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Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy 
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Post Re: Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy
etudiant wrote:
But I think it is not sufficient to lump in the Hedges book with the broad sweep of history. The assertions he makes are very relevant to us today, even if they have some similarities to the past. And in some ways the situation today is unique.

Well, very true. I do think it's a good idea to keep in mind the difficulties of forming an objective view of our own time, vs. what we've recieved as a conception of how past eras were. But you're right, it doesn't do to just say that every era thinks that standards have crashed, so that we needn't be concerned about the warnings our contemporary prophets issue.
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This suggests to me not a lack of information, or education, or socialization, but a retreat from the intellect. Why this is so seems unclear, but Hedges makes a case that this is a real phenomenon.

I'll be interested to see how he substantiates this retreat. And if it does exist, I wonder if it might be partly cyclical and periodic, rather than a low point in a continuous slide. Possibly an era like the 1890s in the U.S. could have a similar non-intellectual feel to it.
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Many of the ideas punted about in the highest strata of society today are ones that would likely appeal to that above mentioned farm hand from 1800.
The salient point is that they have considerable appeal today. The political pronouncements from George Bush or Sarah Palin, for example, are crafted to appeal to the simplest souls. Yet both have found broad appeal. Why this occurs is an important question.

I don't know about the equation of our uninformed or gullible public with the isolated and uneducated citizens of the past. It's my impression (only that) that political interest was much greater in the early days of our country, and that any information available was eagerly sought, valued, and discussed. The rural citizens might have been actually less vulnerable to demagoguery than many of us are today. My working idea about where we are now is that it has to do with precisely the plethora of channels for information and stimulation that you cite as our big advantage. We each are able to do and have our own thing, because there are so many willing providers out there. Reminds me a bit of DeGaulle's complaint about getting Frenchmen to sacrifice when they have 200 types of cheese to savor. I might see our current situation with less of a political slant than you seem to. Opposite Bush/Palin on the political spectrum do we find the way out, or basically the same fundamental problems blocking the way? This would be the view, I think, of Andrew Bachevich. We read his The Limits of Power here a while back.


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Sun Nov 22, 2009 10:27 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy
DWill wrote:
I don't know about the equation of our uninformed or gullible public with the isolated and uneducated citizens of the past. It's my impression (only that) that political interest was much greater in the early days of our country, and that any information available was eagerly sought, valued, and discussed. The rural citizens might have been actually less vulnerable to demagoguery than many of us are today. My working idea about where we are now is that it has to do with precisely the plethora of channels for information and stimulation that you cite as our big advantage. We each are able to do and have our own thing, because there are so many willing providers out there. Reminds me a bit of DeGaulle's complaint about getting Frenchmen to sacrifice when they have 200 types of cheese to savor. I might see our current situation with less of a political slant than you seem to. Opposite Bush/Palin on the political spectrum do we find the way out, or basically the same fundamental problems blocking the way? This would be the view, I think, of Andrew Bachevich. We read his The Limits of Power here a while back.
[/quote]

You are probably right about that 1800 farmer struggling to hear the news of the world. Perhaps what is scarce becomes more valuable, including information. Today of course we are bombarded by information of every size and shape. Maybe it is no surprise that one of the most prominent companies in the world (Google) makes its living by trying to organize that ocean of data. But I would say that having too much is not an excuse for disconnection. It may seem overwhelming, but even a competent high school librarian could soon separate the wheat from the chaff, for most peoples purposes, even in the internet age.

I think that there are political solutions out there, but it is very, very difficult today to cut through the spin and the entrenched interests. Spin has gone from being a bit of political flippancy to a major industry, often employing some of the best minds. And unfortunately the rise of spin has coincided with the decline of journalistic standards. Where a Walter Cronkite might have dug for the facts, commentators at Fox or CNN today tend to go with what they are given. But political change is not impossible. Medicare in Canada today was the idea of one political party that was opposed ferociously by the two other main federal parties at the time (1960s), not to mention the medical profession. The party itself originated as a backlash to the conditions of the depression in the 1930s.

What is difficult is when an idea is pumped out continuously until it becomes a kind of cliché that is accepted with little critical thought. The mantra today is that the free market is the most efficient system for societies. Yet a thorough reading will indicate that nirvana has still not been found, and that this is a system with good and bad traits in abundant supply. Ralph Nadar raised some of these issues, but was seen as being on the fringe, if not worse. I think this indicates the power of latching on to mainstream ideas with little reservation.

Thanks for the tip on Limits of Power. It’s one I would like to read.


