intelligent and reflective citizens, but more and more undiscerning and easily manipulated drones. The role of the mass media and pop culture in all this has been documented by many.
For example back in 1985 Neil Postman wrote the incisive volume, Amusing Ourselves to Death. He wrote about how television is dumbing down an entire generation, and is replacing serious thought with mindless entertainment. And even the church has been deeply impacted by this entertainment culture, as I write about here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/06/23/i-am-amused-therefore-i-am/
If things were bad in 1985 when Postman wrote, how much worse have things now become? As I mentioned, an uncritical and unthinking society is easily manipulated and controlled by the state. Just last night I was reading two different books – one new and one a bit older – which both spoke to this theme, and singled out the Nazi regime as a good example of this.
Both volumes noted how the dumbing down of the Germans, coupled with a ruthless propaganda machine, allowed Hitler and his thugs to mould an entire nation to run with their evil purposes. They understood very well the power of the media and how it can be used as a tool of indoctrination, and they really perfected the art of media-wide propaganda.
On a popular level, Ray Comfort has just written Hitler, God, and the Bible (WND Books, 2012). It is an easy to read volume on who Hitler was and what he believed. Comfort has a chapter on how he was so successful in steering a nation along his horrendous path.
Says Comfort, “Propaganda was a tremendous asset to Hitler, and his mastery of it allowed him to fully exploit the vulnerability of the people he claimed to serve. The propaganda mission was twofold. It needed to convince the current populace that Nazism provided the answers they were seeking. Secondly, the propaganda needed to create a sustainable claw that could dig deeply into the future generations….
“In the Third Reich, propaganda took an extreme and dangerous form. Rather than limiting themselves to lies and manipulation of information, the Nazi Party would infiltrate whatever institution they wished to sway and physically remove any opposition members, killing them if necessary.”
The other, older, book I was reading last night is a very important 2003 volume by Arthur Hunt. Called The Vanishing Word (Crossway), it laments the death of the written word. He shows how Christianity is above all else a word-based faith, and the postmodern elevation of image over everything else is a frontal attack on not just the truth claims of Christianity, but on free and democratic societies.
The over-emphasis on visual imagery is creating a generation of mindless pagans who are easily manipulated and indoctrinated. Modern mass communications especially have a tremendous ability to mould both beliefs and behaviours. When image and the printed page compete, the image almost always wins.
Says Hunt, “There is a big difference between processing information on a printed page compared with processing data conveyed through a series of moving pictures. Images have a way of evoking an emotional response. Pictures have a way of pushing rational discourse – linear logic – into the background.”
Quite right, and Hunt also uses the Nazis as a prime example of this. He looks at how the Nazis perfected the use of propaganda and the subordination of the media to achieve their purposes. His chapter on this makes for scary reading. He is well worth quoting here:
“Although today it has become fashionable for scholars of human communication and spokespeople of the entertainment industry to minimize the power of the mass media, Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, did not minimize it. To the contrary, once Hitler became Chancellor he sought to lay his hands on every media form in Germany – art, radio, the press, and film. Whereas the propaganda of the Nuremberg rallies were like annual shots in the arm, post-1933 propaganda became total under National Socialism.”
As noted, dumbing down the masses was an integral part of all this: “In May [Goebbels] stood before a bonfire of burning books and declared, ‘The age of extreme intellectualism is over…the past is lying in flames…the future will rise from the flames within our hearts.’ Book burning was just one aspect of the anti-intellectualism associated with Nazism. This was an attitude of the Hitler Youth. A member of the exiled Social Democratic Party observed, ‘[The] new generation has never had much use for education and reading. Now nothing is demanded of them; on the contrary, knowledge is publicly condemned’.”
Goebbels gained control of all media outlets, and had ingenious plans on how to use the media to optimal effect: “Radio sets were mass-produced and sold at subsidized prices. The range of the receivers were limited to pick up broadcasts only within Germany’s borders, but at least one could listen to Wagner or Hitler’s speeches (fifty speeches were broadcast in 1933 alone).”
Newspapers of course simply became arms of the state. “The press must not merely inform, it must also instruct,” said Goebbels. Films were also vehicles for Nazi propaganda: “the strategy was to mix entertainment with political content”.
Said Goebbels, “propaganda was most effective when it was insidious, when the message was concealed within the framework of popular entertainment”. He and Hitler put this reasoning to very good use. For example, “between 1933 and 1942 the number of moviegoers in Germany quadrupled”.
Asks Hunt, “How did one of the most educated populations on the planet become so credulous? Why would the land of Luther want to return to the Middle Ages? It is not enough to say that it was a matter of low morale or terrible economic conditions. Other modern nations also had their share of dead soldiers and depressions without succumbing to a mythological mind-set. Hitler is best explained by the circumstance of the vanishing word.”
He created a nation of zombies, in other words, who were cut off from their own past, from reason, from rationality. An unthinking and unreflecting people will fall for anything, and will be easily manipulated. All that book burning took its toll.
Thus we must ask, how much more so today in our postmodern, image-mad culture? As we become increasingly dumbed-down and unable to rationally and critically assess and discern, we make ourselves very much open to manipulation and moulding by those who are pushing far-reaching agendas.
And as the state increases in power, it will more and more use the media and the new technologies to create a compliant and a non-reflective people – a nation of sheep to do its bidding. Thus we must learn the lessons of history here. What happened in Nazi Germany did not take place all that long ago.
We need to reclaim the printed word, the use of the mind, and the need for rational critical thought. And we need to beware of the seductive nature of the image, be it in popular culture or in mass propaganda by the state. A nation of sheep is easily enslaved. A generation of zombies is like putty in the dictators’ hands.
But a nation of critical thinkers, analysts and readers is not so easily brought undone.