Amusing Ourselves to Death

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Thomas Paine’s Common Sense Symbol Analysis

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense  Symbol Icon

Postman believes that the wide circulation of Thomas Paine’s famous 1776 pamphlet (an argument for American freedom from the British monarchy) is a symbol of the strength of print culture in America’s foundational period. The popularity of Common Sense indicated a desire to know things through reason and to engage in meaningful, lengthy discourses about issues most relevant to the American public. This also demonstrated that America was enjoying a true age of reason and enlightenment. For Postman, Common Sense is most potent as a symbol when we consider the impossibility of an argumentative pamphlet having such an impact in 20th century society. Thus Common Sense is an aptly titled stand-in for what we used to have, and for what we’ve lost in the rise of the Age of Show Business.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense Quotes in Amusing Ourselves to Death

The Amusing Ourselves to Death quotes below all refer to the symbol of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Form and Content Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death published in 2005.
Chapter 3 Quotes

The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today's America is the Superbowl.

Related Symbols: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has described the print culture of 17th and 18th century America in positive, nostalgic terms, mentioning the high literacy rates and the popularity of Thomas Paine's pre-Revolutionary War pamphlet "Common Sense", which sold a total of 3 million copies despite being a complex, intellectually rigorous text. He concludes disdainfully that in the America of the 1980s only the Superbowl would receive such a level of collective public attention. There is much to critique about Postman's romanticization of colonial America. Perhaps the most crucial point is that, if print culture created such rational, sophisticated ways of thinking, how did that same culture allow and encourage the institution of slavery? (Note the vast majority of slaves were illiterate, and teaching a slave to read was even a crime.) 

Postman evidently views mass interest in forms of entertainment such as the Superbowl as inherently detracting from public engagement with serious political and philosophical issues. However, it is not necessarily the case that just because people consume sports and other supposedly shallow forms of entertainment, that they are not also devoting time to more complex issues as well. Sports have played a large role in human life throughout history––including in colonial America––and have long harmoniously coincided with intellectual pursuits. 

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Thomas Paine’s Common Sense Symbol Timeline in Amusing Ourselves to Death

The timeline below shows where the symbol Thomas Paine’s Common Sense appears in Amusing Ourselves to Death. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3: Typographic America
Typography vs. Image Theme Icon
The History of Public Discourse and Media Theme Icon
...a particularly telling example of Colonial America’s literacy is the distribution of Thomas Paine’s tract Common Sense . (full context)
Form and Content Theme Icon
Typography vs. Image Theme Icon
The History of Public Discourse and Media Theme Icon
News and Entertainment Theme Icon
Progress, Prediction, and the Unforeseen Future Theme Icon
Common Sense sold over 100,000 copies in the space of just a few months, and the total... (full context)