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Sun Nov 22, 2009 12:20 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy
tbarron wrote:
I've just gotten started with this book as well as the one by Howard Bloom and at first blush I'm struck by the contrast between their points of view. Hedges seems very pessimistic (I'm wondering to what extent he's going to offer solutions or if he's just griping about a problem he sees as unfixable) while Bloom seems very optimistic. I would guess that Hedges might point to Bloom as one of the cultural figures offering us an overly optimistic viewpoint. I imagine Hedges might characterize Bloom's viewpoint (bearing in mind that I've just barely had time to begin forming an impression of what each is saying :)) as "Just reframe it all and everything will be fine."

Hey TB, exactly right. Unfortunately my bookshop lost my order for Empire of Illusion, so I have jumped straight to The Genius of The Beast. Just from the summaries, Hedges' argument seems quite clear that he thinks there is an elite capitalist conspiracy to dumb down and control the masses. You are right there is an amazing contrast with Bloom. Bloom celebrates capitalism, for example the soap opera seems moronic, but it was used to fund the marketing of soap which is one of the biggest health benefits in the world, and still not widely used in some non-capitalist countries. Bloom's argument is that people complain about the negative and take the positive for granted. Bloom asks us to respect and tune in to mass opinion. For example, he comments that the plots of TV shows have evolved to become steadily more complex since the 1950s, and claims that this is associated with a measured rise in average IQ. Similarly with video games, he argues the benefits - engagement with complex stimuli and vicarious violence instead of real violence - outweigh the negatives of possible desensitisation and couch-potato syndrome.

Bloom's argument is that capitalism gives people what they want, indicated by public willingness to spend time and money on various products and pastimes. I suspect there is a strong push of moronic values though, as these are the lowest common denominator which are popular and accessible to people with limited education and energy, who only want their instinctive senses titillated. Bloom might compare Hedges to the CBS execs who were total snobs about the tastes of their customers, and so subsequently sent the company broke.

It is possible to critique mass culture and engage with people and issues on a level that seeks intellectual understanding. This is what Booktalk aims to do. The question all this raises for me is why such critique so often presents as elitist despair and fails to engage more with public taste in the way Bloom suggests. If people really want to change the world then they have to make new myths that will resonate with popular nerves. Hedges seems to imply this is impossible and we are headed for extinction or at least a bleak 1984-type hierarchy of inner party, outer party and proles. DWill made a good point to the effect that many university people are suck-up snobs who are incapable of honest analysis of big questions but prefer their careerist hole and group-think prejudices. Bloom endorses this critique of academia with his slogan 'the truth at any price, even at the cost of your life'.



Last edited by Robert Tulip on Fri Nov 27, 2009 10:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Fri Nov 27, 2009 8:21 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy
Can’t say too much yet, as I haven’t read Bloom’s book, but so far from what I have seen it sounds like what is known in Quebec as a fete. A fete is a kind of cultural celebration, and event, a holiday. It says: This is who we are, isn’t it great? Let’s revel in it for a while.

I’m not building up a lot of enthusiasm for Bloom, as personally I am not big on celebrations, outside of things like anniversaries or birthdays. He defends soap operas because they flog soap? I am imagining the shape of a pretzel when I consider this logic.

When it comes to social or political ideas, personally I prefer a balanced critique. There are positive and negative aspects to all great ideas that have come up in history, and I think it serves us all well to maintain a bit of a skeptical eye.


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Post Re: Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy
Does Chris Hedges have any positive suggestions about social change, or is he just presenting a negative critique about how bad things are? What is the good of moaning about the bad taste of the masses? Is the point that the state should censor people who are just looking to make a buck from degrading people? Or is it about exercising moral pressure to lift standards? What is the risk that a puritan agenda could also restrict creative endeavours as collateral damage from the censorship of trash? Is there a sense that the moral critique of trash culture is excluded from the public eye because of the dominance of libertarian values?

Australia (where I live) and the US are somewhat different in the attitudes to religion in politics. This partly reflects the differing origins of Australia as a penal colony and the US as a free puritan settlement. Both owe a lot to the 18th century rational enlightenment, the US for its constitution and Australia for its foundation. Free speech is much more protected in the US than Australia, and Hedges seems to be saying this freedom is exploited to reject any concept of public standards. In Australia, the convict origins have produced much stronger contempt for authority, with wowsers (church activists whose saying was 'we only want social evils reduced') generally mocked. A consequence is that arguments about the real dangers of alcohol, drugs, sexual exploitation, etc get mocked as wowserism, and people often don't realise the damage until it is too late.

Re Etudiant's comment on Harold Bloom and pretzel soap, I agree that Bloom is possibly too positive, but at least he is mostly realistic and is focusing on how to improve things. Bloom is saying that the failure to celebrate what is good about America creates risks of loss of confidence and economic collapse. I will post a summary about soap in the relevant chapter thread. He makes a very interesting case that things we take for granted like soap are much more important and complex in their social impact than we often realise.



