Sunday, November 23, 2008

Two Americas


Chris Hedges' article America the Illiterate describes, with painful accuracy, the juvenile state of the average American mind:

We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clich├ęs. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities.

There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate
retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.


The illiterate rarely vote, and when they do vote they do so without the ability to make decisions based on textual information. American political campaigns, which have learned to speak in the comforting epistemology of images, eschew real ideas and policy for cheap slogans and reassuring personal narratives. Political propaganda now masquerades as ideology. Political campaigns have become an experience. They do not require cognitive or self-critical skills. They are designed to ignite pseudo-religious feelings of euphoria, empowerment and collective salvation. Campaigns that succeed are carefully constructed psychological instruments that manipulate fickle public moods, emotions and impulses, many of which are subliminal. They create a public ecstasy that annuls individuality and fosters a state of mindlessness. They thrust us into an eternal present. They cater to a nation that now lives in a state of permanent amnesia. It is style and story, not content or history or reality, which inform our politics and our lives. We prefer happy illusions. And it works because so much of the American electorate, including those who should know better, blindly cast ballots for slogans, smiles, the cheerful family tableaux, narratives and the perceived sincerity and the attractiveness of candidates. We confuse how we feel with knowledge.

I've never been a very sociable fellow, but over the last few years it has become a major temptation to avoid all but the most necessary contact with the uneducated. And by "the uneducated", I don't just mean high school dropouts and/or complete illiterates. The legions of the stultified include college graduates with high paying jobs, i.e., people who are competent in most areas of their lives. Conversation with them is generally pleasant and beneficial. But when the talk turns to politics (as it inevitably does in our semi-fascist, government-rigged, government-addicted society), the average American is - I will be blunt - an ignorant, arrogant, vindictive little commissar, who compulsively vomits demands and pretexts for government thieving, government slavery, or government murder. The foregoing is made all the more appalling when the speaker readily confesses that he knows little, or nothing, about the subject at hand.

These people are the products of television and state schooling. They do not read anything, at least anything that would give them a fundamental grasp of economics, history, or civics. If they catch you reading a scholarly book or a work of high literature, they will ask, "Are you studying for a class?" When you tell them, no, you are simply reading to expand your knowledge and understand the world better, they will bat their eyes in momentary bewilderment and move on. Back when I read books during my lunch breaks, I got this reaction from coworkers more often than not. Regimented study, undertaken to gain a certificate that qualifies you for higher pay or social status (in America, these are one and the same), seems to be the only sort of learning they respect or even understand.


The coming depression will slap much of the frivolity out of this country. Maybe the love of ignorance, at least as a near-universal vice, will be pounded out too.

Update

Ed Hurst, in his continuing series of blog posts on Biblical Rebellion, comments on the fundamental childishness of adults who lust for power over others:

There is no entity on earth more childish and demanding than humans operating in the role of government. That's because those who relish control over others are children seeking their own desires. No real adult desires to be caught in that pincer of having to decide what is in someone else's best interest. Thus, it's no surprise those who seek government offices are often only superficially mature. They are utterly convinced they know what's best, and hardly shrink from spanking their fellow man for failing to choose it. They call resistance to their will, and resistance to their enforcement, "crime." While it's often portrayed to us that rebels are the brats, it's often hard to be sure which side is more dangerous to good social order. Still, real adults are rather patient when no harm is done.

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