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Fri Oct 30, 2020, 07:33 PM

'America The Illiterate,' Chris Hedges

“America the Illiterate.” Chris Hedges is on break from Truthdig. We are republishing some of his past columns. This one originally ran on Nov. 10, 2008. - Excerpts, Ed:

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 clichés.

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% 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% 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.

It is style and story, not content or history or reality, which inform our politics and our lives. We prefer happy illusions. We confuse how we feel with knowledge.

They still cannot protect their children from dysfunctional public schools. They still cannot understand predatory loan deals, the intricacies of mortgage papers, credit card agreements and equity lines of credit that drive them into foreclosures and bankruptcies. They still struggle with the most basic chores of daily life from reading instructions on medicine bottles to filling out bank forms, car loan documents and unemployment benefit and insurance papers.

Brands come with images and slogans. Images and slogans are all they understand. Many eat at fast food restaurants not only because it is cheap but because they can order from pictures rather than menus. This is our brave new world.

The Princeton Review analyzed the transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. It reviewed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational standard needed for a reader to grasp the text. During the 2000 debates, George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Al Gore at a seventh-grade level (7.6). In the 1992 debates, Bill Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while George H.W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did H. Ross Perot (6.3). In the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the candidates spoke in language used by 10th-graders.

In the debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas the scores were respectively 11.2 and 12.0.

In short, today’s political rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a 10-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. It is fitted to this level of comprehension because most Americans speak, think and are entertained at this level. This is why serious film and theater and other serious artistic expression, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of American society.

In our post-literate world, because ideas are inaccessible, there is a need for constant stimulus.

News, political debate, theater, art and books are judged not on the power of their ideas but on their ability to entertain. Cultural products that force us to examine ourselves and our society are condemned as elitist and impenetrable...


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Reply 'America The Illiterate,' Chris Hedges (Original post)
appalachiablue Oct 2020 OP
littlemissmartypants Oct 2020 #1
appalachiablue Oct 2020 #3
littlemissmartypants Oct 2020 #4
judesedit Oct 2020 #2
appalachiablue Oct 2020 #5

Response to appalachiablue (Original post)

Fri Oct 30, 2020, 07:40 PM

1. Bookmark. USA Literacy. I have been saying this.

I couldn't remember where I read it but now I have a reference. It may not be a direct reason for the persistent maga crowd but it could be contributory.

It makes me sad for my country that we don't do a better job of educating the populous.

Thanks for sharing this, appalachiablue.

❤ lmsp

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Response to littlemissmartypants (Reply #1)

Fri Oct 30, 2020, 07:43 PM

3. Sad, tragic & doesn't have to be this way. Intentional dumbing down

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Response to appalachiablue (Reply #3)

Fri Oct 30, 2020, 07:47 PM

4. A third of the population. It's a loss for all humanity. nt ❤

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Response to appalachiablue (Original post)

Fri Oct 30, 2020, 07:41 PM

2. Research "The Dumbing Down of America". A must read

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Response to judesedit (Reply #2)

Fri Oct 30, 2020, 07:52 PM

5. This article makes some cogent points:

Op-Ed: The dumbing down of America. By William Haupt III | Watchdog.org Nov 26, 2018. - Excerpts:

"The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

The term “dumbing down” was a secret code used by film writers in the 1930s to revise scripts to appeal to viewers of lower intelligence. And for the last few decades, this phrase reflects a painful reality; today's Americans are in serious intellectual trouble. They’re in danger of losing all cultural and political capital because of illogical rationalism, diminished civic education, false idealism and lowered expectations.

The manner in which political, civic and economic ignorance contributes to grave national problems is the most contagious, self-inflicted disease our republic faces today. It is the most destructive of all epidemics since its only inoculation is economic and civic education.

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

– George Orwell

American intellectualism has suffered greatly in the past few decades as video and social media cultures have replaced print culture. This disjunction is limiting formal education and our continuing education. Self-destruction of the press brought about the declination of newspaper readership. But the proliferation of electronic media has diminished our priceless historical and classical education. According to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, reading today has the least influence on our intellectual maturity...


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