Sat Nov 28, 2009 5:19 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy
I find your comments about Australia interesting Robert. Canada and Australia share a very similar history of course, but in one way we are mirror opposites. One of the largest demographic facts in Canada’s early history was the migration of the United Empire Loyalists from the US at the time of their revolution. A large chunk of our early population consisted of those who were more comfortable with authority and order, and wanted to escape from our rebellious neighbors. We have had an enduring cultural myth that Canadians tend to be more conservative than there US counterparts. Some commentators have pointed out that this is no longer really the case, if it ever was, and that if anything these roles are now reversed (see Fire and Ice, buy Michael Adams). Americans, for example, tend to be much more religious over all. Political and economic views also tend to shift more to the right.

It’s my understanding that Australia is much more diverse now, demographically speaking. Do you think that this has altered the kind of anti-authority cultural overlay that you mentioned? Cultural myths can be tenuous, but sometimes not completely without grounds.

As for Hedges, is he just bleating and moaning? He does lean to the negative in his book. That’s ok from my point of view, because I think that is life; there are always different aspects to an issue, some negative, and some positive. I don’t think an author has a duty to be upbeat. I do have a bit of an issue with writers when they intentionally omit pertinent facts because they may conceivably weaken their case. I think Hedges is guilty of this to a small extent. For example, he makes a case that the size of the present US government deficit will be a disaster. But it is not unprecedented in relation to GDP, and is on about the same scale as some other countries, such as Britain and Italy, and indeed much smaller than Japan’s.

Should the government censor people who are just trying to make a sleazy buck? This is a weighty question, because it cuts right to the heart of matters. It brings up the conflict between individual rights versus group rights. One might say that anyone has the right to open a pornographic video store, for example, and is entitled to make a buck off of it. Perhaps, but maybe the community he or she is in does not want a string of porno shops down their main street. So who has more of an entitlement? There is often a gray area where the interests of the two conflict. The sentiment in the US today is very much for the individual. But I think that one thing Hedges was getting at was that this sentiment is too far out of balance today, and the rights of the community are often discounted, or not seen as valid at all. If we discount community rights, often what we get is the desires of the most aggressive or abrasive, not the values of the majority. Corporate CEOs claim a $30 million salary, not because they are worth it, but because they can.


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Post Re: Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy
Thanks Etudiant. I haven’t read much about Canada. I visit briefly in 1977 when I was 14 and we drove with my parents from Yale to LA, via Niagara, London and Chicago.

I think that a nation cannot escape its origins unless there is major upheaval. I’m not suggesting the cultural style is a myth, rather that the origins of a nation entrench dominant habits which come to characterise the culture. Yes, ‘USA believes in freedom’ is a dominant myth, understanding ‘myth’ as a framework of meaning rather than as an illusion. However, the myth has a real ground, in that the pilgrims and then the founding fathers put the pursuit of liberty at the centre of their identity (sorry, center).

Similarly, the anti-authority streak in Australia, combined with a deference to the state, has a real causal origin in the attitudes of the convicts from the First Fleet and later, and this has permeated the culture. Yes Australia is now much more multicultural, but the dominant institutions of the society trace their origins to British invasion, and values of others remain somewhat peripheral. Australia is one of the only places in the world where the state preceded the society, in that indigenous culture was viewed with such total racist contempt by the British invaders that the institutions of the modern culture were established on ground seen as empty (“terra nullius”).

I’m not criticising Hedges (and am just going off summaries as his book is not available in Australia). The issue here was the contrast between his negative message and the positive message of Harold Bloom. I agree both have an important role. Where I find Hedges' cultural argument interesting is that a lot of popular radio, and movements such as wrestling and pornography, see their use of degrading themes as a symbol of rebellion and daring against the monotony of mainstream culture. People deliberately use sexual images and language to shock, but a problem with this is that their ‘rebellion’ is content-free, and its actual impact is often harmful.

You are right that the conflict between individual and group rights in the USA deserves to be questioned. When an individual does not have to pay the costs caused by their own behaviour, for example pollution or social decay, there is a financial incentive to engage in damaging conduct. In economics this is the problem of externalities, that impacts external to the firm do not detract from profit. The current debate on climate change and CO2 as a form of pollution is engaging with this problem.

There is an old poem about the tragedy of the commons: The law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from off the common, but leaves the greater villain loose who steals the common from the goose.

Hedges seems to be saying that pornography etc, in its broader degrading social impact, can be compared to the enclosure of common land, where an individual takes the benefit and ignores the cost to the rest of the community.



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