- 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. 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
- The illiterate and semi-literate, once the campaigns
are over, remain powerless. 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. They watch helplessly and without comprehension
as hundreds of thousands of jobs are shed. They are hostages to brands.
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. And those who serve them,
also semi-literate or illiterate, punch in orders on cash registers whose
keys are marked with symbols and pictures. This is our brave new world.
- Political leaders in our post-literate society no longer
need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear to have
these qualities. Most of all they need a story, a narrative. The reality
of the narrative is irrelevant. It can be completely at odds with the facts.
The consistency and emotional appeal of the story are paramount. The most
essential skill in political theater and the consumer culture is artifice.
Those who are best at artifice succeed. Those who have not mastered the
art of artifice fail. In an age of images and entertainment, in an age
of instant emotional gratification, we do not seek or want honesty. We
ask to be indulged and entertained by clichés, stereotypes and mythic
narratives that tell us we can be whomever we want to be, that we live
in the greatest country on Earth, that we are endowed with superior moral
and physical qualities and that our glorious future is preordained, either
because of our attributes as Americans or because we are blessed by God
- The ability to magnify these simple and childish lies,
to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news
cycles, gives these lies the aura of an uncontested truth. We are repeatedly
fed words or phrases like yes we can, maverick, change, pro-life, hope
or war on terror. It feels good not to think. All we have to do is visualize
what we want, believe in ourselves and summon those hidden inner resources,
whether divine or national, that make the world conform to our desires.
Reality is never an impediment to our advancement.
- 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.
Bushspoke 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. Voltaire was
the most famous man of the 18th century. Today the most famous "person"
is Mickey Mouse.
- 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. Hannah Arendt warned
that the marketization of culture leads to its degradation, that this marketization
creates a new celebrity class of intellectuals who, although well read
and informed themselves, see their role in society as persuading the masses
that "Hamlet" can be as entertaining as "The Lion King"
and perhaps as educational. "Culture," she wrote, "is being
destroyed in order to yield entertainment. "
- "There are many great authors of the past who have
survived centuries of oblivion and neglect," Arendt wrote, "but
it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining
version of what they have to say."
- The change from a print-based to an image-based society
has transformed our nation. Huge segments of our population, especially
those who live in the embrace of the Christian right and the
consumer culture, are completely unmoored from reality. They lack the capacity
to search for truth and cope rationally with our mounting social and economic
ills. They seek clarity, entertainment and order. They are willing to use
force to impose this clarity on others, especially those who do not speak
as they speak and think as they think. All the traditional tools of democracies,
including dispassionate scientific and historical truth, facts, news and
rational debate, are useless instruments in a world that lacks the capacity
to use them.
- As we descend into a devastating economic crisis, one
that Barack Obama cannot halt, there will be tens of millions
of Americans who will be ruthlessly thrust aside. As their houses are foreclosed,
as their jobs are lost, as they are forced to declare bankruptcy and watch
their communities collapse, they will retreat even further into irrational
fantasy. They will be led toward glittering and self-destructive illusions
by our modern Pied Pipers-our corporate advertisers, our charlatan preachers,
our television news celebrities, our self-help gurus, our entertainment
industry and our political demagogues-who will offer increasingly absurd
forms of escapism.
- The core values of our open society, the ability to think
for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment
and common sense indicate something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge
authority, to understand historical facts, to separate truth from lies,
to advocate for change and to acknowledge that there are other views, different
ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable, are dying. Obama
used hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds to appeal to and
manipulate this illiteracy and irrationalism to his advantage, but these
forces will prove to be his most deadly nemesis once they collide with
the awful reality that awaits us.